German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who last year opened the door to nearly 1 million mostly Muslim migrants, staked out a tough new stance on conservative Islam on Tuesday, including her first direct call for a widespread ban on “full veil” religious coverings.
Her call could add Germany to the growing list of European nations imposing some restrictions on Islamic coverings as debates sharpen across the continent over religious tolerance, perceived threats to European identity and possible security threats from Islamists.
It could also signal a pragmatic shift to the right for Merkel. In the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the tolerant Merkel became a symbol of what’s left of liberal democracy. But her handling of the refugee crisis — which hit her approval ratings and caused internal party dissent — is seen as a critical weakness as she launches her bid to win a fourth term next year.
Merkel on Tuesday issued a reminder that she is still a conservative politician. Speaking to a cheering conference of her center-right Christian Democratic Union, she used her strongest language yet to back a ban on Islamic coverings first proposed by conservative elements in her party. Details are still being discussed, but some are calling for a law that would make it a regulatory offense for women to cover their faces in courtrooms, administrative buildings and schools, as well as while driving or attending demonstrations.
“The full veil is not appropriate here. It should be banned wherever it’s legally possible,” Merkel said.
Women in Germany’s Muslim community of 4.7 million who actually wear a full burqa — or a loose veil that covers the entire body with a thin eye slit or mesh – are exceedingly rare. Some experts suggest there may be only a few hundred at most.
But bans on such garments are being increasingly seen as a powerful political message.
Merkel has previously decried full Muslim veils as a hindrance to migrant assimilation. But her words at the party conference — reaffirming her as its candidate and leader — seemed aimed to appease critics who have charged her with recklessly opening the door to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war. On Tuesday, she also criticized the alleged spread of Islamic sharia law.
“We don’t want any parallel societies,” she said. “Our law takes precedence before tribal rules, codes of honor and sharia.”
As has happened in France and elsewhere, the law planned in Germany would not refer specifically to conservative Muslims, but it would clearly be aimed at them.