Chances of seeing a burqa in Belgium are only a little better than spotting a liquor shop in Saudi Arabia. Yet Belgium soon may be the first European nation to outlaw the burqa and other Islamic garb that completely hides a woman's body and face.
Neighboring France and the Netherlands may also outlaw attire that is viewed by many in western European societies as demeaning to women. It also is considered a gateway to radical Islam, a fear that is stoking rightwing sentiment across the continent.
"There is all-party public support for this," says Leen Dierick, a conservative member of the Belgian parliament's Interior Affairs committee that unanimously backed the proposed ban March 31. The initiative is expected become law in July and would apply to all public places, including streets.
Anxieties that visible signs of Islam erode national identity are combining with complaints that immigrants are stealing jobs amid the worst economic slump in decades to deepen a sense of unease in many European countries, small and large alike, over the role of Muslims in society.
Threats against cartoonists and artists over depictions of the prophet Muhammad have also raised fears that Islam is not compatible with Western values of freedom of speech.
Swiss voters recently voted to ban the construction of new minarets. In recent years, both mosque and minaret construction projects in many European countries, including Sweden, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Germany and Slovenia have generated protests, some of them violent.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy favors a burqa ban, saying the veils compromise women's dignity. Unlike the Belgians or the Dutch — who see a clear and straightforward public security issue — the French are struggling with the constitutionality of outlawing a religious dress code.
Until now, it has been up to city governments in Belgium to crack down on burqa-style outfits. "Enforcement by local governments has been patchy," says Dierick. "The point is public security, the need to show one's face in public. Not religious freedom."
The proposed Belgian ban partly underscores how populist politicians across Europe are making a big imprint on attitudes and policies toward immigrants and minorities, especially Muslims.
Belgian lawmaker Filip Dewinter says mainstream politicians back a ban on burqa-type attire for fear of losing more ground to his far-right Flemish Interest party — a fringe factor 15 years but who today hold 17 of the 150 parliamentary seats.
"We were the first to propose a burqa ban," says Dewinter. "Now the parliament votes for a ban (drafted by a) traditional government party. Whatever! It's the outcome that counts."
Umar Mirza, a 22-year-old student and editor of the Dutch Muslim Web site "We're Staying Here" says sentiment toward Muslims and immigrants began to harden in the Netherlands 10 years ago.
"People my age have not known anything else," he says, adding the prevailing view of Muslims "has gotten much harder and sharper and less targeted at solutions."
Special police uniforms in UK
In the Netherlands, polls indicate that Geert Wilders' anti-Islam Freedom Party could nearly triple its presence in parliament and win 25 or so seats in June elections, up from nine today.
Wilders and like-minded supporters of the far-right hold that Muslims threaten European values by wearing head scarves and more conservative dress that fully covers body and head, such as the burqa, the chador and the niqab.
They say that liberal Europe can no longer afford to tolerate the illiberalism of newcomers.
"Islam is more of an ideology than a religion," Wilders is fond of saying. "I do not believe in a European Islam. The Islamization of the Netherlands and Western Europe will make us lose the freedoms we have today."
Numbers put growing fears of Europe becoming "Eurabia" into perspective.
Although their ranks are growing, Muslims make up only small minorities in Western Europe. France has the largest Muslim population of an estimated 5 million, or 7.5 percent of the population, followed by the Netherlands with 6 percent, Germany with 5 percent, Austria with 4.2 percent, Belgium with 3 percent and Britain with 2.7 percent, according to a 2009 study of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
There is broad support in the Dutch parliament to ban face-obscuring clothing except if required by law for safety or health reasons. Talk of a ban is on hold, for now. Fewer than 500 women wear such outfits in the Netherlands, out of a population of 16.5 million.
"Banning the burqa in Belgium is easy. The vast majority of Muslim women here don't wear one," says Maryam H'madoun, an activist in Antwerp for Muslim women's right to wear head scarves in public places.
Last year, the city of Brussels fined only 29 women — down from 33 in 2008 — for wearing a burqa-type dress, leading critics to say the regulations are an empty populist gesture. Local rules ban the burqa, but the new law would outlaw it on a national level.
In January, Denmark's center-right government called the burqa and the niqab out of step with Danish values. It held off on a ban after finding that only two or three women in Denmark (pop. 5.5 million) wear burqas and perhaps 200 wearing niqabs.
In France (pop. 65 million), the government estimates 1,900 women cover their faces with "niqabs," a scarf that exposes only the eyes, or "sitars," a filmy veiled cloth thrown over the head to cover the entire face.
France banned Muslim head scarves — as well as Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses — from schools in 2004. President Nicolas Sarkozy says the burqa "is not welcome" in France, but the Council of State, France's highest administrative body, has served notice that an outright ban may be unconstitutional.
Politicians in Germany, Spain and Italy have toyed with banning Islamic wear, but so far to no effect.
Muslims say their Islamic dress expresses their freedom of religion.
The headscarves debate "shows we still aren't able to accept the fact that the headscarves are part of our society," says Mirza, the editor of the "We're Staying Here" Web site.
"In the UK, they even made special police uniforms for women with headscarves. That shows willingness from the government and improves participation in society of these groups."
Isabelle Praile, vice president of the Belgian Muslims Executive says while a burqa ban targets very few women "it speaks to a fear of the other who is Muslim. This is Islamophobia."
To Muslims in Europe, she said, "the economy, the cost of living and decent housing" are more pressing issues than worrying about a burqa ban.