Why Southern Germany Has Declared War on Burqas and Muslims

Niqab Muslim Protest
A young Muslim women wearing a niqab holds a placard reading "Stop baiting Islam" as she attends a demonstration in downtown Frankfurt, Germany, April 20, 2011. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Germany's conservative Catholic state of Bavaria is pushing ahead with a ban on the full Islamic face veil, set to come into effect from August 1. The state's parliament approved the ban Thursday.

Coming soon before September's German election, and after controversial bans on Islamic clothing in other European nations, the ban has already sparked debate. Here's what you need to know.

What does the ban cover?

The ruling is a regional policy, enforced in Bavaria, a southern state which is politically more right-wing than most of Germany.

After the end of July, public servants will be banned from wearing face veils in the state including the burqa, which covers all of the face, and the niqab, which leaves the eyes uncovered.

The veils will also be banned from educational institutions, and from polling stations.

Why is this happening?

The Bavarian law states that it is important for society that people are able to see each others' faces.

Face-to-face contact "forms the basis of our interpersonal coexistence, and is the basis of our society and of the free democratic order," it says. In this, it follows a resolution adopted earlier this year by the pan-European conservative European People's Party, which said: "seeing one another's faces is an integral part of human interaction in Europe."

But there is a political context to this as well. Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), which runs Bavaria at state level, are both center-right groups conscious of the electoral threat from the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The AfD promises a full ban on the burqa as well as on other public expressions of the Islamic faith, such as minarets; the party has capitalized on opposition to the arrival of more than a million refugees, many of them Muslims, into Germany since 2015.

But the AfD, which is miles from government, doesn't have to worry about practicalities. Germany's constitution contains sweeping protections for the freedom of religion, and a full ban on face veils—like the one France instituted in 2011—would probably be deemed unconstitutional.

Instead, the CDU has pledged to explore options for partial bans, like the one Bavaria is now instituting.

Will it be effective?

That all depends on what effect you're talking about.

Politically, the CDU and CSU's attempts to meet the AfD halfway on issues like security, migration and Islam have paid off. The hard-right party has sunk in opinion polls from almost 15 percent support for much of last year to generally below 10 percent support now.

But it's far from clear whether, in terms of its actual effects, a ban on face veils is necessary or desirable.

Only around 4 percent of the Bavarian population was Muslim as of 2016. It's not known how many of those wear face veils; many of Germany's Muslims are Turkish due to long-established links between the two countries, and less likely to wear full veils than many other ethnic groups.

And in France, experts say, far from encouraging integration, the effect of the veil ban has actually been to alienate Muslims and lead them to believe that the state is not on their side. "You end up with a kind of culture war," Alan Coffee, a lecturer in political philosophy at King's College London, told Newsweek in April.