Should the Muslim veil be verboten? Germany debates.

A proposal to ban face coverings in places such as schools or behind the wheel is broadly popular among Germans. But Muslims worry it would have little benefit, and would only widen divisions in German society.

Matthias Schrader/AP
A man and woman sit in front of a mural, which shows a veiled woman and other Muslim women wearing headscarves, in a beer hall at the 'Theresienwiese,' the area where Oktoberfest is held in Munich, Germany.

In the debate that is roiling Europe over head coverings for Muslim women, Jens Spahn, a deputy finance minister in Germany’s ruling conservative party, is not afraid to stake a position. He calls himself a “burqa-phobe.”

“I don’t think the burqa belongs to liberal, open societies,” he says. “If I go to another country, I adapt to those behaviors and customs. So we can expect the same the other way around.”

After a heated summer – where mayors in France banned "burkinis" from their shores in the wake of the terrorist attack in Nice, and Germany was struck for the first time by the kind of Islamic-inspired terror its neighbors have been facing – the debate over whether to ban Muslim women's attire has reached a fever pitch.

German officials have proposed a partial ban on burqas and niqabs in places such as schools or behind the wheel – a marked shift in the national psyche of a country long hesitant to single out groups or appear intolerant. The partial ban has broad support, as more and more Germans voice tougher stances: that newcomers must learn German, that there should be no tolerance for delinquency, and that there should be a higher bar for those who can come in and what they can wear in certain places.

But many Muslims here worry it could roll back decades of tolerance and alienate Muslims at the exact time that hundreds of thousands have arrived as refugees.

“I think everybody knows this is not an issue of fighting terrorism. We are not talking about a political danger emanating from these women with a face veil,” says Gudrun Krämer, the head of the Islamic Studies Department at Free University Berlin. “It’s rather a question about whether the liberal state should intervene at that level at all, or whether it should say ‘we don’t care how you dress provided you act in the right way.’”

Concerns about divisions

“Germany has to learn to send a clear self-confident signal about what is possible in a free country and what is not,” says Mr. Spahn, who favors an outright ban on face veils. In a survey this summer, the polling institute Infratest dimap found that 81 percent of respondents favored the government's partial-ban proposals, with 51 percent supporting an entire ban.

Karlies Abmeier, team leader on religion, integration, and family policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is close to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, says the ban is as much practical as it is about larger principles. If a mother has to pick up her kindergartner, the school must be able to identify her; she also concurs with Chancellor Merkel, who said recently a fully-covered woman in Germany stands little chance of full integration.

“The burqa is really something that separates her from the rest of the world,” Ms. Abmeier says.

Many Muslims in Germany, however, warn that the debate threatens to divide.

Mohammad Hajjaj, chairman of the Berlin branch of the Central Council of Muslims, says that of the estimated 4 million Muslims in Germany only a tiny fraction are fully veiled. “It’s not a debate about the burqa but about Muslims living in Germany,” he says.

He warns that invoking the pressure on visitors to Middle Eastern countries to conform to dress codes as a reason to bar certain dress in Europe is to compare apples and oranges. Saudi Arabia, for example, is not a democracy, and its societal norms don't allow for individual expression. “It’s comparing a state that respects human rights to states that do not,” Mr. Hajjaj says.

Ms. Krämer says Germany will not go down the path of France, where all religious symbols are banned in schools, including the head veil, and burqas have been banned in public since 2010. While she supports a ban in “official space,” she does not support an outright prohibition and says it could lead down a path no one wants to go.

“Religion does have a place in public life in Germany,” she says.

Birol Ucan, spokesman for the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque in Berlin, says his mosque, mostly serving the Turkish community, is playing its part by opening its doors to anyone who wishes to visit. He says the congregation feels fully integrated here – and wants to keep it that way. “This center is a sign of our place here,” he says.

Hijab as independence

Many say an outright burqa ban in Germany would not stand up legally. Last year the country's constitutional court struck down a law, from a decade ago, barring Muslim teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves. In various states different rules and regulations apply and are being scrutinized.

Hajjaj says that he worries some Germans increasingly want assimilation, when what Muslims want is “healthy integration.” The line should be drawn at the constitution, he says, which protects religious freedom.

While debates about the veil and gender equality swirl in Germany, many women say that the veil generally is widely misunderstood. Sarah Nassabieh, a German Muslim who is about to enter university in October, says she was once opposed to the hijab, viewing it as restricting. But when at age 14 her school took a class trip to France and were told they’d have to take their veils off when going into schools, she made the decision to put one on.

“I remember the day so clearly I started wearing it, still feeling the extraordinary sense of pride and self-confidence that filled my heart that day,” she says. “I so clearly remember my outfit, a purple pullover and black headscarf and underneath it my purple pearl necklace showed.”

She calls her hijab liberation from “idealistic images and rigid conceptions of free and modern Western women on me and other women.” She says she is not personally an advocate of the burqa, but nor is she an opponent: women should be able to dress as they choose.

The wrong issue?

The “burqa” debate has been criticized as an electoral ploy to take votes away from the right-wing Alternative For Germany (AfD), which is creeping up in polls on an anti-migrant message.

Markus Dröge, bishop of the Protestant Church Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia, says it is not the challenge Germany needs to be focusing on anyway. “The real problems are how to integrate the people. How to give them the possibility to learn German. How to give them possibilities to get education,” he says at the Protestant church headquarters in Berlin.

While he supports the partial ban that the government has proposed, he sees the overall debate as part of a general backlash against a globalized world, and he believes Germany has no choice but to adjust – and face the challenge honestly. “The issue is how do we get used to the fact that we’re not a closed-off country and that through globalization we have to come to terms with different cultures and ideas,” he says.

Leila El-Amaire, a young Muslim Berliner, agrees the debate over the burqa ban has been co-opted by politicians and she dismisses it as “ridiculous,” but questions over Muslim wear are certainly not abstract to her. In her last year of law school, she wanted to be a judge. But because the job in Berlin would require her to take off her headscarf in the name of “neutrality,” she says, she’s given up that dream.

“I always thought I’d be a good judge,” she says.

Six years ago, she formed a poetry-slam group called I-Slam to empower young Muslims through art. “Many people are talking about Muslim people, but Muslim people are not talking about themselves,” she says. Mostly she tackles politics in her own performances, and that spans well beyond faith. She says people are sometimes surprised that she doesn’t talk Islam more often, but she replies that she is far more than just part of a religious group.

It’s particularly frustrating as a woman. “As a Muslim woman, you are always reduced to your headscarf.”

• Rachel Stern contributed to this report.

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