RELIGION
06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Belgium Poised To Ban Muslim Veil

By Elizabeth Bryant
Religion News Service

PARIS (RNS) Belgium is poised to become Europe's first country to ban the face-covering Islamic veil, after lawmakers approved such a measure Thursday (April 29) -- just a week after the French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered similar legislation in France.

Deputies in Belgium's lower house of Parliament voted almost unanimously for banning the face veil, known in Afghanistan as the burqa and in the Arab world as the niqab. The measure must still be passed by the Belgian Senate before becoming law, and some critics suggest it may face legal obstacles.

The law would ban the face veil in many public spaces. Violators could be fined up to $34 dollars or face short jail sentences.

Human rights groups swiftly condemned the measure as violating freedom of expression.

"Clearly this is not a welcoming message," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's expert on discrimination in Europe. "It's an attempt by certain parts of the population, certain political parties, to draw a line in the sand as it were -- and say, 'beyond this point, we shan't be accepting your cultural or religious practices."'

Belgium is not the only European country to consider a veil ban, reflecting widespread uneasiness about the continent's booming Muslim community. Politicians in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland have all pushed for some kind of law -- but none have gone as far as Belgium.

In France, Sarkozy wants to submit a face-veil ban bill to parliament in May, following lengthy debate on the subject.

In Belgium, a ban has drawn widespread political support, as advocates argue that it is critical to uphold women's rights and as a security measure against extremists. It is also critical for social integration, says the bill's chief sponsor, deputy Daniel Bacquelaine of the liberal Reformist Movement party.

"We think that this measure is essential to promote living together in our society. And if we live together, we have to be recognized -- that's not possible if I can't see the other's face," he said.

But critics in France and Belgium argue such a ban is unnecessary, since so few Muslim women actually wear a face veil. The issue has also divided Muslims, who feel unfairly targeted.

"Even in that part of the Muslim community in which there is no support for the niqab and burqa, the reaction is quite negative toward the law because it's seen as additional stigmatization," said Marco Martiniello, an immigration expert at the University of Liege, in
Belgium.

In Belgium as in France, a veil ban law may also face legal hurdles. France's State Council, the country's highest administrative body, has warned it might be unconstitutional. Others say the legislation may violate the European Convention on Human Rights.