New conflicts are emerging in contemporary Germany between the two modes of extremism that most concern the German equivalent of the FBI, the Federal Office of Constitutional Protection (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz): the right-wing nativism that once targeted “foreigners” but now increasingly focuses on Muslims, and the Salafist ultraorthodoxy that takes the beliefs and practices of the early Islamic community as the definitive model for present-day Muslims. Salafism derives its name from the Arabic-language term for “ancestors.” Broadly speaking, Salafis aspire to return Islam to its essential principles by pruning it of more recent innovations.
As Der Tagesspiegel reported over the weekend, the right populist political party Pro Deutschland plans to hold demonstrations this Saturday in front of several mosques in Wedding and Neukölln, two districts in Berlin known for their large Muslim populations.
The coordinated gatherings, which have been organized under the motto “Hasta la vista, Salafista,” are ostensibly meant to challenge the presence and public visibility of Salafis in Germany. Yet the Pro Deutschland organizers apparently aim to provoke as well as protest: they have timed the demonstrations to coincide with the end of Ramadan, and they intend to display the controversial Muhammad cartoons that first appeared in the Danish Jyllands-Posten in 2005. These same cartoons sparked an outcry from Muslims worldwide after their initial publication, and the ensuing protests resulted in hundreds of injuries and deaths.
This will not be the first time that German populists have demonstrated in such a manner. On May 1st of this year, approximately thirty members of a group affiliated with Pro Deutschland gathered in the vicinity of a mosque in Solingen reportedly frequented by Salafis. The assembled protesters chanted “Freedom not Islam” (Freiheit statt Islam) while they unfurled banners with some of the same Muhammad cartoons I have already mentioned. Not far away stood the now empty lot where, in May 1993, right-wing extremists firebombed the home of the Genç family, migrants from Turkey who had lived in Solingen for decades. Two women and three girls died in that attack.
A considerably larger group of Muslims had assembled to counter the gathering, and some of them responded to the right populists with chants like “Sharia for Germany.” Their resentment was also directed at the police who were there to keep the peace: a dozen counter-demonstrators threw rocks at the officers, while others attempted to strike and jab them with flagpoles. Four people, three officers and a passerby, were injured, and thirty counter-demonstrators were arrested. Meanwhile, the group from Pro Deutschland packed up and headed to another right-wing gathering in Remscheid, about ten miles away. This one was scheduled to take place in front of a mosque affiliated with the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Three days later, demonstrators linked to Pro Deutschland displayed the Muhammad cartoons once again in Bonn, and once again the much larger assembly of counter-demonstrators attacked the police who sought to keep the two groups apart. In this case, ten officers sustained light injuries, while two others suffered more severe wounds after a Muslim man allegedly attacked them with a knife. The twenty-five-year-old suspect, currently being arraigned on charges of attempted murder, explained that he had targeted the officers because they had allowed the Pro Deutschland demonstrators to display the Muhammad cartoons. He insisted that these images insulted Muslims. Many but not all Muslims regard any pictorial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, whether “favorable” or “unfavorable,” as a forbidden if not sacrilegious act.
For their part, ultraorthodox Islamic groups have also sought to claim a robust public presence in recent months. In April of this year, The True Religion (Die wahre Religion) distributed thousands of free German-language translations of the Qur’an to passing pedestrians in as many as thirty-eight German cities. The campaign became the target of intense suspicion from politicians across the political mainstream, a fair number of whom worried that the distribution of the holy text was merely an alibi for the group’s self-promotion and the dissemination of its “radical” ideology.
Many of The True Religion’s views would indeed give outsiders, including many Muslims, pause. In one video on its website, the group’s leading figure, Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, asserts that believing in God means that “one follows His commands with no ifs, ands, or buts, with no fantasizing or discussion. We hear and obey.” Remarks like these appear to contradict the reflective religiosity that many German liberals regard as a complement to a modern democratic sensibility. More broadly, The True Religion follows other Salafists in insisting that a literalist reading of the Qur’an, along with close adherence to the words and actions of the original Islamic community, provides the only standard for contemporary Muslims’ conduct.
All of these public actions have proven rather delicate for political leaders and law enforcement officials. On the one hand, Article 4 of Germany’s Basic Law guarantees the free practice of religion, including the public distribution of holy texts for missionary and other purposes. Thus, there is nothing in principle objectionable to The True Religion’s efforts—a point that even the group’s detractors have acknowledged. On the other hand, the demonstrations undertaken by Pro Deutschland also stand on fairly sound legal footing: German courts have affirmed the right of organizations on the far right to assemble in public provided they do not venerate National Socialism or engage in overt hate speech, and the organization applied for and obtained the necessary permits from local authorities. In addition, both groups can plausibly contend that they should not be held responsible for the violence committed by their opponents.
Nevertheless, many details of these demonstrations—including their timing, location, and form—suggest that protesters affiliated with Pro Deutschland either aim to incite violence or, at the very least, casually accept it as a foreseeable outcome. I suspect that the group ultimately has an interest in generating physical aggression, since it would seem to corroborate its insistence, at least among receptive sectors of the public, that Salafism—and perhaps Islam more broadly—should not be tolerated.
To an increasing extent, then, the right-wing populist and Salafist movements appear to be engaging one another directly and through a common political language, one in which the boundaries between confrontational public discourse and physical violence are rather fluid. At the moment, far-right nativist organizations have taken the initiative, since at least a few of them appear ready to goad Muslims in ways that still fall within the current bounds of free speech. It remains to be seen how Salafis and other reformist groups will react, particularly when any belligerent response is likely to confirm the suspicions already harbored against them. Nevertheless, in the future we may need to regard far-right nativism and Islamic ultraorthodoxy less as distinct scenes and more as movements linked by a relationship of mutual opposition. We should also be prepared for the possibility that any future conflicts between the two will be difficult to defuse, in part because both can draw on the freedoms and protections afforded by a liberal democratic state.