I have often had questions as to why the burqa – or rather the headscarf - debate sounds quite different in the US than it does in continental Europe. It is actually more about the headscarf that views seem to differ across the pond than about the burqa – indeed, the burqa appears to cause widespread disapproval in Western countries. I guess that most people are put off by the appearance of a woman veiled from head to toe.
The fact that headscarf stirs much less controversy in the US than it does in Europe is related to the notions of freedom of expression and tolerance for religious practice. The picture on both fronts may not be that rosy in actuality in the US but there is still a deep belief among most Americans that those are fundamental rights – mostly, because most people here do not want those rights to be denied to them...
In continental Europe the main reason why the headscarf, even if in lightest form, provokes strong reactions is because most people view it as a sign of oppression. There is a general belief that somehow the practice is imposed upon women – even when they “freely” accept to wear a headscarf - and that at the end of the day the headscarf is just a reflection of women’s lesser status compared to that of men.
The second reason stems from the long tradition of separation of state and church. It gets back to the early 20th century in most Western European countries and there is till discomfort today about the church interfering in government’s affairs and anyone displaying signs of religious affiliation openly. And yes, there is probably a double standard between the headscarf and the Christian cross or David’s star but signs of affiliation are generally not welcome.
Also, and a corollary to this, the baby boomer’s generation and even more the Generation Xers in Europe grew up with a religion in general but feel detached from it for the most part. Even in countries like Spain and Italy, the percentage of those practicing religion is way below 20%. Thus, dealing with an immigrant population that mostly considers its religion quite seriously can only create tensions – let alone when obvious (sic) “exterior signs of affiliation” come into play.