Although the Balkans and Eastern Europe have indigenous Muslim populations, most Muslims in western Europe are members of immigrant communities. The issue of Islamic dress is linked with issues of immigration and the position of Islam in western society.
For some critics, Islamic dress is an issue of value conflicts and the Clash of Civilizations. These critics - prominent among them is Ayaan Hirsi Ali - see Islam as incompatible with Western values, at least in its present form. They advocate the values of 'Enlightenment liberalism', including secularism and equality of women. For them, the burqa or chador are both a symbol of religious obscurantism and the oppression of women. Western Enlightenment values, in their view, require prohibition, regardless of whether a woman has freely chosen Islamic dress. A more extreme, related view is that freely chosen Islamic dress is a declaration of allegiance to radical Islamism, and the wearers are enemies of western society, if not terrorists.
Islamic dress is also seen as a symbol of the existence of parallel societies (Parallelgesellschaft), and the failure of integration: in 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as a "mark of separation". Visible symbols of a non-western culture conflict with the national identity in European states, which assumes a shared (non-religious) culture. Proposals for a ban may be linked to other related cultural prohibitions: the Netherlands politician Geert Wilders proposed a ban on the burqa, on Islamic schools, on new mosques, and on non-western immigration.
In France and Turkey, the emphasis is on the secular nature of the state, and the symbolic nature of the Islamic dress, and bans apply at state institutions (courts, civil service) and in state-funded education. These bans also cover Islamic headscarves, which in some other countries are seen as less controversial, although law court staff in the Netherlands are also forbidden to wear Islamic headscarves on grounds of 'state neutrality'.
An apparently less politicised argument is that in specific professions (teaching), a ban on "veils" (niqab) is justified, since face-to-face communication and eye contact is required. This argument has featured prominently in judgments in Britain and the Netherlands, after students or teachers were banned from wearing face-covering clothing.
Public and political response to such prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition they mean that the government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope leading to further restrictions on private life. A public opinion poll in London showed that 75 percent of Londoners support "the right of all persons to dress in accordance with their religious beliefs". In another poll in the United Kingdom by Ipsos MORI, 61 percent agreed that "Muslim women are segregating themselves" by wearing a veil, yet 77 percent thought they should have the right to wear it.
Several Belgian municipalities have used municipal by-laws on face-covering clothing to ban public wearing of the niqab and burqa. The town of Maaseik was to first to implement a ban. A Moroccan immigrant, Khadija El Ouazzani, was fined €75 under the by-law for wearing a burqa: in 2006, a local police court upheld the ban and the fine. According to mayor Jan Creemers (Flemish Christian Democrats), 5 or 6 women in Maaseik had "caused feelings of insecurity" by wearing a burqa, and he had received complaints about them. He personally warned the women to stop: after that only, El Ouazzani continued to wear the burqa, and the by-law was activated.
In late 2004, at Creemers request, Marino Keulen, Flemish-Liberal interior minister in the Flemish government, created a standard prohibition for burqas, and sent it to all 308 municipalities in Flanders. The regulation states that persons on the public street and in public buildings must be identifiable at all times, "to protect the social order, which allows a harmonious process of human activities". It prohibits covering the forehead, the cheeks, the eyes, the ears, the nose and the chin. Carnival, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas are exempt. According to Keulen:
All municipalities can choose if they want to adopt the regulation: six have done so. In August 2006, mayor Creemers called for a national ban. The anti-immigrant and separatist party Vlaams Belang, formerly Vlaams Blok, had earlier advocated a ban at Flemish level, and locally in Antwerp. Although Vlaams Belang is excluded from power in Antwerp, by a coalition of all other parties, the ban was adopted. It was first applied in 2005, when a woman was fined because only her eyes were visible.
In 2006 Asmaa Abdol-Hamid caused much debate when she hosted a TV show on DR2 wearing a hijab. The controversy continued the following year when she announced she would be running for parliament. Member of Parliament Søren Krarup, of the Danish People’s Party, questioned whether wearing a hijab in parliament was constitutional and said the headscarf is a totalitarian symbol, comparable to the Nazi swastika or the communist hammer and sickle.
