Burqas, bans and WWII
Yesterday, Angela Merkel lent her support to a Burqaverbot or Burqa ban in Germany. I found out, as many people do, via social media. Angela Merkel was, and at the time of writing, is still a trending topic on the platform. Reading the responses to the news, my first thought was “Surely this is a mistake, I know that would be unconstitutional”. The thread contained what we have come to expect from social media; left wingers decrying the decision, right wingers supporting the Chancellor and everyone else either ramping up the rhetoric or making a variety of jokes. What was interesting was that all the articles, tweets and comments were in English. This is no surprise. Social media and the internet are dominated by English speakers, both native and non-native. However, thanks to resources like the ‘Breaking News Consumer Handbook’ from WNYC and my own experiences of German and UK news reporting, I am aware at how stories can be quickly distorted. Germans and German media outlets can often misread the UK and vice versa, so it is always advisable to double check. Checking those sources I have a measure of trust in (Der Spiegel, Deutsche Welle and Südduestche Zeitung) the lead story was not ‘Merkel bans Burqa’, but ‘Merkel gains CDU nomination’. In most articles at that point, Burqaverbot was merely a small footnote, if it was even mentioned.
Before long, I was able to find a video of Merkel’s speech. If I’m honest, watching German politicians speak is rarely a highlight of my day, even more so when it comes to the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), but as an English speaker in Germany, it’s interesting to see how my native country and my adopted country report and interact with news, especially with the looming Brexit negotiations. I skipped around until I found what I was looking for, a video of the actual speech. Merkel said:
“In interpersonal communication, which plays a fundamental role here, we show our face, and that is why the full face veil is inappropriate in our country. It should be banned wherever legally possible. It does not belong in our country.”
The stand out phrase in all of this was “wherever legally possible”. This made it abundantly clear that Merkel wasn’t even sure whether it was actually possible. Despite this uncharacteristic grey area in German speech, the hall of CDU supporters and representatives gave the biggest cheer of the day.
The reason for uncertainty is clear with just a cursory look at the Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland or The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany. I will refrain from delving too deeply, but Articles 1 through 5 (Human dignity, Personal freedoms, Equality before the law, Freedom of faith and conscience and Freedom of expression) would make any Burqua ban a legal minefield. Merkel, I am sure, knows this and is simply trying to out manoeuvre the right wing AfD, who currently occupy the political mind of Germany. The Basic Law of Germany is, in my mind, one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever written, the purpose of which was to ensure that Germany would never again be ruled by a dictator. Human rights and human dignity are central tenets, with democracy, personal responsibility and republicanism further enshrined. These latter points, although occasionally reworded, cannot be removed or repealed through a normal process, with articles 1-20 being protected by an eternity clause. Although I’m not so naive as to suggest any political document is bullet proof, the German Basic Law was written by a country that had looked the past directly in the eye and resolved to never repeat it.
It is for these reasons and perhaps my overprotective nature when it comes to Germany that I was so disappointed with the majority of social media’s reactions to Merkel’s speech. I was not unsurprised by the right wingers, since Brexit and Trump’s election the extreme right-wing, white supremacists and Nazi’s have come out of the wood work for all to see. Their uninformed invective, fuelled by bigotry, is the new Zeitgeist that society is struggling to comprehend and confront. What disappointed me most was the reaction of many supposedly moderate or left leaning commentators. Many comments revolved around the idea that Germany hasn’t learned a thing from its past, one in particular read “Watch a room of German politicians clapping as their party leader calls to ban dress associated with one religion.”. Another stated “Germany persecuting religious minorities, because that ended so well last time...”. These groups claimed islamophobia, while at the same time denigrating an entire country. For these people, Germany will always be fair game, no matter what happens. Germany must always be watched, just in case they do what we all know they are capable of. At the same time as they watch Germany for signs of a Nazi redux, the English speaking world is under a sustained attack from the same forces they fear are continually on the rise in Germany.
The UK and America, the focal points of the native-English speaking world, will always frame their discussions around their personal histories. Every country does. However, for almost a century the narrative has been, “we are the good guys, we are the ones who stand for freedom”, partially because they did do exactly that during World War II. Fascism is a problem of Germany or Italy, despots and demagogues are for Eastern Europe or Russia, not for us. At least that used to be the case. Now it seems these bastions of freedom are no longer as secure as in the past. The moderates of both the US and the UK have recoiled in horror at the realisation that their own countries have been incubating opinions that were once the preserve of horrifying periods in other countries histories.
The greatest mistake, one that Germany has attempted to negate with its constitution, is to think that our own countries are immune to the disease of fascism. This mistake leads us to believe that if we had been alive during the Nazi era or lived in Communist Russia, we would have fought against the totalitarian regimes and their excesses. In reality, terrifyingly, if you had been alive in Nazi Germany, you would have been a Nazi. If you had been alive in Communist Russia, you would have been a Communist. You might have disagreed internally, but you would not have been out on the street or even in your home voicing that opinion. Had you criticised these regimes, you would have been disappeared, as many in those periods were. Fear kept in line and duty made normal people commit the foulest of acts. As we might now realise, extremism isn’t just the preserve of Jihadis and Fascism is not simply a German “thing”.
I’m not a German constitutional expert, but living in Germany gives you a good sense of what is true and what is false when people discuss the topic of my adopted home. In the same vein, when the German media or German friends discuss the UK, I am in some position to dispel rumours or half truths. I’m also not an expert on Islam, but I try to understand the discussions and arguments for and against wearing the Burqa. I don’t believe the burqa is compatible with European liberal ideals, but I understand why people will argue that it not be banned. I do appreciate it is a highly complex debate, there is no clear or easy path. No country owns freedom and no country is immune from extremes. Fascism and extremism comes at you in small steps, it is up to us to watch against it.