Merkel Proposes to Ban the Burqa: Why and Why Now?

The German leader was never a multiculturalist and must guard her right flank ahead of next year’s election.

German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses her parliament in Berlin, September 14, 2012
German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses her parliament in Berlin, September 14, 2012 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

Angela Merkel’s proposal to ban the burqa has caught some of her foreign admirers by surprise.

A headline at the left-leaning Vox reads, “Germany’s famously tolerant chancellor just proposed a burqa ban,” implying it is both intolerant and out of character for Merkel.

Vox is right when it argues the timing is political. Merkel recently announced she will seek a fourth term as chancellor next year and is facing criticism of her immigration policy from the right.

But this is not an about-face. If anything, her open-doors immigration policy was.

Walking a tightrope

Merkel argued as early as 2010 that the multicultural society had failed — “utterly,” she said.

However, she also cautioned at the time that Germany ought not to give the impression “that those who don’t speak German immediately or who were not raised speaking German are not welcome here.”

She has walked that tightrope ever since.

Last month, I wrote that Merkel needs to protect her right flank. She has lately tilted more to the center, probably eying a collaboration with the Greens if her own party fails to win an absolute majority and the Social Democrats are unwilling to continue the “grand coalition”.

In doing so, she risks galvanizing the Alternative für Deutschland, a small nationalist party, as well as the reactionary elements in her own Christian Democratic alliance — particularly her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. It broke ranks last year, when Merkel allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to come into Germany from the Middle East and North Africa and few other European countries opened their doors.

No downside

By proposing to ban the burqa and emphasizing on Tuesday that German law takes precedence over Sharia and honor codes, Merkel signals to conservatives that she is still one of them without unduly aggravating the center and left.

Only the nationalist fringe believes Islamic law poses a threat while estimates are no more than a few hundred women out of Germany’s 4.7 million Muslims wear the burqa.

A ban might not even pass muster with Germany’s Constitutional Court.

Regardless of Merkel’s own views — and it’s not hard to imagine that she agrees covering women head to toe in a peaceful and free society like Germany’s is unnecessary — there is no political downside to these policies and quite possibly a modest gain. Which is just the sort of calculation we would expect Merkel to make.

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