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Veiled resentment across Europe

world Updated: May 17, 2010 01:42 IST
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Since she started wearing a full Islamic veil six weeks ago, Selma said, she has been stared at, frowned at, mocked as a “ghost” and forced by a policeman to lift her veil to show her face.

“In Belgium, it is forbidden to carry your religious convictions to their logical conclusion,” the 22-year-old Brussels woman said, speaking on the condition that her full name not be used to avoid trouble for her family.

These are uneasy times for the 15 million Muslims of Western Europe, not only for fundamentalists such as Selma, but also for the vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.

Responding to a wave of resentment unfurling across Europe, several governments have begun to legislate restrictions on the most readily visible of Islamic ways, the full-face veil.

In Belgium, the Chamber of Representatives voted on April 29 to impose a nationwide ban on full-face veils in public, making the country the first in Western Europe to pass such a measure. Some municipalities, including Brussels, have local anti-veil regulations. But legislators explained they wanted to “send a signal” to fundamentalists and preserve the rights of women.

Citing the same goals, the National Assembly in neighbouring France voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to declare full-face veils “contrary to the values of the republic,” which legislators described as the first step toward enacting legislation similar to Belgium’s.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government has vowed to pass a nationwide ban by fall.

The people of France, which with a 5 million Muslims has the largest such population in Western Europe, by and large have expressed support for Sarkozy’s move. Recent polls found two-thirds of those questioned want a full or partial ban against the full-face veil.

Public sentiment has gone further, though. In recent discussions about the ban and during a government-sponsored “national identity” debate, several French Internet sites closed down reader comment sections because of an outpouring of hate mail. A Muslim butcher shop and a mosque were sprayed with automatic-weapon fire in southern France last month, after Sarkozy decided to pursue a full ban, and vandals last week desecrated a graveyard for Muslim soldiers who died fighting in the French army.

Proposals for anti-veil legislation also have been introduced in the parliaments of Italy and the Netherlands, though passage is less certain.

In Switzerland, where construction of minarets was banned in November, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said this week that the government plans to use similar administrative powers to forbid full-face veils. But the rules, she noted, will exempt Persian Gulf tourists, who spend lavishly in Swiss hotels and luxury shops.

Isabel Soumaya, vice president of the government-backed Association of Belgian Muslims, noted that only a few dozen women — among the country’s estimated 600,000 Muslims — wear the full-face veil. Soumaya, who converted to Islam 20 years ago, wears the Islamic scarf, which covers her hair, but does not wear a full-face veil. In focusing on those who do, she said, Belgian legislators were “preying on voters’ fears.” She added, “It is racism and a form of Islamophobia.”

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