Holland’s Muslims have responded with outrage to government proposals to ban the burqa and there are fears that Rita Verdonk, the minister behind the move, will be added to a list of “enemies of Islam” targeted for assassination.
The country was on high alert yesterday after talk of a burqa ban coincided with the arrest of a group suspected of planning to murder two politicians.
Verdonk, known as “Iron Rita” for her hardline immigration policies, has been accused by Muslim groups of pandering to the far right by demanding an investigation into whether Holland should become the first European country to prohibit the burqa, a covering worn by some Muslim women that leaves only a strip of gauze for the eyes.
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“A ban in certain circumstances seems quite sensible,” said a spokeswoman for Verdonk, who is minister of integration and immigration.
The investigation will include a study of how other European Union countries have dealt with the burqa. In Belgium some towns have imposed fines of ?100 for women in burqas after complaints that the garments are “scary”, but no country has banned them.
Few Dutch Muslims wear a burqa, though the issue could prove explosive if Muslim radicals encourage their women to wear it in defiance of a ban.
For a country that has legalised gay marriage, prostitution, euthanasia and cannabis, Holland seems in no mood for compromise when it comes to applying tough laws on immigration.
In a note skewered to Van Gogh’s chest, Mohammed Bouyeri, the 26-year-old killer who was jailed for life, left a list of “infidels” to be slaughtered, a threat that drove Geert Wilders, the conservative politician, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim MP who appeared in Van Gogh’s film, into hiding.
They are under round-the-clock police protection but this has not stopped new death threats in the past few days. Last Friday police arrested seven people suspected of plotting to murder them and carry out other terrorist attacks on November 2, the anniversary of Van Gogh’s killing.
One of those arrested was Samir Azzouz, a 19-year-old of Moroccan origin, who in April was acquitted of charges of planning to attack Amsterdam airport and blow up a nuclear reactor. A spokeswoman for Verdonk acknowledged concerns that other supporters of Van Gogh’s killer might have added her name to the hit list.
The murder of Van Gogh provoked revenge attacks against mosques and prompted initiatives from Verdonk that have made Holland’s stance on immigration the strictest in Europe.
From being considered a bastion of multiculturalism, Holland these days is promoting “Dutchness” for all and penalties for people who refuse to fit in.
Verdonk, a former prison warden and head of state security who says her only hobby is work, has introduced Dutch language and culture classes for immigrants, who must pledge to observe the country’s liberal values even if this means respecting the rights of women and homosexuals, a baffling concept for some immigrants.
Verdonk, 50, the mother of two teenagers, has further outraged Muslims by expelling imams accused of promoting terrorism; defending a Dutch woman who ran over and crushed to death a Moroccan youth who had snatched her bag from her car; and cancelling a meeting with Muslim leaders who refused to shake her hand because she was a woman.
Another aspect of the crackdown was her order to revoke the residency permit of immigrants who commit petty crimes. Until recently the permits could be revoked only for serious offences like murder.
Verdonk declared in parliament last week that the “time of cosy tea-drinking” with Muslim groups had passed and argued that a ban on burqas might be needed in some circumstances on grounds of public safety. Police are concerned that a terrorist could use a burqa to conceal weapons or a bomb.
Members of the public have said that the burqa looks frightening and it was this that prompted Jan Creemers, the mayor of Maaseik in Belgium, to impose a ban in December 2004.
“Mainly old ladies would call me,” he said. “They were terrified, saying they had been sitting on a bench and when they turned around they all of a sudden saw these strange figures appearing all in black. They almost had heart attacks.”
Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist and friend of Van Gogh, wrote recently on how she had confronted women wearing burqas and told them: “Why don’t you dress like me? You are scaring people.”
Muslim communities and human rights groups condemn the initiative. Nico Landman, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Utrecht, said a burqa ban might play into the hands of a small group of Muslim radicals. “They may actually encourage their women to wear burqas on the streets,” he said.
“Dutchness test” requires immigrants to take classes in language and culture
Imams accused of promoting terrorism are expelled
Residency permits of immigrants accused of petty crime can be revoked
Visas for young brides marrying into closed immigrant communities will be reduced
Additional reporting: Jane Szita, Amsterdam; Nicola Smith, Brussels