AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Dutch government agreed on Friday a total ban on the wearing of burqas and other Muslim face veils in public, justifying the move on security grounds.
Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk will now draw up legislation which will result in the Netherlands, once one of Europe’s most easy-going nations, imposing some of the continent’s toughest laws against concealing the face.
“The cabinet finds it undesirable that garments covering the face — including the burqa — should be worn in public in view of public order, (and) the security and protection of fellow citizens,” the Dutch Justice Ministry said in a statement.
The debate on face veils and whether they stymie Muslim integration has gathered momentum across Europe.
The Netherlands would be the first European state to impose a countrywide ban on Islamic face coverings, though other countries have already outlawed them in specific places.
The move by the center-right government comes just five days before a general election. The campaign has focused so far on issues like the economy rather than immigration because most mainstream parties have hardened their stances in recent years.
Last December Dutch lawmakers voted in favor of a proposal by far-right politician Geert Wilders to outlaw face-coverings and asked Verdonk to examine the feasibility of such a ban.
Because veils were worn for religious reasons, she had feared new legislation could come into conflict with religious freedom laws. But she said on Friday this was not the case.
Dutch Muslim groups have complained a burqa ban would make the country’s 1 million Muslims feel more victimized and alienated, regardless of whether they approve of burqas or not.
“This will just lead to more girls saying ‘hey I’m also going to wear a burqa as a protest’,” Naima Azough, a member of parliament from the opposition Green Left, told an election campaign meeting for fellow members of the Moroccan community.
Job Cohen, the Labour mayor of Amsterdam, said he opposed burqas in schools and public buildings, and said women wearing one who failed to get a job should not expect welfare benefits.
“From the perspective of integration and communication, it is obviously very bad because you can’t see each other so the fewer the better,” he told foreign journalists.
“But actually hardly anybody wears one … The fuss is much bigger than the number of people concerned.”