Friday, May 14, 2010

Anti-Islamic sentiments surface in wake of restrictions on veils

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 15, 2010; A06

BRUSSELS -- Since she started wearing a full Islamic veil six weeks ago, Selma said, she has been stared at, frowned at, muttered to, 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 estimated 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 European societies, several governments have begun to legislate restrictions on the most readily visible of Islamic ways, the full-face veil. Outside the gilded halls of parliaments and ministries, meanwhile, anti-Islamic sentiments have risen to the surface in a surge of Internet insults and physical attacks against Muslim symbols.

In Belgium, the Chamber of Representatives voted 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. (The legislation, which needs Senate approval, has yet to take effect.) Some municipalities, including Brussels, have local anti-veil regulations. But legislators explained that they wanted to "send a signal" to fundamentalist Muslims and preserve the dignity and rights of women.

Citing the same goals, the National Assembly in neighboring France voted overwhelmingly 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. He has persisted in his resolve, despite two opinions from France's constitutional court that such a law would be unconstitutional and could run afoul of European Union human rights regulations.

The people of France, which with an estimated 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.
Spreading across Europe

Proposals for anti-veil legislation also have been introduced in the parliaments of Italy and the Netherlands, although passage is less certain. Some cities in those countries have imposed local bans; a Tunisian immigrant was fined $650 two weeks ago in Novara, in northern Italy, for walking down the street on the way to a mosque with her face covered.

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.

Selma, the Brussels woman, who like many women who wear the full veil in Europe is a recent convert to Islam, vowed to continue covering her face in public despite the opprobrium it brings. She cited respect for "my creator, my husband and my modesty."

The swell of concern over veils, she said, reflects fear of Islam. After the anti-veil legislation passed, a video was posted on the Internet warning of terrorist strikes against Belgium.

"It's something that frightens them," Selma said in a telephone interview. "And so, when they see a woman wearing a burqa . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off.

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."

The friction has grown more acute, Soumaya said, because the immigrants, many from North Africa, who came to Belgium in the 1960s and 1970s now have children and, sometimes, grandchildren who grew up here. The second- and third-generation Muslims, she said, have no intention of returning to North Africa and feel no need to "keep their heads" down, as their forebears did on arrival.

Fouad Lahssaini, a lawmaker who immigrated to Belgium from Morocco as a youth, said that most Muslims in Belgium do not favor women wearing the full-face veil and that passing a ban was tantamount to "taking out a bazooka to kill a fly." He said that requiring women to identify themselves to police or expose their face for a driver's license photo makes sense, but that a ban seems little more than resentment over the high visibility of Muslims in Belgian society.
Singling out Muslims

In the streets around the Midi Station this week, hundreds of Moroccan immigrants sat at coffee shops watching al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab all-news channel, and women shopped in full-length robes with their hair covered by scarves.

Those interviewed, who grew up in a country that practices a tolerant form of Islam, professed no desire to see women wear full veils. But they appeared uncomfortable with the new legislation, saying it singles out Muslims and could be the first step toward other problems.

"I'm against the full veil," said Faridh Boughdan, a 35-year-old pastry chef. "That is not required by Islam. I studied Islam back in Morocco. I read the Koran, and there is nothing in there about that." On the other hand, he said, women must wear scarves to cover their hair whenever they go out into the street.

This, he said, is laid down in the Koran.

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