THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The Dutch government announced plans Friday for legislation banning full-length veils in public places and other clothing that covers the face — putting the Netherlands at the forefront of a general European hardening toward Muslim minorities.
The Netherlands, once considered one of Europe's most welcoming nations for immigrants and asylum seekers, is deeply divided over moves by the government to stem the tide of new arrivals and compel immigrants to assimilate into Dutch society.
"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.
Basing the order on security concerns apparently was intended to respond to warnings that outlawing clothing like the all-enveloping 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."
In the past, a majority of the Dutch parliament has said it would approve a ban on burqas, but opinion polls ahead of national elections 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.
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 increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme-right.
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 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 of her Dutch citizenship.
About 1 million Muslims live in the Netherlands, about 6 percent of the population of 16 million, but only a few hundred are believed to regularly wear a burqa.
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.