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Australian Politician Suggests Ban on Traditional Dress for Muslim Women - 2002-11-23

A Christian politician in Australia has provoked a furious reaction by his suggestion that the authorities ban Muslim women from wearing traditional dress in public. The Reverend Fred Nile, a member of the New South Wales State parliament, claims the chador could be used to hide terrorist explosives. His comments have been widely condemned.

Fred Nile, a politician and a clergyman, has refused to apologize for suggesting that for Muslim women in Australia to wear the traditional Muslim dress, or chador, is a sign of extremism. He has raised the specter of Muslim women using the all-enveloping robes to hide terrorist weapons or explosives.

Australia has been on heightened level of security alert ever since the terrorist bomb attack in Bali last month, which the government blames on Islamic extremists. Almost 90 Australians were among the dead in that attack.

The Reverend Nile, a conservative member of the Christian Democratic Party, points to the involvement of Muslim Chechen women in the recent takeover of a theater in Russia to support his argument that traditional Muslim dress should be barred. "The danger that a terrorist could wear that chador that would conceal either explosives or weapons, It's not a fairy tale. It just occurred in Moscow where six women wearing chador coverings also were carrying explosives and were prepared to blow up the theater."

Rev. Nile's comments have attracted few supporters. His own Anglican Church was quick to disassociate itself from the statements. The Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, said Mr. Nile had demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of the nature of religious freedom in a democratic society.

Australia's Independent Education Union, which represents teachers in Christian, Islamic and Jewish schools, has demanded Mr. Nile's resignation from the New South Wales state parliament.

After the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington last year, anti-Muslim sentiment surged in Australia. Fears have been expressed that the racial and religious backlash could be even worse after the bombings in Bali.

Islamic organizations have said the comments by Mr. Nile are meant to exploit religious intolerance for political gain.

The New South Wales State Premier, Bob Carr, has pleaded for calm during what he said was an already difficult period for Australian Muslims.