Symbolism or solution: Bavaria plans to introduce a burqa ban in the public sector

The government of Bavaria, one of Germany’s sixteen federal states, has announced plans for legislation banning Muslim women from wearing a burqa or niqab in selective contexts. The proposed measures apply to public sector personnel, security forces, as well as teaching staff at pre-school, school, and university levels. Moreover, casting a vote at the ballot box will also no longer be possible while wearing a face covering.

Saving the occident

Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, justified the planned measure by arguing that “a liberal democratic conception of values of a Christian-occidental imprint requires a culture of open communication”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf ))

The language used by Herrmann highlights that the initiative is not driven by the attempt to solve real problems of civic participation and engagement but rather by ‘civilisational’ categories and anxieties. It also demonstrates the continued willingness of the CSU, Bavaria’s conservative ruling party, to hanker after the populist vote, even if this means using the terminology of the far-right Pegida movement that claims to defend the “occident” against its Islamisation.

Return of the burqa question

Over the course of the last year, Muslim women’s dress has periodically returned to the top of the German political agenda. After two incidents of violence linked to the ‘Islamic State’ in July, a group of conservative interior ministers demanded a “burqa ban”.

Subsequently, in December, the CDU party congress shifted to the right on a number of issues, including the burqa: at the conference, Chancellor Merkel herself demanded that the burqa be banned “wherever this is legally possible” and defined the face veil as alien to German culture and values.

Constitutional strictures

Merkel’s statement shows her attempt to pacify her vociferous inner-party opponents who demand a tougher line on immigration and Islam. Yet it also demonstrates her awareness that a generalised ban of the burqa in the public sphere – comparable to the provisions enacted in France – would most likely be struck down by the German Constitutional Court.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

The proposed Bavarian legislation appears to take these constitutional limitations seriously by eschewing an across-the-board interdiction of face coverings. While the Bavarian interior minister noted that his administration may attempt a generalised ban in the future, the current legislative proposal only prohibits burqa and niqab in a set of relatively precise circumstances.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/burka-verbot-bayern-beschliesst-verbot-von-gesichtsverhuellung/19421880.html ))

It is worth noting, however, that the Federal Ministry of Justice in Berlin even expressed reservations about the constitutionality of such a limited ban, currently also envisaged by the national government.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/leitkultur-im-abendland-justizministerium-sieht-geplantes-schleierverbot-als-risiko/19401666.html ))

A proposal of limited utility

In any case, the very restrictedness of the Bavarian bill is also one of the features that will most likely undermine its novelty and utility in practice: in fact, employers, including public sector institutions, already appear to possess the ability to reject applicants wearing a burqa or a niqab.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2017-02/bayern-verschleierung-verbot-burka-nikab-gericht ))

In the past, courts denied a high school pupil and a university student the right to wear a full face covering because it hampered theirability to communicate in class. Similarly, legal professionals affirmed the right of public sector employers to demand that their employees be able to communicate effectively with their clientele.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/verbotsdebatte-burka-verbieten-geht-das-ueberhaupt-1.3123311 ))

It is, in other words, unclear whether the Bavarian selective burqa ban will fundamentally alter the existing legal framework. Beyond this, it seems questionable whether among the few burqa-wearing women in Bavaria—their numbers appear to range in the double digits at best—many would even consider applying for a public sector position. The Bavarian interior minister confirmed that there is not a single burqa-clad woman employed in the state’s public sector today.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/kindergaerten-schulen-und-co-bayern-will-gesichtsverhuellungen-verbieten_id_6683765.html ))

Political symbolism

The Munich government’s initiative on the full face veil is therefore a largely symbolic move—yet a potentially powerful one: in an August 2016 survey, more than 50 per cent of Germans demanded a general ban of burqa and niqab. A further third of respondents expressed their support for a partial ban.(( http://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-08/burka-verbot-debatte-mehrheit-der-deutschen ))

Yet given its largely symbolic nature, the measure is also unlikely to effectively address the dynamic of religious isolation and radicalisation that it ostentatiously seeks to tackle. Those women who wish to wear a face covering will not be deterred by the ban; and those who are forced to do so will not be supported in their quest for self-determination.

Question of the hijab

Nor, of course, does prohibiting burqa-wearing women from working for the public sector solve the much more relevant question of how the state should position itself vis-à-vis Muslim job applicants wearing the hijab. In this area, the legal situation in Bavaria (as well as in many other German states) is still in flux.

The Bavarian interior minister intimated that employees in the public sector should be held to the standards of religious and ideological “neutrality”.(( http://www.bayern.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/170221-Ministerrat.pdf )) This might point to a willingness to move towards a laicité-style banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere, as is currently in force in the state of Berlin.(( http://gesetze.berlin.de/jportal/portal/t/iaf/page/bsbeprod.psml?pid=Dokumentanzeige&showdoccase=1&js_peid=Trefferliste&fromdoctodoc=yes&doc.id=jlr-VerfArt29GBE2005pP2&doc.part=X&doc.price=0.0&doc.hl=0 )) At the same time, however, Bavaria’s strong Catholic heritage continues to militate against too harsh a curtailment of religious expression in the public sphere.

Wealthy shoppers from the Gulf

Muslim figures have mostly remained silent on the renewed push for a ban on face coverings, perhaps reflecting their limited interest in the burqa question or their exasperation with the topic.

In any case, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted, the only significant crowd of fully veiled women in Bavaria are wealthy shoppers from the Gulf propping up Munich’s large luxury retail sector and the city’s health clinics.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/vollverschleierung-mit-dem-burka-verbot-loest-bayern-ein-problem-das-es-nicht-gibt-1.3388963 )) As of now, the Bavarian government continues to welcome them and their ample purchasing power with open arms.

Saudi student may have been murdered because she was wearing a hijab

June 18, 2014

Detectives are investigating whether a Saudi student was murdered in a frenzied knife attack because her traditional Islamic dress marked her out as a Muslim. Nahid Almanea, a 31-year-old student at the University of Essex, was wearing a hijab and a full-length navy blue robe, called an abaya, when she was knifed to death on a footpath in Colchester on Tuesday morning. She died at the scene from injuries to her head and body, said police. Ms Almanea arrived in Britain several months ago with her younger brother to study at the university, according to a fellow student.

Nothing was stolen from Ms Almanea and police have asked residents living on the nearby Greenstead estate to check their bins for a discarded weapon. “We are also conscious the dress of the victim will have identified her as likely being a Muslim and this is one of the main lines of the investigation but again there is no firm evidence at this time that she was targeted because of her religion,” said Detective Superintendent Tracy Hawkings. A 52-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder and was being held at a police station last night.

Officers are also looking at possible links with the murder of James Attfield, a vulnerable man with brain damage, who died after being stabbed more than 100 times at a park in the town in March. “There are some immediate similarities between this murder and that of James Attfield but there are also a large number of differences as well,” said the detective. “There is no current known motive for this attack and we are keeping an open mind and exploring all possible avenues of investigation.”