What's threatening about European attacks on Muslim veils.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

BELGIUM'S PARLIAMENT is so polarized along linguistic lines that it has been unable to agree on a government for much of the past three years. At the moment it is ruled by a caretaker coalition. But the deputies managed to achieve near-unanimity this week on one pressing issue: discriminating against Muslims. A law passed by the lower house would ban the wearing of full Islamic face veils in any public place -- and exacerbate what is becoming an ugly European trend.

Like many of its neighbors, Belgium has a significant minority Muslim population -- about 3 percent of a population of 10 million. Like those neighbors, it has done a poor job of integrating Muslim immigrants, and many cluster in ghettos that can be breeding grounds for extremism. This is a serious and complex problem. But too often the response of governments has been bigotry directed at immigrants or Muslims as a whole -- which serves only to further alienate even non-devout members of the community.

Belgium's burqa ban is a good example. The law prohibits any full facial covering, with a punishment for violators of a week in jail or a fine of up to $34. Some supporters claim it is an anti-crime measure, but its chief sponsor, Daniel Bacquelaine, hasn't hesitated to describe it as an act of cultural warfare. "The burqa," he was quoted by Reuters as saying, "is the affirmation of a number of values that are contrary to fundamental values and universal values."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is promoting a similar ban in his country, is equally blunt: "The burqa has no place in France," he has said. Fundamentalist Muslim rulers must have been pleased to hear those words: Paris will now have no cause for complaint when countries with Christian or Jewish minorities ban the nun's habit or the yarmulke.

The anti-burqa cause is sweeping Europe. In addition to Belgium and France, Italy and the Netherlands are considering bans. Yet the targets of these measures are virtually nonexistent. Mr. Bacquelaine estimates that a couple of hundred women in Belgium wear a full veil. In France, one study estimated that there are 1,900 burqa wearers in a Muslim population of 5 million.

The idea that this poses a criminal or cultural threat is ludicrous. Those who say they are defending women's rights have it exactly backward: They are violating fundamental rights to free expression and religious freedom. They are also exacerbating the very problem they say they are worried about. Muslims, including the devoutly religious, are in Europe to stay. Banning their customs, their clothing or their places of worship will not make them more European. It will only make Europe less free.

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