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A long-contested ban preventing Frankfurt's female public employees from wearing burqas has been settled in court, but the vitriol continues online.

Opposition to Burqas has spread. This graffiti from Australia (Beau Giles)

FRANKFURT – A Frankfurt city employee may have lost a long-running battle to wear a burqa to work, but the debate is still raging on the Internet, where the woman's demand to cover her face has become a lightening rod for growing anti-Muslim sentiment.

"She shouldn't just be made to leave city hall, but the whole of Germany," scrawled one user on a newspaper forum last week, following the woman's decision to quit her job. Another reader complained that she would probably now claim unemployment benefits and survive at the expense of German taxpayers.

Internet forums in Germany are overflowing with comments, some of them bristling with racism. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany is concerned this incident could have negative repercussions for Muslim women who just wear simple headscarves. The local branch of the Foreigner's Advisory Board in the state of Hesse, the administrative region in which Frankfurt is situated, has warned of a setback in the integration process.

A mountain of e-mails

A long-time employee of the Frankfurt city council, the woman in question provoked uproar when she announced that for religious reasons she would be returning to work fully veiled after her maternity leave. Indignation broke out all over Germany, and the city council responded with a clear statement that the employee must show her face while serving the public. Still, the local authority continued to be bombarded with e-mails and phone calls, with a range of positions. "This is something we've never experienced before," said head of personnel Markus Frank.

Many people wrote long e-mails telling the council to stick to its initial position on the matter. However, as the local authority concedes: "There were a few who overshot the mark." Some mails containing "stupid sentiments' were deleted immediately, but most of the letters were treated seriously.

Last Thursday, the woman's employment was terminated by mutual consent. Everyone involved is said to have been relieved the employee was willing to cooperate. "The debate has been closed," said Frank. The office received another avalanche of emails on Friday from people who were happy the authority had not given ground in the conflict, Frank said.

Stereotypes are being reinforced

Online, however, the debate still rages. One user wrote on a forum that he would have preferred to see woman and her children expelled from Germany altogether. Corrado di Benedetto, head of Hesse's Foreigner's Advisory Board, complains the debate has revived the wave of anti-Muslim attitudes that accompanied last year's release of ex-federal banker Thilo Sarrazin's controversial Germany Does Away With Itself on the Islamization of the country.

Internet users have been likening the wearing of the burqa to acts of terrorism. One user writes that the garment is "the right attire for beekeepers and people wearing explosive belts." Others complain about Muslim provocation and insist that "tolerance has its limits."

Nurhan Soykan, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said that although the Frankfurt woman's case was an isolated incident, it could reinforce existing suspicion of Muslim women with headscarves in the workplace. She said employers may now begin to worry that their female Muslim employees will suddenly turn up to work one day in a burqa. "We've really had enough of these negative integration debates," said Soykan.

The Foreigner's Advisory Board in Hesse has also stressed that the case of the Frankfurt employee is completely irrelevant to the wider integration debate in Germany. "It's a distortion of the issue," said Di Benedetto. He cites a recent study that found one-third of the German population is susceptible to racist slogans, and is demanding a nationwide government initiative to combat xenophobia.

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