The chances of seeing a burka in Belgium are only a little better than spotting an off licence in Saudi Arabia, but Belgians may soon be the first Europeans to ban the Islamic dress.
France and the Netherlands may also outlaw the clothing, viewed by many in western European societies as demeaning. It also is considered a gateway to radical Islam, a fear that is stoking right-wing sentiment across the continent.
"There is all-party public support for this," says Leen Dierick, a conservative member of the Belgian parliament's Interior Affairs committee that unanimously backed the proposed ban. The initiative is expected become law in July and would apply to all public places.
Fears visible signs of Islam erode national identity are combining with complaints over immigrants and jobs amid the worst economic slump in decades to deepen unease in many European countries over the role of Muslims in society.
Threats against cartoonists and artists over depictions of the prophet Mohammed have also raised fears that Islam is not compatible with Western values of freedom of speech.
The Swiss 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.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy favours a burka ban, saying they compromise women's dignity. Unlike the Belgians or the Dutch -- who see a clear and straightforward public security issue -- the French are struggling with the constitutionality of outlawing a religious dress code.
Until now, it has been up to city governments in Belgium to crack down on burka-style outfits. "Enforcement by local governments has been patchy," says Dierick. "The point is public security, the need to show one's face in public. Not religious freedom."
The proposed Belgian ban partly underscores how populist politicians across Europe are making a big imprint on attitudes and policies toward immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims.
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.
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