A woman in Italy has been fined for wearing a full burka in a public building, in this case, a post office. Last week, Belgium passed laws banning women (and presumably men) from wearing a full burka in public. In France, President Sarkozy is trying to institute a similar law.
Of course, as expected, Muslim leaders, even Catholic leaders and groups like Amnesty International, are protesting the laws, saying it is discrimination against Muslims, a violation of human rights, freedom of speech and so forth.
This is of course, ridiculous. The Belgian law makes it illegal to wear any clothing that prevents the user from being identified. This just happens to include niqabs and burkas, but it also includes motorbike helmets, masks, balaclavas, etc. The French laws banning children from wearing burkas is a law that bans any overt religious symbol, so that school remains a secular and religious free zone. This hardly looks like a case of picking on the Muslims.
Expression of religion can hardly be used as a reason to allow anyone to wear clothing like the burka in public. If religion offers such a carte blanche, then perhaps we should see what reaction people would have to someone claiming their religion mandated that they carry a machete at all times. (Sikhs, for example, are obliged to carry a Kirpan, or small sword). Clearly other considerations are more important than mere religious expression.
Claiming freedom of speech has been violated by stopping women from wearing the burka is misguided, at best. I cannot help but imagine slavers during the 1700s demanding that their slaves be able to freely express their status of servitude by wearing their chains, or Jews in Nazi Germany demanding to be allowed to wear the yellow star. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that these women do want to wear the burka. That doesn't change the fact that they shouldn't be allowed to wear it in public, particularly in places like post offices, shops, banks and other sensitive areas.
Someone in a burka can't be identified. They could be anyone, they could have anything under their clothing. You can't even properly read the expressions on their face. In short, they are cut off from normal social interaction. Of course, this is the whole point of the garment and it's why women don't wear the burkas in their homes, or in all female company. If anything, this should tell us that the burka is the antithesis of free expression*.
Our society is built on, by definition, social interaction and communication. In fact, it is believed humans evolved the whites of their eyes** because of the advantage it gave them communicating with visual cues. Scientists are even studying the hypothesis that part of the reason humans have become hairless is so that other humans can more easily read their emotions. Add to this the fact that a large portion of communication is through non-verbal cues, then it's no surprise that people are made deeply uncomfortable by someone they can't read.
A person masked and anonymous, who could be carrying any sort of device under formless clothing, will and should always be seen as a potential threat. This is why anyone wearing a motorbike helmet into a bank will be asked to take it off or be escorted out by security. It is not something concocted up to suppress Muslims.
Asking everyone else in society to ignore this threat to themselves in the name of human rights, freedom of speech, religion and multiculturalism, is to step on their rights as members of society.
* Or an avant-garde, post-post-modern ironic piece using lack of expression as a form of expression. I don't think this is the case.
** Not on purpose.