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

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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”.1) 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.2) 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.3) 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.4) 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.5) 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.6) 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.7) 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.8) 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”.9) 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.10) 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.11) 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.

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