A bitter debate about multiculturalism was raging in Holland on Saturday following the leading party's pledge on Friday to introduce legislation that would outlaw the wearing of burqas in public places if the party is re-elected on Wednesday.
The pledge by the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party to outlaw the full-length veils has caused uproar among the Muslim community and civil rights groups. It has also shone light on the shifting politics of a country long considered one of Europe's most welcoming for immigrants.
However, since the murder in 2004 of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist, the country has become increasingly polarized on racial and religious issues.
Integration and Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk justified the move on the basis of security grounds.
"People should always be recognizable, and from the standpoint of integration we think people should be able to communicate with one another," she said.
"The Cabinet finds it undesirable that face-covering clothing -- including the burqa -- is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens," she said, adding that the ban would also apply to other kinds of headgear, such as ski masks and full-faced helmets.
If it should pass in parliament, women would be barred from wearing burqas in a variety of places, including at schools, on trains, in courts and even on the street.
But the plan was condemned by Muslims as an overreaction and rejected by the opposition Labor Party as an election stunt that will breed resentment among the country's 1 million Muslims.
"This is a big law for a small problem," said Ayhan Tonca of the Dutch Muslim organization.
She estimated that as few as 30 women in the Netherlands wear a burqa and warned the law could be unconstitutional if it is interpreted as targeting the Muslim population.
In the past, a majority of the Dutch parliament has said it would approve a ban against burqas, but opinion polls suggest that public enthusiasm for such legislation has dissipated recently.
"I'm very much worried that in the Muslim community many people will see this as Islam bashing," Labor Member of Parliament Jeroen Dijsselbloem said.
Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen said that although he would like to see burqas disappear, he nevertheless did not advocate banning them.
"From the perspective of integration and communication, it is obviously very bad because you can't see each other, so the fewer the better. But actually hardly anybody wears one. The fuss is much bigger than the number of people concerned," he said.