In April 2007 the Odense city council asked the Minister for Family and Consumer Affairs of Denmark to rule on a case in which a Muslim woman refused to remove her veil for her job as a family care worker. A majority in parliament was ready to give employers the right to ban Muslim niqab and burka veils for employees.
In May 2008, the Danish government decided that judges in courts should strive for religious and political neutrality, and that consequently they would no longer be allowed to wear visible religious symbols, including Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippahs and Muslim head scarves.
The 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans all clothing which constitutes an ostensible religious symbol from government-operated schools. It is typically justified as a measure to ensure the secularism and religious neutrality of the state - the principle of Laïcité. In December, 2003, President Jacques Chirac supported a new law to explicitly forbid any "visible sign of religious affiliation", in the spirit of laïcité. The law was approved by the French parliament in March 2004.
The law forbids the wearing of any "ostensible" religious articles, but does not cite any item; yet, ministerial instructions appear to target the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippa, and large Christian crosses. Instructions permit discreet signs of faith, such as small crosses, Stars of David, and hands of Fatima. The law applies to students, parents and personnel alike. Without specific legal prohibition, similar policies are occasionally applied in other state organizations and buildings, such as public hospitals.
The French controversy primarily relates to Islamic dress as a symbol of Islam itself, or of female subservience, and only secondarily to other factors such as face-to-face communication, or security risks
In one incident involving Islamic dress in Germany, two 18-year old students, one Turkish and one Kurdish, appeared at a school in Bonn in a burqa; they were suspended for "disturbing the peace." The German Finance Minister cancelled a visit to the school, and the two were investigated by the intelligence service, who suspected them of contacts with the controversial König-Fahd-Akademie in Bonn. The incident illustrates the sensitivity in Germany over Islamic dress, especially in schools. It led the Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries to call for nationwide standard school uniforms (itself a sensitive issue in Germany because of the association with the Hitler Youth and the FDJ).
Education in Germany is the responsibility of the individual states, which each have their own education ministry. In September 2003, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Constitutional Court) ruled that the states could ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves by female teachers, and that this would not infringe the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. However, a ban could only be implemented by a state law, and not by administrative decisions. Since then, 8 of the 16 states have introduced a prohibition, first Baden-Württemberg, then Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, the Saarland, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia. The city-state of Berlin banned all religious symbols in public institutions, including the Christian crucifix and the Jewish yarmulke. In Baden-Württemberg, state courts upheld an appeal against the ban by several Muslim teachers, on the grounds of religious discrimination, since Catholic nuns are allowed to teach in full religious habit. The state government has appealed the decision.
In Germany women in burqa or chador are forbidden to drive motor vehicles. The Federal Transport Ministry confirmed that a de facto ban already exists.
In 2006 Ekin Deligöz, a Turkish-born woman parliamentarian, triggered an uproar by calling on fellow Turkish German women to take off their scarves as a way to show their willingness to integrate in German society.
Naime Çakir, a Muslim activist in Germany, raises other concerns related to headscarves in that banning them in fact increases discrimination of Muslim women and aggravates their integration into the modern society by making it harder for them to find a job and forcing them into an acute conflict between family and society, which places a much more disastrous burden on Muslim women than on Muslim men (see namus and "honor killing" articles). Naime states that for women, education and occupation are more important for emancipation than external attributes of clothing.
Immigration in the last two decades has introduced Islam as a second major religion in Italy, a country where the population was traditionally Catholic. The Islamic veil has become a national political issue, usually in combination with other Islam-related issues, such as new mosques, and the teaching of the Quran in schools. The anti-immigrant and separatist Lega Nord has focussed recent campaigns on prohibition of the burqa, although as with the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the wider issue is immigration. After local anti-burqa campaigns, several municipalities imposed a ban, but these have been suspended by Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale. The Regional Administrative Tribunal of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, suppressed, for largely technical reasons, bans imposed by a municipal government. Use of the law 152/1975 - which prohibits the use of motorcycle helmets to evade identification - cannot be extended to cover the veil or burqa.
In the November 2006 general election, Wilders' Party for Freedom won 9 seats (out of 150): a complete ban on the burqa and a ban Islamic headscarves in the civil service and schools is part of its platform, but all other parties refuse to include it in a coalition. A group of Muslim women organised a pro-burqa demonstration at the newly elected parliament in The Hague, on 30 November 2006. The demonstration attracted national media attention, despite having only 20 participants.
