Burka ban commences in Netherlands amid refusals to enforce

Growing view prohibition on Muslim facial wear unnecessary and unlikely to be policed

The Netherlands on Thursday became the sixth EU country to introduce a prohibition on face-covering in public buildings – in other words, a burka ban – although much of the population seems to regard the new law as not just unwarranted, but potentially divisive.

The ban was already unravelling on Monday last when police said they would not treat calls to enforce it on public transport as a priority. In response, transport companies said it was not their job to apply the law, especially if it meant disrupting services to await police who might never arrive.

Then, on Thursday, the day of its implementation, hospitals and schools joined the growing public sector chorus, saying there was never a problem to begin with, and that – along with the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht – they planned simply to ignore the legislation.

"We just aren't hearing from doctors that they have any difficulty treating women in burkas," said Rene Heman, chair of the Dutch Physicians' Organisation.

The universities’ organisation, VSNU, agreed, commenting: “We don’t see this problem with face covering as a real phenomenon.”

With a notable absence of high-profile politicians, “B-Day” had about it the feel not of a carefully choreographed publicity campaign to hammer home the reasoning behind the new law, but of a slightly apologetic nod and a wink that really, in the end, it was all going to come to nothing.

Three-year renewal

That was underlined when political sources in The Hague told the national broadcaster, NOS, that – for the first time ever with a new law – the ban would be reviewed by parliament after three years rather than the usual five.

That did not impress the Islamic political party, Nida, whose spokesman, Cemil Yilmaz, described it as a form of "bullying" of Muslims and said the party would pay the fines for anyone penalised.

GreenLeft senator Ruard Ganzevoort said it would lead inevitably to greater gender inequality because even fewer burka-wearing women would mix in public. "They may not be willing to visit their children's schools or to learn to swim – all the things that help people to integrate," he said.

Although there are estimated to be only 200-400 burka and niqab wearers in the country, the Dutch ban applies in all public buildings. Crash helmets and ski masks are also banned. Failure to comply will lead to a fine of €150, or higher if the offence is aggravated.

This is a milder version of the ban than in some EU countries, in that it will not apply in the street or in public spaces outside public buildings.

‘Historic day’

It was originally proposed in 2010 by prime minister Mark Rutte's minority coalition government in an attempt to buy the support of anti-Muslim Freedom Party leader, Geert Wilders, from the opposition benches.

Wilders advocated a much tougher ban, which would have applied in all public spaces, with fines of more than €3,000, potentially 12 days’ imprisonment, and no-exceptions enforcement.

The Freedom Party described August 1st as “a historic day” and “the start of the de-Islamisation of the Netherlands”.

Breaking from holidays, Mr Wilders said he was “delighted” with the ban – though it wasn’t tough enough.

His message to his supporters, however, was much more invidious, appearing to recommend some form of citizen’s arrest, where first the police and then a doctor or tram driver, for example, refused to act.

“If the police won’t do it, and the hospitals won’t do it, then citizens can do it themselves,” he declared. “That is the law.”

A decade on, Mr Wilders is still driving this totally unnecessary and divisive legislation.