Germany proposes burqa ban in public places

Deborah Cole

Berlin (AFP) - Germany's interior minister on Friday proposed partially banning the full-face burqa Islamic veil, as a debate on integration rages after two jihadist attacks and ahead of key state elections.

The call by Thomas de Maiziere comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel's government attempts to address public fears surrounding last year's record influx of nearly 1.1 million migrants and refugees, most from predominantly Muslim countries.

It also echoed a controversial decision by several French towns in recent weeks to outlaw burkinis, the full-body Islamic swimsuit, at a highly sensitive time for relations with the Muslim community following a series of Islamist attacks.

De Maiziere, one of Merkel's closest allies, said after a meeting with regional counterparts from his conservative bloc that the burqa ban would cover "places where it is necessary for our society's coexistence" including government offices, schools and universities, courtrooms, demonstrations and behind the wheel.

He told reporters that the full-face veil "does not belong in our cosmopolitan country", adding that it was "not a security issue but an integration issue".

The minister acknowledged that the burqa was not a common sight on German streets, calling the proposed ban a "preventive measure".

"Of course the issue of the full veil stands for the question which role certain branches of Islam play in Germany," he said.

- 'No emancipated woman can accept burqa' -

De Maiziere did not say when he would put forward a draft bill, acknowledging that the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the ruling coalition, had reservations about the move.

But he indicated that outlawing the burqa only under certain circumstances -- as opposed to the blanket ban favoured by the hard right of Merkel's Christian Union bloc -- would be likely to win approval in parliament.

Merkel's right-left "grand coalition" holds an overwhelming majority in the Bundestag lower house but faces a general election in a year's time.

In an interview with a regional newspaper this week, Merkel underlined her objections to the burqa.

"From my point of view, a woman who is entirely veiled has hardly any chance at integrating," she said.

However Bilkey Oney, a Turkish-born integration expert from the SPD, said a burqa ban was too blunt an instrument to fight radicalisation.

"In France they long ago outlawed the burqa but it apparently couldn't stop a single terror attack. However I don't like the mentality behind a burqa either -- it is a piece of clothing that no emancipated woman can accept," she told the daily Die Welt.

She said that rather than regulating clothing, Germany would be better served by expanding integration efforts.

"You have to convince people to no longer want (the burqa). We must ensure that Muslims and migrants emancipate themselves but that will take time."

News website Spiegel Online was more forceful in its opposition, saying that German conservatives "apparently have so little faith in the attractiveness of values such as individual freedom and equal rights that they think bans are necessary".

- IS threat 'already there' -

"With a burqa ban, Germany ends up on a par with Iran and Saudi Arabia -- countries where the government decides what a woman can wear in public."

De Maiziere's position represents a compromise with hardliners ahead of two pivotal regional polls next month in which the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party looks set to make strong gains.

Just last week he had rejected a call from conservative state interior ministers for a sweeping burqa ban, saying: "We can't ban everything that we reject, and I reject the wearing of the burqa."

He made the comments on August 11 as he unveiled tough new anti-terror measures after two attacks in Germany last month claimed by the Islamic State group.

They included a controversial proposal to strip jihadist fighters of their German nationality, as well as to speed up deportations of convicted criminal migrants and boost police resources.

The AfD in particular has attempted to link the record influx of migrants and refugees last year to an increased threat of terrorism -- an argument Merkel sharply rejected this week on the campaign trail in her home district.

"The phenomenon of Islamist terrorism by IS is not something that came to us with the refugees -- it was already there," she said, referring to the threat posed by homegrown militants.