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December 12, 2016

Merkel's Burka Ban: How Far-Right Parties are Shifting Political Dialogue

Last week Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted the nomination for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in hopes of serving her fourth term. Merkel, who ran unopposed, received 89.5 percent of her party’s vote, down from the 96.7 percent she received two years ago. To boisterous approval by party members, she advocated a ban on full-face veils “wherever legally possible” and promised that Germany would not allow sharia law to replace German law.

This stronger language seems to reflect a shift for Merkel, regarded as a champion of tolerance and compassion for her generous response to the refugee crisis. She should remain a champion of human rights and stand up to—rather than give in to—the intolerance and attacks on liberal democracy that are gripping Europe.

Bans on the burka or the “burkini,” including the one struck down earlier this year in France, divide society and undermine long-term security interests. They aren’t just counterproductive—they are harmful. They appeal to emotions stoked by hateful rhetoric and further marginalize Muslim communities and Muslim women in particular, who experience discrimination in different ways than Muslim men.

Muslim women are rarely consulted in this process, and when they speak out, their concerns are ignored. Women who wear the burka in countries where they are banned are often forced to stay at home, and Muslim women wearing religious attire become increasingly vulnerable to hate crime. The ban undermines several human rights, including freedom of religion and expression, the right to participate fully in society, the right to movement, and the right to equality and non-discrimination, both on the basis of religion and gender.

Moreover, the ban sends the message that Germany is not a country for Muslims, something that alienates the Muslim population already in Germany and will do serious damage to its attempt to integrate the 1.3 million refugees who have arrived in Germany since 2015. Germany has taken strides to assert itself as a country of immigration, but support for a burka ban is two steps back.

In her speech, Merkel said, “The full veil is not appropriate here… It does not belong to us.” While discussing the issue over the summer Merkel said “from my standpoint, a fully veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany.” It feeds extremists’ narrative of a culture clash between Islam and the West, seeming to validate their propaganda and thereby undermining long-term security interests.

Merkel’s speech also demonstrates how the toxic rhetoric of far-right parties is pulling more mainstream parties to the extremes. Although Merkel has previously expressed her disapproval of burkas and seemed to support a partial ban—and the vague “wherever legally possible” language does little to illuminate her position—her spotlighting this issue is clearly a response to political trends. Since the debate this summer, she has been heavilyly criticized for her welcoming refugee policy, and her party has suffered significant setbacks in recent elections while far-right parties have made gains.

Far-right parties and movements in Germany capitalize on people’s fears associated with the refugee crisis. The Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has an expressly anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform, including support for the burka ban. The far-right, xenophobic movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) appeals to fear by spreading the narrative that Western culture and values will be compromised by the arrival of Muslims.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 61 percent of Germans thought that refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism in the country. Another survey in 2016 found that 41 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “We should not allow ourselves to be overrun by migrants.” The far right has both capitalized on these views and fueled their spread. They have found a way to communicate to the emotional, fear-driven side of people, which has in turn shifted mainstream political dialogue.

This trend of hostility and changing mainstream dialogue is not isolated to Germany. The United States is recovering from a divisive campaign season marked by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 867 hate incidents in the ten days following the U.S. election, including 49 anti-Muslim incidents and 280 anti-immigrant incidents. Many of the perpetrators have invoked Trump or his campaign slogans. Mosques in five states in the U.S. have received letters threatening genocide and praising Trump. The president-elect has apparently mulled the idea of a “Muslim registry.” A Georgia state lawmaker led a short-lived attempt to pass an amendment that would have effectively banned Muslim women from wearing the burka.

In the face of threats to inclusive democracy, Germany’s leadership is increasingly important to Europe and the West as a whole. Political rhetoric matters, and discriminatory and hateful policies proposed during an election correlate with hate crimes. Instead of bending to the political winds, Merkel should explain the moral and humanitarian imperative of her refugee policy, stressing its benefits to society, and challenge the false, fear-mongering narratives of the far right.