MADRID — In a significant escalation of Spain’s debate over how to handle radical Islam, the Senate on Wednesday narrowly and unexpectedly approved a motion to ban Muslim women from wearing in public the burqa or other garments that cover the whole body.
The vote, 131 to 129, was another setback for the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had favored more-limited restrictions on Islamic clothing and has instead been pushing to curtail religious fundamentalism through better education.
The Spanish vote comes amid several national initiatives across Europe to restrict the spread of radical Islam and defend liberal values.
In Belgium, the lower house of Parliament has already approved a measure that, if unamended by the upper house, would make it a crime to wear in public “clothing that hides the face.”
The Senate’s position also came as a surprise because although Spain has become a major European entry point for Muslim migrants from North Africa, few of those immigrants wear either the burqa or the niqab, which does not cover the eyes. A similar argument has also been made by opponents of a burqa ban in countries like France, where only an estimated 100,000 women wear the burqa out of a Muslim population of about 5 million. France, however, already passed a law in 2004 to ban head scarves or any other “conspicuous” religious symbol from state schools in order to preserve their secularism.
The Spanish government is supposed to follow the Senate’s motion. However, given that Socialist senators opposed the ban, the governing party is likely to seek ways to circumvent the vote.