Following the 2006 election, the new cabinet has not taken a final decision on whether to introduce a ban, and gave conflicting signals. A February 2007 opinion poll indicated that 66 percent support a ban and 32 percent oppose it.
Malaysia protested against the proposed ban soon after it was announced in 2006. Foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar called it a discriminatory treatment of Muslims, and said it infringed freedom of choice. The Islamic headscarf tudung is a political issue in Malaysia itself. According to the UNHCHR, female students in Malaysia itself are pressured to wear the tudung, and it is compulsory for female shop workers in Kelantan, while Malaysian politicians have protested against its prohibition in public schools in Singapore. According to memo leaked to the Algemeen Dagblad, the Netherlands foreign ministry has warned of a possible controversy, similar to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.
The proposed legislation in the Netherlands applies nationally. Earlier, schools and other institutions had enforced their own bans on Islamic dress, although usually not on the Islamic headscarf. Employers also have their own policies. Cases of dismissal or exclusion from school are sometimes handled by the Netherlands Equality Commission, creating de facto national guidelines on what constitutes discrimination. In Amsterdam, school policies attracted media attention after an incident in 2003. A higher vocational college, banned three students for wearing the niqab. One was removed by police when she tried to enter the school wearing the niqab: the school regulations are legally enforceable because unauthorised entry is trespass. The students appealed to the Equality Commission, which ruled (in March 2003) in favour of the school. The school justified the ban on the grounds that the niqab "hindered eye contact, which testifies to mutual respect". The Commission agreed with the school, indicating that the educational necessity of contact and communication within the school building overrode the religious-freedom aspects. The education minister, Maria van der Hoeven, of the Christian-Democratic party CDA, publicly approved the Commission decision. The Amsterdam CDA subsequently called for a national ban on chador, burqa and niqab in schools, partly on the grounds that they conflicted with common national values.
The cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht have proposed cutting social security benefit to unemployed women wearing a burqa, on the grounds that it makes them unemployable in a predominantly non-Muslim country.
The Lord Chancellor in the UK, Jack Straw, initiated a nation-wide controversy on "the veil" by criticising its use in 2006. Straw said he would prefer to see no veils: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being proscriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.
The legal status of Islamic dress in schools was clarified by the Shabina Begum case, where the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that freedom to manifest religious beliefs was not absolute, and could be restricted. Conservative columnist Theodore Dalrymple, noting that Shabina Begum was represented by the Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair, claims that the judgement was a political one, a concession to Muslim opinion offended by the campaign against Islamist terrorism.
In the Aishah Azmi case, an employment tribunal held that a school could refuse to employ a veiled teacher (wearing the niqab). Government ministers intervened in the employment tribunal case, supporting the school. This case provoked Prime Minister Tony Blair to comment that the veil was a "mark of separation", and minister Phil Woolas demanded that Azmi be sacked, accusing her of "denying the right of children to a full education". The school subsequently sacked her.
In another case, a lawyer dressed in a niqab was told by an immigration judge that she could not represent a client because, he said, he could not hear her.
In reaction, the British educational authorities are proposing a ban on the niqab in schools altogether.
Veils have also been accused of causing problems in the fight against crime:
In 1998, a Turkish student was banned for wearing a headscarf at Istanbul University. In 2000, Nuray Bezirgan, a Turkish female student, wore a headscarf at her college final exams. A Turkish court sentenced her to six months jail for "obstructing the education of others". The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2004, saying the rules on dress were "necessary" and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In October 2006, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university ban again, rejecting a complaint filed by another Turkish university student.
In October 2006, Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to allow the wearing of headscarves at a ball marking Turkish independence, saying it would "compromise" and undermine the secular state founded by Kemal Atatürk.
On February 7, 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that many women would not seek an education if they could not wear the hijab. The decision was met with powerful opposition and protests from secularists. On June 5, 2008, the Constitutional Court of Turkey reinstated the ban on constitutional grounds of the secularity of the state. Headscarves had become a focal point of the conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secularist establishment, which includes the courts, universities, and army. The ruling was widely seen as a victory for Turks who claim this maintains Turkey's separation of state and religion.