Brussels: Muslims in Belgium hit out at a looming public ban on the full-face Islamic veil, saying claims it was being introduced for security reasons were simply an excuse to crack down.
"I think they`re trying to wind us up," Souad Barlabi, a young woman wearing a simple veil, said outside the Grand Mosque in Brussels around the time of Friday prayers.
"We feel under attack," she said, a day after Belgian lawmakers had voted for a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and burqa.
There were two abstentions, but significantly, no one voted against it in the house -- a rare sign of unity amid a power-sharing dispute between Belgium`s linguistic communities which seems certain to lead to early elections.
"There are other problems that are more important," Barlabi noted.
In the crowd, one woman was wearing a niqab, another, accompanied by her husband, was covered by a burqa, and Barlabi could see no reason to make such a fuss over "so few people”.
The law, which will not come into effect for at least a few weeks, will be imposed in streets, public gardens and sports grounds or buildings "meant for public use or to provide services" to the public.
People who ignore it could face a fine of EUR 15-25 (USD 20-34) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days.
All governing parties and the opposition agreed on the move -- most for security reasons linked to the fact that people cannot be recognised while wearing the clothing.
"It`s just a pretext," said Samuel Bulte, a convert to Islam handing out flyers and religious objects in front of the mosque.
"How many robberies are committed wearing a burqa?
"I`m afraid that soon they`re going to want to start putting crescents on the backs of Muslims," he said, in a reference to the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear.
Bruno Tuybens, a Flemish Socialist, was one of the two deputies who abstained from Thursday`s vote.
"This law disturbs me," he said. "I believe in freedom of expression and I don`t think it should be restricted unless it`s in very exceptional circumstances.
"There is no link at all between crime and wearing the burqa or niqab."
Yet the vote, likely to be a landmark in Europe if it passes through the upper house, comes amid controversy in the kingdom over the wearing of Muslim religious symbols in public places.
Last year, a Belgian lawmaker of Turkish origin was sworn in at the Brussels regional parliament wearing an Islamic headscarf in a first for the country.