The Dutch government, facing re-election next week, said yesterday it plans to draw up legislation "as soon as possible" banning the head-to-toe garment known as burqas and other clothing that covers the entire face in public places.
The announcement puts the Netherlands, once considered one of Europe's most welcoming nations for immigrants and asylum seekers, at the forefront of a general European hardening of attitudes toward Muslim minorities.
"The Cabinet finds it undesirable that face-covering clothing - including the burqa - is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens," Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk said in a statement.
"From a security standpoint, people should always be recognizable and from the standpoint of integration, we think people should be able to communicate with one another," Verdonk told national broadcaster NOS. She said the ban also would cover headgear like ski masks and full-faced helmets.
Basing the order on security concerns apparently was intended to respond to warnings that outlawing clothing like the burqa, worn by some Muslim women, could violate the constitutional guarantee against religious discrimination.
The main Dutch Muslim organization CMO has been critical of any possible ban. The idea was "an overreaction to a very marginal problem" because hardly any Dutch women wear burqas anyway, said Ayhan Tonca of the CMO. "It's just ridiculous."
"This is a big law for a small problem," he said. Tonca estimated that as few as 30 women in the Netherlands wear a burqa and said the proposed law could be unconstitutional if it is interpreted as targeting Muslims.
He also said that the security argument did not stand up. "I do not think people who have bad things in their minds would wear a burqa," he said.
In the past, a majority of the Dutch parliament has said it would approve a ban on burqas, but opinion polls in advance of national elections on Nov. 22 suggest a shift away from that position, and it is unclear if a majority in the new parliament would still back the government-proposed ban.
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a lawmaker with the opposition Labor Party which does not support a general ban, condemned the proposal as "a symbolic move by Verdonk for political reasons."
"A general ban is way out of line, and I'm very much worried that in the Muslim community many people will see this as Islam bashing," he said.
Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, also of the opposition Labor party, said he would like to see burqas disappear, though he did not advocate a ban.
"From a viewpoint of integration and communication, naturally it's very bad," he told reporters. "You can't speak with each other if you can't see each other, so in that sense, I'd say myself the less (it's worn), the better."
The issue has resonance throughout Europe. Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil - a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right's leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has championed tougher immigration laws that critics say amount to an appeal to far-right voters.
Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban. In Belgium, one local mayor banned burqas, but there is no general ban in force across the country.
Italy has a law requiring people to keep their face visible in public that dates back to the country's crackdown on domestic terrorism decades ago.
In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.
The Netherlands is deeply divided over moves by the government to stem the tide of new arrivals and compel immigrants to assimilate into Dutch society. The issue was given added urgency with the 2004 slaying of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic and the failed attempt to expel a Somali-born critic of Islam.
Around one million Muslims live in the Netherlands, about 6 percent of the population of 16 million.
After France banned the wearing of head scarves in public schools, the Dutch government decided to leave that question up to individual schools. Most allow head scarves.
The city of Utrecht has cut some welfare benefits to unemployed women who insist on wearing burqas to job interviews. The city claimed the women were using the burqa to avoid working, since they knew they would not be hired.