Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) plans to adopt an anti-Islamic manifesto at a weekend party congress, emboldened by the rise of European anti-migrant groups like Austria's Freedom Party.
The AfD - a young protest party now polling around 14 percent - is eyeing entry into the federal parliament in elections next year after a string of state election wins. Its meeting in the western city of Stuttgart comes a week after the Austrian FPOe's Norbert Hofer sent shockwaves through the political establishment by winning the first round of a presidential ballot. The AfD was formed only three years ago and has since gradually shifted further to the right, while entering half of Germany's 16 state legislatures and the European parliament. Having initially railed against bailouts for debt-hit eurozone economies, it has changed focus to protest against mostly Muslim migrants and refugees, more than a million of whom sought asylum in Germany last year.
The AfD has loudly protested Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal migration policy but also channeled popular anger against all the long-established political parties and the mainstream press. In a country where collective shame over the Nazi era and the Holocaust run deep, the AfD has been careful to stay clear of openly neo-Nazi rhetoric, even as it has banked on rising xenophobia.
With the influx of refugees sharply down since Balkans countries closed their borders this year, the AfD is now shifting focus to directly target Islam. That moves it closer to the far-right PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) based in Dresden, in Germany's formerly communist East.
AfD deputy leader and European parliament member Beatrix von Storch caused a furor last week when she labelled Islam a "political ideology that is incompatible with the German constitution." Von Storch said her party at its congress in Stuttgart would call for a ban in Germany on Islamic symbols such as minarets on mosques, muezzins' calls to prayer and full-face veils for women. It will openly challenge the government position, repeatedly stated by Chancellor Angela Merkel, that today "Islam is part of Germany," a country that is home to some 4 million Muslims.
Another AfD deputy leader, Alexander Gauland, said that "Islam is not a religion like Catholicism or Protestant Christianity but intellectually always associated with the takeover of the state."
Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, charged that "it is the first time since Hitler's Germany that there is a party that discredits and existentially threatens an entire religious community." The paradox for the AfD is that the sharply reduced migrant influx of recent months has deprived it of its core issue.
Unlike in some other European countries, the AfD cannot bank on widespread discontent in Germany, where unemployment is low and the public still trust the government "more than elsewhere," said Timo Lochocki of think-tank the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
Nonetheless, shifting more openly to anti-Islam rhetoric "may well carry the AFD" into parliament in 2017, said political scientist Nele Wissmann. A study by think-tank the Bertelsmann Foundation last year found that 57 percent of Germans view Islam as a "threat" and that 61 percent felt that the religion is "inconsistent with the Western world," a level of distrust that is "hard to ignore," said Wissmann.
The party was founded at the height of the eurozone crisis by economics professor Bernd Lucke, calling for Germany to leave the euro and return to the Deutschmark. However, a more hardline right-wing and nationalist faction, led by Frauke Petry, last year deposed Lucke and wrested control, with particular support in eastern Germany. A test case at the party congress will be whether the expected 2,000-odd members there will vote on the AfD teaming up in the European parliament with France's National Front of Marine Le Pen.
In January, Frauke Petry sparked a backlash after saying that border guards should shoot at refugees and migrants trying to enter illegally, if necessary, as her comments caused outrage from opposing politicians.
The far-right has benefited greatly from public discourse with a slant against Muslims amongst many Europeans. Also, Germany has witnessed increasing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment following the record influx of refugees. Last week, five right-wing extremist suspects were arrested after being accused of attacking refugee shelters. In the face of widespread hatred toward Muslims in German society, German authorities, including Chancellor Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, condemned the series of xenophobic attacks.