Belgian lawmakers are expected to start debate over legislation to ban the face-covering Islamic veil in public spaces on Thursday, a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered similar legislation in France.
Belgium may become the first European country to ban the face covering Islamic veil. In March, a parliamentary committee backed a draft law to ban the veil. Now Belgium's full lower house takes up the bill, which has the support of all the country's major parties.
There are very few Muslim women in Belgium who wear the full face veil. But the bill's main author, lawmaker Daniel Bacquelaine of the liberal Reformist Movement Party, says the legislation is critical for social integration.
"We think that this measure is essential to promote living together in our society. I think we need common values and human rights. And I think if we live together, we have to be recognized. It is not possible to encounter each other if I cannot see the other's face," he said.
Bacquelaine says banning the veil is also a security measure against potential Muslim radicals. He says it is not intended to stigmatize the Muslim community, but to promote women's rights.
Belgium is hardly the only European country mulling a veil ban. On Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered legislation banning the face veil in public spaces, despite misgivings it may be unconstitutional.
Presidential spokesman Luc Chatel said the ban should be generalized for all public spaces, but should not stigmatize Muslims. The legislation has drawn support from some Muslim lawmakers and women's rights groups. Other European countries have considered similar legislation, but have not gone so far.
Wearing the full face-veil is deeply controversial in Europe, not least among Muslims. But immigration expert Marco Martiniello of the University of Liege in Belgium, says many Belgian Muslims are united in opposing a veil ban.
"Even in that part of the Muslim community in which there is no support for niqab and burqa, the reaction is quite negative toward that law because it is seen as an additional stigmatization," he said.
Martiniello believes the legislation is unnecessary. He says it reflects Europe's inability to deal with its booming, Muslim community.
"Each European country seems to have a problem in finding the right balance between allowing space to Muslims and Islam and avoiding opening a new (door) to radicals," said Martinello.
If Belgium's parliament passes the ban measure, it may become law within months. Meanwhile the French government is pushing for its own veil ban legislation to become law by the end of July.