Most Western Europeans favor at least some restrictions on the religious clothing that Muslim women can wear in public, according to research released Monday by the Pew Research Center.
A median 50 percent of non-Muslim adults in the 15 countries surveyed said Muslim women should be allowed to wear religious clothing unless it covers their face. A median of 23 percent said that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear any religious clothing at all. Only 25 percent said they supported no such restrictions.
Portugal stood out as the only country where a majority of respondents said Muslim women should face no restrictions, at 52 percent.
Sixty-six percent of respondents said they would accept a Muslim as a family member. But even in this group, a majority of 55 percent supported banning facial coverings.
“This is not a small group of people,” survey conductor Scott Gardner told VOA News. “Even though the majority have open and positive feelings towards Muslims, even those who say they would accept a Muslim as a family member favor at least some restrictions.”
Portugal was again unique in this category, with 60 percent of those who would accept a Muslim family member saying they supported having no restrictions on clothing.
The survey reflects government policy across the region. Last August, Denmark made it illegal for Muslim to wear facial coverings such as niqabs and burqas in public. Similar policies have been in enacted in Austria, Belgium and France in recent years as Muslim immigrants have flocked to Europe in large numbers, escaping violence in Syria and other majority-Muslim nations.
Proponents of these policies argue that facial coverings are a security risk and that forcing women to veil their faces is sexist. Critics say the policies are targeted discrimination that reflects growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.
“Generally, you could say a Muslim has a beard,” Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University told VOA News. “But then a lot of Europeans, a lot of young men even, have beards. So, it’s difficult to say ‘OK, this man’s Muslim because he has a beard.’ A lot of Muslim men just wear trousers, ties, shirts just like other Europeans. But a hijab? Or an abaya, the full dress, that is specifically Muslim.”
The influx of Muslims into European countries has led to the rise of populist anti-immigration political movements in many of the countries surveyed, led by figures like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France.
“It is not surprising,” Ahmed said of the findings. "They reflect a mood in Europe today, which is a mood of increasing impatience and intolerance of the Muslim community. And that intolerance and impatience appears to be embodied in the symbolism of the Muslim dress.”