Why is Angela Merkel, of all people, seeking to ban the burqa?

Europe's most pro-migrant head of state appears to have made a concession to the far-right by calling for a ban on the religious veil. But is it really a concession?

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
German Chancellor and leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party CDU Angela Merkel reacts after she was re-elected as chairwoman at the CDU party convention in Essen, Germany, Tuesday.

In accepting her party's nomination for a fourth term in office on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech that took aim at conservative critics of her liberal asylum policies even while emphatically embracing a proposal to ban the burqa.

“In interpersonal communication, which plays a fundamental role here, we show our face,” she said in reference to the Islamic full-body covering that, while rarely worn in Germany, retains symbolic resonance for much of the public, and has emerged as a touchstone for the far right. “And that’s why a full veil is inappropriate in our country. It should be banned wherever legally possible. It does not belong in our country.”

Those comments, which were met with resounding applause from fellow members of her center-right Christian Democratic Union, seem to represent tacit acknowledgment of flagging public confidence in her leadership stemming from a handful of incidents linked, at times falsely, to asylum-seekers. And she went so far as to bring up a far-right conspiracy theory:

"We don't want any parallel societies. Our law takes precedence before tribal rules, codes of honor and sharia.”

But considered against the rest of her speech, they may also be a wager of a sort that is growing rarer in other Western countries: that legislative action against such a deeply resonant cultural symbol, associated increasingly with chauvinistic political projects, can coexist with an open society’s obligations of tolerance and inclusiveness.

“Germany is often called ‘the reluctant land of migration’,” says Paul Harris, a political scientist at Auburn University who specializes in comparative immigration policy. Millions of Germans, he tells The Christian Science Monitor, are immigrants or trace their backgrounds to countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary, or Greece.

But its immigration model tends to emphasize the state’s role rather than the mandates of free commerce, as in the United States. Recent arrivals are enrolled in language classes and job training, for instance, with the intent of preparing them for their integration into the labor market, meaning cultural integration in some form or another is paramount.

Germans are very much in favor of banning the burqa, too: 81 percent of respondents told pollsters in August that they’d like to see it disappear from public places, and 51 percent even said they’d like to prohibit its use entirely.

That’s in spite of most Germans probably never having seen anyone wear it in public: The Washington Post notes that the German government doesn’t keep statistics of how many women and girls wear the full veil, and one reporter’s valiant attempt to muster up a best guess, based on experts’ research, landed at no more than 200 or 300 people, or about 0.01 percent of the country’s 4.7 million Muslims.

“The burqa is seen as very oppressive in Europe, and certainly in Germany,” says Dr. Harris. “She’s not playing to nationalist tendencies. This is very much a mainstream approach.”

It remains unclear how far Merkel’s government will go in its burqa-ban legislation, but the gesture will probably go over well with German voters rattled by two July attacks carried out by asylum-seekers – as well as other violent incidents, like a string of sexual assaults last New Year’s Eve, that have gotten conflated in the public mind with a liberal asylum policy.

Since then, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has won a small number of seats in state parliaments and in the European Parliament. But Merkel has rebounded, too, in recent months. On Tuesday, she urged Germans to stay “skeptical about easy answers”.

"The world is not black and white," she said, according to a translation by AFP. "Rarely is it the easy answers that bring progress to our country."

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