Caroline Sagesser: This surreal legislation will just divide the people further

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Belgium is known as the home of surrealism and it is certainly living up to its reputation.

The proposal to ban the wearing of any kind of "full veil" in public approved by the House of Representatives should now in theory go to the Senate. But Belgium does not have a government at the moment so the procedure will begin again after elections next month.

So why did the vote take place at all? Because enough politicians wanted to be seen to approve this largely symbolic measure because of the impact they hope it will have on public opinion, especially a few weeks before elections.

The proposal was initiated by the Liberals (centre right) and received backing from every political party, because it gave the kind of signal that they believe Belgian people expect. The general population is becoming increasingly anxious – if not downright hostile – to an expanding Muslim community and the supposed growth of fundamentalism. These fears are fed by headlines predicting that Brussels will be a "Muslim city" by 2030 or alleging that state schools are being corrupted by Islamic fundamentalism.

This surge in hostility is in turn driving Belgium's Muslims towards introverted ways of asserting their identity, and to a religious revival that can be observed by the numbers of females wearing head scarves. The hijab is a common sight on Belgian streets, but burkas and niqabs are seldom observed, another sign of the pointlessness of the ban. Belgian politicians have been arguing among themselves for a long time about banning Islamic headscarves from schools and other public buildings.

Progressive forces are themselves sharply divided among those who favour the French model (banning all public expressions of religion and safeguarding the neutrality of public offices and servants) and those who prefer the Anglo-Saxon model of religious tolerance and would like to see a reasonable accommodation, of the kind we see in Canada.

A real debate about the kind of model that multicultural Belgium should promote has yet to take place. Unfortunately, populist moves such as this week's vote do nothing to build the atmosphere of trust among our different communities in which such a debate could take place.

The writer is a social policy expert at the Université Libre de Bruxelles

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