Photo of burqa clad woman.

An Australian politican’s call to ban the burqa “for safety” following an armed robbery by a bandit wearing the Islamic veil has triggered heated public debate following similar moves in Europe.

Senator Cory Bernardi sparked a national furore with claims that the use of a burqa in a hold-up in Sydney on Wednesday showed it had “no place in Australian society” and should be banned “for safety, and for society”.

“The burqa is no longer simply the symbol of female repression and Islamic culture, it is now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and ne’er-do-wells,” Bernardi, a conservative lawmaker, wrote on his website.

“New arrivals to this country should not come here to recreate the living environment they have just left. They should come here for a better life based on the freedoms and values that have built our great nation.”

His comments ignited intense public debate, with opposition leader Tony Abbott forced to distance himself from Bernardi and declare that such a ban was not opposition policy.

“I think a lot of Australians find the wearing of the burqa quite confronting and I wish it was not widely worn,” Abbott said.

“But the point is we don’t have a policy to ban it and we have always respected people’s rights in this area.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said there was no reason to introduce a ban, adding that the “worst thing we can do is actually start ganging up on particular groups within our country.”

“I believe Australians pride themselves in having a diverse society, one which is characterised by tolerance, one where we don’t stand up and give people lectures about what they should be wearing,” Rudd said on Friday.

“These are sensitive and important matters which have a real effect on community life.”

Muslims make up about 1.7 percent of Australia’s heavily Christian population of 22 million, and religious tensions have run high in recent years.

Anti-Muslim sentiment flared on Sydney’s southern Cronulla Beach in December 2005 when mobs of whites attacked Lebanese Australians there in a bid to “reclaim the beach.”

The race riots, the country’s worst of modern times, sparked a retaliatory campaign in which churches, shops and cars were attacked.

Belgium last month became the first country to pass a national ban on the burqa, and France’s national assembly is soon to debate such a move.

Italian police this week fined a woman 500 euros (630 US dollars) for wearing a full Islamic veil, the first punishment of its kind in Italy. The city of Novara adopted a decree in January banning the burqa in public. — AFP