Chances of seeing a burqa in Belgium are only a little better than spotting a liquor shop in Saudi Arabia. Yet Belgium soon may be the first European nation to outlaw the burqa and other Islamic garb that completely hides a woman’s body and face.
Neighboring France and the Netherlands may also outlaw attire that is viewed by many in western European societies as demeaning to women. It also is considered a gateway to radical Islam, a fear that is stoking rightwing sentiment across the continent.
Anxieties that visible signs of Islam erode national identity are combining with complaints that immigrants are stealing jobs amid the worst economic slump in decades to deepen a sense of unease in many European countries, small and large alike, over the role of Muslims in society.
Swiss voters recently voted to ban the construction of new minarets. In recent years, both mosque and minaret construction projects in many European countries, including Sweden, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Germany and Slovenia have generated protests, some of them violent.
Umar Mirza, a 22-year-old student and editor of the Dutch Muslim Web site “We’re Staying Here” says sentiment toward Muslims and immigrants began to harden in the Netherlands 10 years ago.
“People my age have not known anything else,” he says, adding the prevailing view of Muslims “has gotten much harder and sharper and less targeted at solutions.”
In the Netherlands, polls indicate that Geert Wilders‘ anti-Islam Freedom Party could nearly triple its presence in parliament and win 25 or so seats in June elections, up from nine today.
Wilders and like-minded supporters of the far-right hold that Muslims threaten European values by wearing head scarves and more conservative dress that fully covers body and head, such as the burqa, the chador and the niqab.
They say that liberal Europe can no longer afford to tolerate the illiberalism of newcomers.
“Islam is more of an ideology than a religion,” Wilders is fond of saying. “I do not believe in a European Islam. The Islamization of the Netherlands and Western Europe will make us lose the freedoms we have today.”
Numbers put growing fears of Europe becoming “Eurabia” into perspective.
Although their ranks are growing, Muslims make up only small minorities in Western Europe. France has the largest Muslim population of an estimated 5 million, or 7.5 percent of the population, followed by the Netherlands with 6 percent, Germany with 5 percent, Austria with 4.2 percent, Belgium with 3 percent and Britain with 2.7 percent, according to a 2009 study of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
There is broad support in the Dutch parliament to ban face-obscuring clothing except if required by law for safety or health reasons. Talk of a ban is on hold, for now. Fewer than 500 women wear such outfits in the Netherlands, out of a population of 16.5 million.