'Burqas? We prefer bikinis' in Berlin. Campaign placards for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
On 24 September, Angela Merkel was re-elected chancellor of Germany, and her conservative alliance will form the next government. At the same time, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was previously unrepresented in the Bundestag, became the country’s third-largest party, with 12.6 per cent of the vote.
Despite internal splits over some issues, such as its willingness to participate in a coalition government, the AfD has been consistent in its use of anti-Islam rhetoric. The party’s recent ascent should act as a warning to a continent in which numerous electoral campaigns have drawn on Islamophobic narratives. In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) used a ‘dog whistle’ approach to immigration to gain popular support during the June 2016 EU referendum. The Freedom Party of Austria repeatedly attacked Islam in its 2016 electoral campaign. The National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands were both accused of encouraging Islamophobia.
The dangerous approach taken by these far-right parties will likely marginalise European Muslims. What is more, it will also play into the hands of jihadi groups that use such prejudice in their propaganda. The AfD’s recent success should prompt mainstream politicians to defend and promote the liberal values that both Islamist extremists and populists seek to undermine. At its core, the fight against extremism is a battle of ideas; winning that battle means learning the lessons of the Cold War, when the West was determined to uphold its values when they came under threat. The 2017 German election and its aftermath are an opportunity for today’s leaders to challenge those who are launching attacks on European ideals – from all parts of the extremist spectrum.
The AfD has evolved over recent years from a Eurosceptic party, founded in 2013, to an anti-Islamic organisation with a leader who is under investigation for inciting racial hatred. In its recent and most successful campaign, the AfD declared that “Islam does not belong in Germany,” warned against “Islamisation,” and quipped “Burkas? We prefer bikinis.” Jewish organisations and officials have accused the party’s ranks of anti-Semitism. One regional AfD leader described the Berlin memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust as a “monument of shame.”
The AfD’s popularity has surged since 2015, when an influx of largely Middle Eastern migrants entered Germany. The party attempted to ride a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, calling on Germany to fight “an invasion of foreigners from a different culture.” The AfD encourages the idea that Germans are superior to immigrants, while claiming Christianity deserves more religious freedom than Islam, which it describes as “foreign.” The AfD also advocates conservative social values, pro-market economics, and closer ties to Russia.
This viewpoint has seemingly translated into hate crimes outside the political sphere. Germany recorded 91 attacks directed at mosques last year. In the first quarter of 2017, security officials reported 208 anti-Islamic offences. More broadly, the number of violent far-right incidents increased from 1,408 in 2015 to 1,600 in 2016. Islamophobic attitudes have also been recorded among the general population. According to reports, 57 per cent of Germans consider Islam a threat, and 60 per cent believe the religion has no place in the nation.
Elsewhere in Europe, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been increasing. A recent survey found that nearly a third of Austrian citizens said they would not like to live next to Muslims. In France, Islamophobic attacks have reportedly increased by 500 per cent in the last two years. In the UK, 767 incidents of anti-Semitism were recorded between January and June this year – a 30 per cent rise on the same period in 2016. It seems the sentiments behind the AfD’s politics are also evident in everyday incidents in Germany and beyond.
Worryingly, as well as affecting Muslims, the AfD’s campaigning could aid jihadi groups. European far-right parties use a binary ‘us versus them’ narrative that is mirrored in the ideology of many Islamist extremist groups. The AfD relies on the view that Islam is incompatible with German culture, a position that groups like ISIS similarly espouse. By helping to create a victim mentality, the party may be boosting jihadi recruitment.
In December 2016, the violence that Islamist extremists can cause became evident when Anis Amri drove a truck into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and wounding scores. ISIS claimed responsibility, saying the attack was revenge against “crusaders” in Europe. The group has previously drawn on images of Muslim “soldiers of the caliphate” battling Christian “crusaders” in the West. It cleverly uses scripture to try to disenfranchise European Muslims. This hateful worldview is an almost mirror image of the AfD’s divisive ideology.
The symbiotic relationship between parties like the AfD and Islamist extremist groups could continue with each side’s ‘success.’ The AfD could use further jihadi attacks in Europe to affirm its warped perspective, which mainstream parties may struggle to counter. Breaking this cycle of extremism requires centre-left and centre-right politicians alike to be bold in advocating for the values of democracy, tolerance, and open-mindedness that underpin the liberal world order.
Although Germany’s conservative alliance has held onto power, Sunday’s electoral result was its worst in 70 years. Merkel used her acceptance speech on 25 September to vow to do better. She said analysis of the AfD had begun and promised to “get [AfD voters] back” by “addressing some of the issues.”
As the dust settles and Merkel begins this task, it is essential for her to uphold Germany’s mainstream values and firmly reject Islamophobic sentiments, regardless of whether they aided the AfD’s success. Allowing the party to capitalise on its recent electoral performance would be a dangerous gift to extremist groups keen to portray Europe and the West as hateful, bigoted, and unwelcoming.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte defeated his far-right opponent in the country’s general election in March 2017, but arguably chose to pander to xenophobic attitudes to head off the threat. To gain support form anti-immigrant pockets, he called for people who “refuse to adapt” to “behave normally, or go away.” Courting this perspective may seem an easy short-term solution to hold onto power. Yet mainstream politicians should be cautious of the dangerous implications of this approach, and instead focus on defending and promoting European values.