Holland split over burqa ban
Opposition condemns Dutch government's 'stunt' in election dominated by race and religion
Sunday November 19, 2006
A bitter debate about multiculturalism was raging in Holland yesterday following Friday's pledge by the leading party in the coalition government to introduce legislation banning the wearing of burqas in public if it is re-elected on Wednesday.
The pledge by the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party to outlaw the full-length veils has caused uproar among the Muslim community and civil rights groups. It has also shone a light on the shifting politics of a country long considered one of Europe's most welcoming for immigrants. However, since the murder in 2004 of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist, the country has become increasingly polarised on racial and religious issues.
Integration and Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk justified the move on security grounds. 'People should always be recognisable, and from the standpoint of integration we think people should be able to communicate with one another,' she said. '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.' She said the ban would also apply to headgear such as ski masks and full-faced helmets.
If it should pass in parliament, women would be barred from wearing burqas in a variety of places, including schools, trains, courts and even the street.
But the plan was condemned by Muslims as an overreaction and by the opposition Labour Party as an election stunt that will breed resentment among Holland's one million Muslims.
'This is a big law for a small problem,' said Ayhan Tonca of the Dutch Muslim organisation, CMO. She estimated that as few as 30 women in the Netherlands wear a burqa and warned the law could be unconstitutional if it is interpreted as targeting Muslims. In the past, a majority of the Dutch parliament has said it would approve a ban on burqas, but opinion polls suggest public enthusiasm for such a move has dissipated recently.
Labour MP Jeroen Dijsselbloem said: 'I'm very much worried that in the Muslim community many people will see this as Islam bashing.'
Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen said he would like to see burqas disappear, though he did not advocate a ban: 'From the perspective of integration and communication, it is obviously very bad because you can't see each other, so the fewer the better. But actually hardly anybody wears one. The fuss is much bigger than the number of people concerned.'
Racial and religious issues have become key platforms on which the election is being fought. Yesterday as Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and the CDA campaigned in the southern city of Tilburg, Labour leader Wouter Bos addressed a rally in a borough of Amsterdam that is home to large immigrant community.
In a clear bid to distance himself from the CDA's increasingly tough stance on immigration, Bos has said he will sign a general pardon for thousands of asylum seekers who have been living in the Netherlands for years, despite their applications having been rejected.
According to polls, Balkenende's party is on target to become the largest party in the 150-seat lower house of parliament when voters go to the polls this week. Labour is trailing in second place while Verdonk's Liberals, part of Balkenende's ruling coalition, is fighting the Socialist Party for third place. Balkenende, who has been in power since 2002 and is campaigning on his economic credentials, remains the most popular choice for the next Prime Minister, ahead of Bos.
The government's decision to speak out against burqas echoes comments made by former British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who prompted a national debate on the issue when he urged Muslim women to remove full facial veils when talking to him, arguing they were a visible statement of separation and of difference.
The issue has also been hotly debated in other European countries. France has passed a law banning religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves, from schools. Some German states have banned teachers in public schools from wearing headscarves while Italy has outlawed face coverings.