Muslim leaders in the Netherlands have condemned a proposed ban on burqas, describing the eve-of-election pledge as an opportunistic overreaction and a populist attempt to win the anti-immigration vote.
The announcement on the burqa from the outgoing government took many politicians by surprise because the twin issues of Islam and immigration had barely featured in the campaign up to that point.
But the integration of Muslims in the country remains a sensitive issue two years after the murder of the film-maker Theo van Gogh, whose film Submission criticised Islam.
On Friday, the hardline, outgoing, immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, said the cabinet had decided it was “undesirable that face-covering clothing – including the burqa – is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens.”
She added: “From a security standpoint, people should always be recognisable and, from the standpoint of integration, we think people should be able to communicate with one another.”
On the streets of Rotterdam headscarves are common but the floor-length burqas are a rare sight and Muslim groups estimate that, in the whole of the country, those wearing head-to-toe clothing number fewer than 50.
Ms Vedonk’s proposal would ban the burqa in all public and semi-public places, such as streets and public transport. Prior to the law coming into effect, police would be allowed to enforce a ban on burqas in buses for security reasons.
Mohamed Hamidi, spokesman for Rotterdam’s Moroccan community, said: “The way of dressing is a question of personal freedom. There are not many people who wear burqas: maybe 10 in Rotterdam and 10 in Amsterdam. But there are lots of people without work. Burqas are not a problem. This is populism, playing with the feelings of the people.”
Speaking in a cultural centre in Rotterdam’s Moroccan district, Mr Hamidi called on mainstream politicians to address the main problems confronting immigrant communities in Holland’s big cities. “People without education and without qualifications find it difficult to get work and earn money. It’s a vicious circle,” he said.
There was a similar message from the Dutch Muslim organisation, CMO, whose spokesman Ayhan Tonca said the measure was “just ridiculous” and a “big law for a small problem”.
Many doubt whether the ban will ever come into existence. Though the Dutch parliament has already indicated it will approve a ban on burqas, there have been doubts about the legality of the move and about how popular it would be with the general public.
The immigration minister said the legal questions about the regulation have been resolved but it remains unclear whether the new parliament elected this week will approve such a measure.
Ms Vedonk’s VVD Liberal party has been losing ground in the election campaign and her personal fortunes have been waning. She failed to win the leadership of her party earlier this year.
The Liberal’s allies, the Christian Democrats, have made a surprise comeback in the polls based mainly on the improving economic situation, and their leader, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, is hopeful of remaining in government.