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Muslim Veils Spark Debate in Europe


Criticism by British politicians of a Muslim face-covering veil known as a niqab has sparked ferocious debate in the United Kingdom over whether it should be worn in public. Britain is not the only European country questioning the veil.

When Nora Labrak, 29, arrived at a private job center near the French city of Lyon last July, the first question she was posed was not about her resume. The security agent at the door asked if she would remove her headscarf.

Labrak refused, and she was asked to leave.

Long and short, sober black or brightly hued, the Muslim veil is drawing growing skepticism, if not downright hostility, in parts of Europe. It has been chased from public schools in France and Belgium, and its strictest, face-conceiling variation, the niqab, has been outlawed in a smattering of European towns.

Even in multicultural Britain, the niqab sparked criticism from Labor party leaders recently - including from Prime Minister Tony Blair who called it a mark of separation. For their part, some Muslim leaders accused the British government of feeding fears of Islam.

A series of other issues have also fed concerns about Europe's Muslim population. They include last year's riots in France, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, terrorist attacks in Spain and Britain, and widespread opposition to illegal immigration, particularly from North- and sub-Saharan Africa.

Overall says Franck Fregosi, an expert on Islam at France's National Center of Scientific Research, there is a rising skepticism about Islam in Europe.

Fregosi says some Europeans are fearful of Islam. And politicians from countries that previously tolerated diversity, like Britain and the Netherlands, are becoming less open.

Sentiments about Muslims vary widely in Europe, and polls offer a mixed look at how the region's Islamic community is viewed, and how it views itself.

A July survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC found most European Muslims did not sense hostility from non-Muslims. But a significant chunk - including 39 percent in France, 42 percent in Britain,and 51 percent in Germany - reported otherwise.

The veil is worn by a minority of European Muslim women, but it most easily sets those who wear it apart. The veil can be an easy target of negative stereotypes and scathing remarks. And some veiled women interviewed for this report, including Nicole Thill, 41, say they receive increasingly skeptical reactions on the street.

Thill converted to Islam in 2001, and she now heads a Muslim women's association in Brussels. So far, she says, she hasn't had any major problems wearing her veil in public. But she says people look at her with more hostility than they did before, and she receives less respect.

People don't mind jostling you on the street she says, because after all, you're only a veiled women.

European politicians who are critical of the veil, particularly of the face-covering niqab, cite the importance of integrating Muslim immigrant populations of Turks, Arabs and Africans. That was the message behind French legislation two years ago, banning the wearing of the headscarf and other religious symbols in public schools.

And that was one reason why Jan Creemers, mayor of the small Belgian town of Maaseik, banned women from wearing the niqab this year. He said old people were particularly afraid when they saw several Muslim women wearing it.

"At the moment I said it's not possible because I think that in our society and our town, people must identify with each other," he said. "It's very important in our culture in the West that people see each other face to face."

Creemers says the town's mostly Moroccan Muslim population largely backed his ban. And several other Belgian towns have since outlawed the niqab. So has Italy, under anti-terrorist laws making hiding people's features an offense. And several states in Germany have outlawed public school teachers from wearing the more ordinary Muslim headscarf.

In some cases the legislation has drawn support from Muslims like Khadija Khali of Paris, who supports the French law banning public school pupils from wearing religious accessories.

Ms. Khali is head of a French Muslim women's group, and although she is a practicing Muslim, she does not veil. She believes it isn't required by the Koran, and veils are part of the Middle Eastern customs, not European ones. "I'm French and I love my country. I don't want to create divisions here," she said.

But other Muslim women are against efforts to legislate against the veil. Some, like Noura Jaballah in France, say laws further alienate Europe from its Islamic community.

"I hope someday the question of the Muslim faith and practice isn't posed anymore in Europe, because we're part of this society, like European Christians and Jews," she said.

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