Refugees’ bad be­hav­ior saps Merkel’s good will, pop­u­lar­ity

Chan­cel­lor takes aim at Mus­lims be­fore elec­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEN­NIFER COLLINS

BERLIN | A year ago, she was the lead­ing voice in Europe lec­tur­ing her con­stituents about the moral obli­ga­tion to take in hun­dreds of thou­sands of mostly Mus­lim refugees flee­ing from Syria and other global cri­sis spots.

But at her party con­ven­tion this month, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel came out force­fully for a ban on Is­lamic face veils, or burqas, wher­ever “legally pos­si­ble,” and vowed never to al­low a re­peat of the surge of refugees that has split her party and the na­tion.

“A sit­u­a­tion like that of the sum­mer of 2015 can­not and should not be re­peated,” the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union leader re­as­sured her mem­bers gath­ered in the city of Essen, as the party pre­pared for what could be a dif­fi­cult gen­eral elec­tion bat­tle next year. “This was and re­mains our de­clared po­lit­i­cal goal.”

The shift — in rhetoric and pol­icy — rep­re­sented a re­mark­able and out-of-char­ac­ter about-face for the three-term chan­cel­lor, a de­par­ture from her trade­mark tech­no­cratic, low-key, no-non­sense style that re­flects the shift­ing po­lit­i­cal winds in Europe, an­a­lysts said.

“Right-wing pop­ulist par­ties are get­ting more

and more sup­port among the peo­ple,” said Gero Neuge­bauer, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Free Univer­sity of Berlin. “So far, they are afraid of a back­lash in Ger­many, too. That would mean the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union would lose power in the next elec­tion.”

Ms. Merkel will run for her fourth term as chan­cel­lor next fall, but her on­ceen­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity has waned since she de­cided to ac­cept 1 mil­lion refugees into her coun­try. In Septem­ber, her ap­proval rat­ings hit a five-year low of 45 per­cent.

A series of shock elec­tion re­sults this year have given the far-right party, the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, or AfD, seats in 10 out of 16 state as­sem­blies, in­clud­ing in the chan­cel­lor’s home state of Meck­len­burg-Vor­pom­mern and even in ul­tra­l­ib­eral Berlin.

With the AfD at 13 per­cent in na­tion­wide polls and the pop­ulist right gain­ing ground across Europe, the Ger­man chan­cel­lor has come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from her own rul­ing coali­tion, which in­cludes the more so­cially con­ser­va­tive Bavaria-based Chris­tian So­cial Union, to tilt right­ward, said an­a­lysts.

Her re­cent op­po­si­tion to the burqa, seen as a sym­bol of con­ser­va­tive Is­lamic prac­tices and a den­i­gra­tion of women, and the Euro­pean Union’s refugee deal with Turkey sig­nal her move to ap­peal to wary Ger­man vot­ers. An es­ti­mated 58 per­cent put the han­dling of refugees and in­te­gra­tion at the top of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal agenda.

Burqa crit­ics say the all-cover­ing dress harms the cause of in­te­gra­tion of Mus­lims into Ger­man so­ci­ety, but le­gal schol­ars say a to­tal ban would vi­o­late the Ger­man Con­sti­tu­tion. Ms. Merkel stunned her party when she an­nounced her po­si­tion in fa­vor of a ban and that she would also op­pose any ef­fort to sub­sti­tute Is­lam-based Shariah law for Ger­man law.

“The full veil is not ap­pro­pri­ate here; it should be for­bid­den wher­ever that is legally pos­si­ble,” Ms. Merkel told party del­e­gates, who pro­ceeded to ap­prove her po­si­tion as party leader head­ing into the vote next fall. “It does not be­long to us.”

The re­marks met with thun­der­ous ap­plause from CDU party ac­tivists.

“The Chris­tian Democrats have to find a way to min­i­mize th­ese prob­lems or the im­por­tance of th­ese prob­lems for the elec­tion,” said Mr. Neuge­bauer.

‘Strangers’ in their coun­try

Ger­mans’ re­sent­ment of Mus­lims has in­creased in di­rect pro­por­tion to the in­flux of refugees that reached a high tide in 2015.

Half of Ger­mans sur­veyed said Mus­lims made them feel “like strangers in their own coun­try,” a Univer­sity of Leipzig poll found this sum­mer, up from

about 32 per­cent in 2009. Some 41 per­cent in the poll said the gov­ern­ment should block Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion.

A series of vi­o­lent at­tacks that gar­nered head­lines across the coun­try have fu­eled the fear. The turn­ing point for many was over New Year’s Eve, when groups of men be­lieved to be Mus­lim im­mi­grants sex­u­ally as­saulted hun­dreds of women at Cologne’s main train sta­tion.

