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Germany’s shift toward a burqa ban

Faith's role

German leader Angela Merkel, once opposed to a ban on face veils, now favors them in certain public places. As much of Europe moves toward such bans, it must debate them with both practicality and compassion.

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A voter, left, confirms his address with a poll worker before casting a ballot on Nov. 8 in the Boro Park neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The neighborhood has a large population of Jewish and Muslim citizens.

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If anyone can be called the leader of Europe, it is Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. For 11 years, both her strong values and her country’s influence have helped calm the Continent during many crises. Yet after a surge of Muslim migrants in 2015 and a string of terrorist attacks began to boost anti-Islam parties, she has decided to change her stance on an issue that has gained ground from Bulgaria to Norway. She now supports a ban on face-covering veils in public.

Just two months ago, Ms. Merkel rejected such a ban. “Liberty protects the freedom to be different,” she said, “and diversity is a logical consequence of freedom.” But on Tuesday, she told her party, the Christian Democratic Union, that the full veil must be banned “wherever it is legally possible.”

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About 80 percent of Germans support a ban on burqas – the full veil worn by orthodox Muslim women – in public places. Facing a tough reelection race in 2017, Merkel may have decided she must address this fear of the majority. Her interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, had already proposed a partial ban. It would focus on places where security is needed to identify a person’s face, such as in government offices, courtrooms, schools, and street protests. But he also said a ban is necessary “for our society’s coexistence,” a reference to cultural integration and not merely safety.

France was the first country in Europe to ban the full veil in public places with a law that took effect in 2011. About 1,500 women have since been fined under that law. Other governments are trying their own variations. If Germany adopts a ban, the rest of Europe may follow.

The safety concerns over covered faces are real. What school would let a veiled person pick up a child? Police, judges, and other law officials need to see faces. The unfortunate part of this debate is that it seems to target a religion when religion is what is needed to calm the debate.

All the major faiths – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – offer ways to overcome the kind of fears and resentments that are a cause of violence and discrimination. They teach compassion and charity as counterpoints to hate and revenge.

Societies need to create and preserve their sense of identity, preferably one bound by obligations and affections as well as by individual freedom. Religion helps balance liberty and a moral order with its call for a kind of love that can quell fears.

A good example are two groups in the United States – NewGround and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom – that foster interfaith understanding. When Muslims have faced discrimination, such as last month when mosques in California received a threatening letter, Jews and Christians have come to their aid.

“We are here because we love each other and we’re overcoming hate” says Sheryl Olitzky, executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

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Debates over burqa bans must be done along this line of reasoning. Muslim women who prefer to cover their faces must be persuaded less by force and more by gentle persuasion. Many secular spaces of society deserve protection from hidden faces. But that task is easy when those of faith first find a common ground at the heart of their religions.