Angela Merkel—long seen as the bastion of liberal values in Europe due to her open-door policy during the refugee crisis—has endorsed her party’s proposed burqa ban “wherever legally possible”, saying that they are “not appropriate”. Speaking at the CDU conference in Essen to launch her re-election campaign, the German Chancellor highlighted the precedence of German law above “honour codes, tribal customs, and sharia” and suggested that full-face veils were a barrier to integration. Her appeal to the right wing of her party was received with the greatest applause of her 80-minute speech.
The reality is that the burqa barely exists in Germany. The Interior Ministry, upon request, has been unable to publish statistics on how many people in Germany wear the burqa, so it seems the German government itself may not even know.
However, it is estimated that the figure lies somewhere between two and three hundred; an almost negligible amount. Merkel’s new position is manifestly a political, not a practical one.
Her stance bears similarity to France’s 2011 ban of the full-face Islamic veil, in all public places. It seems nothing has been learnt from the effects of such prescriptive legislation. When Muslim women are not allowed to wear the veil in public, many will simply stay home. If the burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, then a burqa ban is equally so. More pressingly, when the government appears to harbour anti-Islamic feeling it leads to a fractured society and radicalisation with a potential terrorist threat.
Merkel’s acceptance of an estimated 890,000 refugees into Germany last year was a remarkable humanitarian effort. However, since she acted alone without the support of her party, if she is to win the next election, she must now introduce legislation to placate those to her right and win back their trust and support.
In Britain, Ed Balls, speaking in January 2010, said it was “not British” to tell people what to wear in the street, in response to UKIP’s call for a burqa ban. Merkel, on the other hand, said of the veil that it “doesn’t belong to us” (i.e. the German people), which implies a narrow view of what it is to be German, despite the apparent generosity of her immigration policy. This is a disappointment for those who saw British and German principles as aligned. It is also a great disappointment for those who saw Merkel as the new leader of the free world, since the recent US election left an opening for this post.
Britain has not been so welcoming to refugees (supposedly there are only around 4,000 refugees in the UK at this time). Yet the refugees who are here are able to choose what they wear and how they practice their religion.
Merkel has been in power since 2005 and, throughout this time, has been a symbol of stability, especially during a decidedly unsteady 2016. Are these the lengths she must go to in order to ensure her longevity? Or is she no longer the face of liberal Western democracy to which we can turn?
It’s hard not to become disillusioned with politics when, as with Trump, our best hope is that Merkel’s statements, during her leadership campaign, do not translate into policy if she wins.