Ger­many had not ex­pe­ri­enced the kind of ji­hadi vi­o­lence that re­sulted in spec­tac­u­lar at­tacks in coun­tries such as Bri­tain, Spain and France, but that changed this year as well. Dur­ing the sum­mer, a sui­cide bomber struck out­side a wine bar in south­ern Ger­many, in­jur­ing 12 peo­ple. A series of other vi­o­lent at­tacks in­volv­ing refugees with weapons and knives sparked grow­ing pub­lic anger about un­ruly refugees and the in­abil­ity of Ger­man so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions to han­dle the crush.

For some, in­clud­ing the AfD, the events served to con­firm that Is­lam posed a threat to Ger­man po­lit­i­cal ideals and the rule of law.

“Is­lam as a re­li­gion claims in most of its in­ter­pre­ta­tions po­lit­i­cal power,

and it’s the view of many that Is­lamic laws trump na­tional po­lit­i­cal laws,” said Beatrix von Storch, an AfD mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. “Mus­lims can in­deed be in­te­grated into Ger­man so­ci­ety, but they need to give up this sense of po­lit­i­cal power.”

Re­flect­ing the mood in the coun­try was also the up­roar this week over the ap­point­ment of a Mus­lim wo­man to a top-level job in Berlin’s city gov­ern­ment.

Mayor Michael Mueller, a So­cial Demo­crat, hired Sawsan Che­bli, 38, even af­ter it was learned that she made pos­i­tive re­marks about Is­lam-based Shariah law.

Sen­sa­tional news­pa­per head­lines de­cried Ms. Che­bli for al­legedly want­ing to im­pose Shariah in Europe and say­ing the re­li­gious-based le­gal code was com­pat­i­ble with Ger­man laws. Law­mak­ers in Ms. Merkel’s party called for her ouster.

Ms. Che­bli’s de­fend­ers say her views were badly mis­rep­re­sented in the midst of the ris­ing pop­ulist hys­te­ria over Mus­lims. In an Au­gust in­ter­view with the Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung, she said Shariah “reg­u­lates the re­la­tion­ship be­tween God and peo­ple” and gov­erns

only re­li­gious be­hav­ior such as pray­ing, fast­ing and alms.

Ms. Che­bli’s par­ents were Pales­tini­ans who sought asy­lum in Ger­many in 1970. In the in­ter­view, she said doesn’t wear a head­scarf but does ab­stain from al­co­hol and con­sid­ers her fam­ily pi­ous.

“As a demo­crat, that poses ab­so­lutely no prob­lem for me in daily life. Rather, it is ab­so­lutely com­pat­i­ble, as is the case for Chris­tians and Jews and oth­ers,” she said in the news­pa­per in­ter­view. She added that she and most other Mus­lims re­spected Ger­many’s free­dom of re­li­gion.

Erika As­geirs­son, a fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton-based ac­tivist group Hu­man Rights First, wrote on the group’s blog that Ms. Merkel’s burqa com­ments “demon­strate how the toxic rhetoric of far­right par­ties is pulling more main­stream par­ties to the ex­tremes.”

“Al­though Merkel has pre­vi­ously ex­pressed her dis­ap­proval of burqas and seemed to sup­port a par­tial ban … her spot­light­ing this is­sue is clearly a re­sponse to po­lit­i­cal trends,” Ms. As­geirs­son said.

Mean­while, refugees to Ger­many said they un­der­stood the suspicion of

Mus­lims but hoped the anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment would sub­side.

“We can’t for­get that more than 1 mil­lion [refugees] came to Ger­many,” said Tamem al Sakka, a refugee from Syria. “It is not easy for Ger­mans be­cause not all of th­ese mil­lion [peo­ple] are good. Some of them are good, some very bad. It’s like any­where.”

Mr. al Sakka ar­rived two years ago with his fam­ily from Homs in western Syria. He has learned the Ger­man lan­guage, and his chil­dren at­tend school in Berlin. His 10-year-old daugh­ter, he said, is his Ger­man teacher. He opened a shop sell­ing Syr­ian sweet treats six months ago with his brother in Neukolln, a heav­ily im­mi­grant bor­ough in the Ger­man cap­i­tal.

In Neukolln, restau­rants sell­ing Mid­dle Eastern-style ke­babs stand side by side with those sell­ing Ger­man dishes such as bratwurst and sauer­kraut. For Mr. al Sakka, it’s im­por­tant that he works, pays his bills and gives some­thing back to the coun­try that has granted him sanc­tu­ary.

He has one mes­sage for his Ger­man neigh­bors: “Don’t be afraid of Is­lam.”


‘STRANGERS’ Since 1 mil­lion mostly Mus­lim refugees surged into Ger­many last year, an es­ti­mated 58 per­cent of vot­ers polled have put im­mi­gra­tion and in­te­gra­tion at the top of the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal agenda.

ABOUT-FACE: Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel is shift­ing her rhetoric and pol­icy on Mus­lim refugees as right-wing pop­ulist par­ties gain sup­port.

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