Merkel Is Wrong About Veils

Trouble on the far right.

Photographer: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech to her party this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany, “wherever legally possible,” ought to ban veils that cover the face, and emphasized that German law should not give way to Shariah law.

Her audience cheered -- but that only confirmed Merkel’s mistake. Pandering to grievances, real or imagined, rarely works. Sometimes it’s meant to soothe such feelings, as it presumably was in this case. Usually, though, it inflames them and makes matters worse. 

There’s no denying the stresses caused by the recent wave of refugees arriving in Germany. Successful immigration requires a high degree of absorption and assimilation, and that’s a challenge when the influx is large or abrupt. Merkel, acting in the spirit of compassion and generosity, had earlier announced something close to an open-door policy. The backlash was predictable.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Now, elections are coming up in Germany, and Merkel rightly wants to deny support to the far-right AfD party, whose anti-immigrant thinking is driven not by prudence but by outright racism. In response, Merkel’s newly hardened position is both weak on the merits and plain bad tactics.

It’s weak because the full-face veil is not much seen in Germany -- and who’s actually claiming that Shariah law should overrule German law? The effect of her statement is not to encourage assimilation, but merely to convey sympathy with the anti-immigrant worldview. Hence, bad tactics: Flattering such thinking is no way to overcome it. She’s as good as conceding that the AfD has a point.

Instead, Merkel should say that future inflows of immigrants will be regulated more cautiously, and that adequate resources for managing and accepting the arrivals will be made available. She shouldn’t make light of the difficulties, as she did initially. At the same time, though, she should insist that the migrants who have already arrived ought not to be frowned upon or treated with disrespect. They will follow the law, and be welcomed as neighbors; they’ll be expected to be good neighbors in return. But with only limited exceptions (for instance, proof of identity during security checks), religious belief and customs remain matters of private conscience, not the concern of the state.

Merkel has been a strong and compassionate leader of Germany and the European Union. No better candidate for the role has yet to come forward. Which makes it all the more disappointing to see her respond to anti-Muslim sentiment this way.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.