Centre-right government's push for ban comes days before national vote.

By Gregory Crouch

The New York Times

NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands (Nov 18, 2006)

The Dutch government fears a terrorist could use a veil and burka to conceal identity and hide weapons or other devices that could be used in an attack.

Five days before a national election here, the centre-right government announced yesterday that it planned to introduce legislation to ban burkas and similar garments in public places, saying the full-body garb worn by a small number of Muslim women in the Netherlands posed a grave security threat, both to the country's security forces and to ordinary citizens.

The Netherlands has been considering such a move for months because the burka and other clothing hides the wearer's face and eyes as well as concealing the figure. To some degree the government worries that a terrorist might wear such a garment to get beyond security checks and carry out an attack.

The Dutch discussion is part of a larger European debate about how far governments can go in legislating what people -- and specifically Muslim women and girls -- can and cannot wear.

The fate of the proposal is uncertain. But if it should pass in Parliament, women would be prohibited from wearing burkas in a variety of public venues, including schools, trains, courts and even on the street.

"The cabinet finds it undesirable that face-covering clothing -- including the burka -- is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens," Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk said today.

But some critics of the government saw the timing of the announcement as an election ploy designed to win over Dutch voters worried about ongoing tensions with some Muslim immigrants.

By most estimates, fewer than 100 women in the Netherlands regularly wear a burka. That makes them very rare on the streets.

That is why some Muslims view the entire burka issue as more of a referendum on their very existence here -- a suggestion government officials deny.

"It's ridiculous," said Yasar Kalkan, a Muslim auto mechanic in Leidschendam. "When you go out on the street, how many burkas do you see? None," he said, adding that Verdonk "is a minister. She should find something better to do with her time."

Verdonk and others noted that the law would extend beyond religious garments to include head-sized helmets with full-length visors and any other article that completely covers the wearer's head and face.

"We want to see whom we are talking to," Verdonk said last week. "That's the way it is in the Netherlands."

Should the centre-right government win next week's election and the burka ban eventually becomes law, it would be probably qualify as the most restrictive legislation of its kind passed in Europe.

The Netherlands is still reeling from the murder in 2004 of the controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim fundamentalist.

But the nation is not alone in seeking to restrict some forms of Muslim dress.

Several other European countries have passed laws or won court decisions that limit certain types of clothing in specific places.

For instance, in France, the hijab, the head scarf worn by many Muslim girls and women, and other conspicuous religious symbols, are banned from schools.

Britain's highest court ruled earlier this year that a secondary school was within its rights to bar a female student from wearing a jilbab, a loose, ankle-length gown, instead of the regular school uniform.

Verdonk, arguably the most controversial immigration minister to ever hold office in the Netherlands, said she first learned this week that the Dutch cabinet could pursue a burka ban after getting its go-ahead from legal experts. They reportedly do not believe that such a ban would violate current Dutch or European Union laws regarding religious freedom.

Geert Wilders, a provocative critic of radical Islam and of Muslim immigration who is seen by some as the heir to Pim Fortuyn, an anti-immigrant politician murdered in 2002, had proposed the burka ban late last year. Nearly all of the country's conservative parties had backed the idea at the time.

Britain's former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil -- a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It is a mark of separation, and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable," Blair said last month.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy has also joined the debate, saying last month:
"You can't cover your face; you must be seen. This is common sense, I think. It is important for our society."

Also at the Vatican this week, Cardinal Renato Martino, said that Muslims must abide by the laws of the European countries they live in.

Immigrants of other religions "must respect the traditions, symbols, culture and religion of the countries they move to," said Cardinal Martino, head of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, in response to a question about the use of the veil.

"It seems elementary to me and it is highly justified that authorities demand it," he added.

About 1 million Muslims live in the Netherlands, some 6 per cent of the population

'The cabinet finds it undesirable that face-covering clothing -- including the burka -- is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens.' -- Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk