European politician taps into fear, sex appeal

Belgium - A Flemish nationalist politician in Belgium has launched a new campaign that taps into anxiety about the country’s immigrant Muslim population, while capitalizing on the svelte figure of his 19-year-old daughter.

Filip Dewinter, a leader of the Vlaams Belang — or "Flemish Interest" party of Belgium — is publishing political ads featuring his daughter An-Sofie Dewinter donning a "niqab"— a conservative Islamic covering for women with the cloak thrown back over her shoulders to reveal her bikini-clad body. Across her chest is the message: "Freedom or Islam?" and across her hips, another that reads: "You choose."

The campaign billed as "Women against Islamization" sends a provocative message, in keeping with the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform of his Vlaams Belang party. The Vlaams Belang is a reincarnation of a previous political party that was forced by a Belgian court to dissolve because of its racist messages. It advocates strict limits on immigration, and argues that new arrivals should adopt Flemish culture and language.

The campaign echoes those by other nationalist groups in Western Europe which have risen on anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim sentiment, said Jonathan Laurence, a Boston College professor and author of the new book, "The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims."

"The far Right in plenty of European countries has engaged in fairly provocative styles of messaging, saying that our country is being overrun by Muslims," said Laurence. "This (campaign) adds a layer of sex appeal," -- a tactic that he says could backfire.

"One interesting thing about something like this is that it will tend to push religious communities closer together because you find this kind of image mixing the sacred and the profane is offensive to other religious groups," said Laurence.

Even though few European Muslims wear the conservative face coverings, Dewinter’s ad campaign will heighten tensions, Laurence predicts.

"You would be very hard-pressed to find European Muslims who would defend the burqa,” said Laurence. "But the more they feel that they are being singled out, fingered as the only source of illiberalism in today’s society, the more likely they are to defend these kinds of practices."

Belgium followed France in putting in place a ban on Muslim "niqab" and like garments in 2011. A similar law is set to go into effect in the Netherlands in 2013. The debate over face coverings has come to symbolize the tensions over Islam in Europe. At the time of Belgium's ban, a BBC report cited legal critics who estimated that only a few dozen women of some 500,000 Muslims in the country actually wore the face coverings.

Belgium — and other European countries — do have Islamic groups that advocate extreme interpretations of the faith. Shariah4 Belgium opened a sharia court in Belgium for moderating disputes among Muslims according to an RT report. Not only did the move put the group on a collision course with right wing politicians like Dewinter, but it "freaked out" other Muslims interviewed for the story.

In January, RT reported, an Antwerp prosecutor recommended Shariah4 Belgium leader Foaud Belkacem be sentenced to a two-year prison term and a fine for inciting hatred and violence against non-Muslims. Dewinter alleged that the Muslim group called for his killing.

"There are movements that are not liberal and do not fit well with Europe," said Laurence. "In some ways the extremists from the far right and religious extremists are a match made in heaven."

An estimated 6 percent of Belgium’s population is Muslim, with most located in major cities.