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German Interior Minister Calls For Laws To Protect Country's Culture

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Germany's interior minister said this week it is time for Germans to embrace their roots. The interior minister said asylum seekers and other immigrants should adapt to German culture or get out. He's not the only politician talking this way. The lower house of Germany's parliament last week passed a partial ban on the burka, face coverings worn by some Muslim women in public. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is covering this story from Berlin. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, embrace their roots. What does the interior minister mean by that exactly?

NELSON: Well, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere laid this out in 10 theses, if you will, in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. He tried explaining, you know, Germany is an open society. We show our face. We shake hands. We are not the burka. And the burka that he's referring to is this all-encompassing covering that some Muslims wear to hide their bodies and faces. So basically, what he was saying is that people should embrace their German roots, embrace the German language, embrace German culture and that immigrants who come to Germany and don't do so aren't going to fit in well there and should, you know, pretty much leave.

I mean, he doesn't spell it out in very direct terms, but that's certainly the implication.

INSKEEP: And when he says 10 theses, it makes me think of Martin Luther, of all things, "The 95 Theses," this protest against the direction of events. He's trying to make a strong statement here is what he's doing.

NELSON: He certainly is. And it is the 500th anniversary of those theses. But pretty much what he's doing here, though, contradicts what his - what the chancellor, who's his boss, has been saying about Islam being a part of Germany, especially because he's referring to the burka. The other thing that he talks about, which created some controversy here, is that he's talking about that Germans should embrace enlightened patriotism.

In other words, that they should love their country but not hate others. And he tries to differentiate that from German nationalism, which he says is dead.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention for the American audience that Germany's in the middle of an election campaign. Could this have anything to do with the interior minister raising this subject at this time?

NELSON: Well, certainly that's what his critics say, both on the right and the left. The voters that he might be appealing to with this sort of thing are ones that have been going to the populist Alternative for Germany party. And their co-chair tweeted that, yes, this is an election ploy in their eyes. But there's also concern on the part of people who are concerned about this, you know, the critics, that are saying that it's the German constitution that should dominate, not the German culture when it comes to how Germany conducts itself and what people who come here should be embracing.

INSKEEP: OK, so the interior minister is laying out these theses, which are just ideas. It's a political platform. But we mentioned that the legislature is also talking about a law. What would the burka ban really do in practical terms?

NELSON: It's a pretty watered-down version of what was initially planned because the fear is that it wouldn't stand up in court. So what this amounts to, what the lower house of parliament has passed, would apply to Germans or anybody working within the German government or military or schools who wears a full or partial face veil. And reporters who've looked into that here say that amounts to zero employees.

What it does do that's interesting, though, if it's passed is it gives authorities power, which they don't have now, to be able to demand that women whose faces are covered, that they have to lift their veil so that their appearance can be checked against their IDs. So if that happens, Germany will be joining a growing number of European countries with a partial or full ban on face veils.

INSKEEP: OK, at least symbolically important. Soraya, thanks very much, as always.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.