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Why Germany's famously tolerant chancellor just proposed a burqa ban

She’s preparing for next year’s elections.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech at a convention for her Christian Democratic Union party.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been under fire in Germany for allowing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country — and, according to her critics, letting them bring in a fundamentalist strain of Islam at odds with her country’s secular foundations.

Her response? Taking a page from the playbook of neighboring France and calling for a ban on full-face veils, or burqas, in Germany. The covering, she declared to applause at a convention for her center-right Christian Democratic Union party, is “not acceptable in Germany.”

"It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible," she added.

The rule would prohibit Muslim women from donning full-face coverings in schools, court rooms, and administrative buildings, according to the Washington Post. It would also make it an offense to wear one while driving or participating in a demonstration.

Merkel suggested that the measure was meant to protect German culture, saying that Germans “show our face in interpersonal communication.”

In her remarks to the party conference, Merkel also pledged to prevent another massive influx of refugees into Germany. “A situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not, and must not be repeated,” she vowed.

The high-profile move is intended to neutralize threats from her political right in the run-up to her bid for a fourth term in elections next year. Merkel has faced criticism from conservatives in Germany since allowing the country to open its doors to more than a million predominantly Muslim refugees from the Middle East and Asia in 2015.

Merkel’s call for a ban is intended to leave little space to her right as Germany approaches federal elections, scheduled for the fall of 2017. It’s designed both to allay the concerns of the more conservative and anti-immigrant elements within her own party and to protect her right flank from the swiftly rising nationalist party Alternative for Germany, which has argued that Islam is “not compatible with the German constitution.”

Public support for asylum-seekers in Germany has dropped over the course of the past year, in part due to lightning rods like the Cologne attacks last New Year’s Eve. Some reports allege that as many as 1,000 women were sexually assaulted at the city’s central train station by a group of men who appeared to be predominantly of Arab and North African descent.

Merkel’s ban echoes France’s ban on burqinis — full-body swimsuits — earlier this year. It also opens her up to the possibility of high-profile incidents that could elicit pushback from the left, like the iconic photos of a woman being forced to take her burqini off at a beach that went viral during the summer (an incident that some believe was staged).

Merkel’s burqa ban is a counterweight to her refugee policy

The broad message that Merkel wants to convey to Germans: The way Germany opened up its arms to refugees last year was meant to be a one-time only deal.

In 2015, Merkel made news the world over — garnering both praise and criticism in the process — for allowing Germany to let in more migrants fleeing conflicts from countries like Syria and Afghanistan than any other European country.

The policy has declined in popularity over time, and plummeted at certain points in 2016 in the wake of attacks in the country that are perceived as tied to immigration. In recent state elections, the staunchly anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany beat Merkel’s party in her home district.

With national elections looming in 2017, conservatives allied with Merkel have lobbied for an official cap on immigration into Germany and have demanded bans on veils. While Merkel has rejected placing a cap on immigration so far, her embrace of a ban is a clear gesture toward them and meant to create unity among the Christian Democratic Union.

The rise of the Alternative for Germany is top of mind for Merkel and her mainstream conservative allies. The populist party has grown explosively since it was founded in 2013. While calling for radical policies like banning mosque minarets in Germany, it’s made swift gains on a regional level. Current polling suggests that it should be a formidable competitor next year.


Watch: What does it mean to be Muslim?