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 once-enduring 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,” Mr. Neugebauer said.
‘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 far-right 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.”