BERLIN — In a country struggling to come to terms with a massive influx of Muslim refugees, the image struck a national nerve: German Chancellor Angela Merkel peering out from a black veil, her pious face juxtaposed against a national Parliament building Photoshopped to include soaring minarets.
German public broadcaster ARD this week flashed the image on national television while airing a segment that quickly went viral and triggered an uproar on social media. The network called it satire, a way to capture the mounting sense of national angst over a refugee surge to Germany that could top 1 million by year’s end. But the image was nevertheless blasted by critics across Germany as blatant Islamophobia.
The image did, however, get one thing right: As Germans wrangle over the region’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, Merkel is in the eye of the storm.
The woman known as the Iron Chancellor — and the same leader who brought the bankrupt Greeks to their knees last summer — has now put her political future on the line by showing a far kinder face to the Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing war. In a region where other leaders have been far less compassionate, Merkel’s voice of sympathy is so notable that her name is now even being bandied about as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Germany has gotten tougher in recent weeks — vowing to rapidly deport financial migrants and reinstating border checks to control the flows. But Merkel has also told Germans to prepare themselves for a new nation, one that may not be as white and Christian as it is today.
In the face of domestic criticism, she has remained unbowed: “If we have to apologize for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country,” Merkel recently said.
As emotions here run high over how and whether to integrate hundreds of thousands of newcomers into German life, few incidents encapsulate the debate over Merkel’s stance better than the firestorm over the ARD image.
Left Party activist Robert Fietzke compared it to something out of the playbook of Germany’s far-right Pegida movement. “Pegida could not have done it better,” he tweeted.
Petra Seeger of Berlin posted a reprimand on the network’s Facebook page that brought to mind a series of fires being set across Germany at refugee centers: “The Reichstag with minarets — Merkel in a veil . . . THIS IS INTELLECTUAL ARSON OF THE WORST KIND!!!”
The daily Berliner Zeitung ran a commentary Tuesday arguing that ARD had gone too far. “Does a public television broadcaster . . . have the right to show chancellor Merkel veiled by a black chador against a background of the Reichstag compound dotted with minarets? . . . Yes. The ARD does have the right. But it should not do it. Because by doing so, it stokes up resentment and fear toward people who need our help,” commentator Melanie Reinsch wrote.
The wave of criticism prompted the network to justify its use of the image, posting a statement on its Facebook page saying: “We regret that some people did not agree with our depiction of the chancellor or even misunderstood it. . . . Due to our understanding of journalism, we are considering this exaggerated way of representation legitimate. We strongly reject every accusation that we’re engaging in Islamophobic propaganda.”
But in a country where many are growing uncomfortable with the newcomers — particularly as mass fights and riots are breaking out between refugees at German shelters — others also hailed the image as brave.
“It was great what you did, to show her true face,” user Reb Richard from southern Germany said in a post on the network’s Facebook page. “For years she has been U.S. chancellor, and now she is a traitor of her own people and an Islamic chancellor. If she gets the Nobel Peace Prize, [Volkswagen] should get the prize for the environment.”
For a chancellor known for leading by consensus within her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her open stance flies in the face of her politics-as-usual. As a result, she is taking heat and alienating some members of her own cabinet and party. Earlier this week, for instance, 34 state politicians from the CDU sent a letter to Merkel accusing the chancellor of breaking national and European law with her “policy of open borders.”
“The majority of refugees stem from countries whose dominant models of society differ significantly from our Western values,” the letter read.
Marc Reinhardt, a lawmaker in the East German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where Merkel began her political career, was one of those who signed it. In an interview, he suggested the German leader should listen more to those who are deeply concerned about the wave of newcomers.
“You can feel that people in Germany are afraid and don’t understand that their country should solve the refugee crisis on its own,” Reinhardt said.
But, he added, the ARD image of Merkel in a veil went too far.
“For me, satire has limits,” he said.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.