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Will German Muslims vote against the AfD?

Jefferson Chase
September 19, 2017

In its election campaign, the far-right Alternative for Germany plays on fears of Islam and Muslim criminality. Will that lead to a backlash at the polls? DW looks at the tricky political situation of German Muslims.

Muslim woman voting
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

In the final phase of the election campaign, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has shifted its focus. In their push to become Germany's third-largest party and perhaps lead the opposition in the next German parliament, AfD leaders have largely ceased mentioning refugees. Instead, they're stressing increases in crime rates, which they link, more or less directly, with what they see as Islam's inherent hostility toward Western society and values.

What the AfD said 

A perfect example was the party's final policy paper presentation before the September 24 vote in Berlin on Monday.

- Hardliner Alexander Gauland began by defining Islam as a "political phenomenon" that as such was "not part of Germany." 

- His fellow leading candidate Alice Weidel followed by citing statistics about violent crime among Muslim migrants and asylum seekers, claiming that it had resulted in lawless "no-go areas" throughout Germany and calling for a host of draconian punitive responses.

- Admitting large numbers of Muslims, so the logic, had caused what Weidel called an "erosion of law and order." 

- When challenged to name a "no-go" area in Berlin, Weidel came up with Kottbusser Tor, a fairly well-known square in neighborhood of Kreuzberg with its large Turkish population. In fact, the city has beefed up police presence there, crime is down in 2017, and the square is home to supermarkets, bars, a small vegetable market and even a youth hostel.

Hardly a no-go area. But the AfD seems to hope that the stereotype of Islamified, crime-ridden Kreuzberg will resonate with Germans unfamiliar and wary of the urban environs of their country's capital.

Read more: How do you deal with the far-right AfD?

The AfD saw its electoral fortunes dip in 2017, as the number of asylum seekers dwindled and a belief began to spread that the refugee crisis was over. So it appears that far-right populists have gone over to a strategy of alarmist Islamophobia in an attempt to lure more voters to the polls. The tone is getting shriller and more hostile by the day.

The Muslim reaction

Sulaiman Wilms, editor of the Islamische Zeitung newspaper, told DW that the media hadn't drawn as much attention to the latest incendiary remarks as to earlier controversial statements by Gauland and Weidel.

"In the past weeks, we've experienced a constant breaking of a taboos and radicalization (by the AfD)," he said

The head of Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, disagrees. He says that media are only just now waking up to how far to the right the AfD, originally founded in 2013 as an anti-EU party, were from the very start.

"They were always radical," Mazyek told DW. "What is perhaps new is the realization in the past few days that this is a radical right-wing party, of which neo-Nazis and other extremists are part."

Read more: Top Merkel aide says far-right AfD profit from press coverage

The AfD walked out of a meeting with Mazyek and other Muslim leaders
The AfD walked out of a meeting with Mazyek (left) and other Muslim leadersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Why this is significant

Mazyek sees the populists as the direct heirs of the extreme right-wing nationalist fringe parties of the past like the National Democratic German Party (NPD).

- "Whipping up resentment and dividing society between Muslims and non-Muslims was always the bread and butter of the extreme Right," Mazyek said.

- "The AfD completely took that over. I said years ago that the AfD was drifting further and further to the right and would try to subsume the NPD."

But the AfD currently enjoys far more mainstream acceptance than the NPD ever did – a threatening scenario for German Muslims.

AfD rally
Most AfD leaders and supporters have little personal experience of MuslimsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

The AfD has consistently refused to engage in dialogue with German-Muslim groups and its supporters seem disinterested in differentiating between stereotypes and actual Muslim life in the country. The party is most popular in the eastern part of Germany, where the fewest Muslims live.

How Muslims might vote

Ironically, given the AfD's depiction of Islam as a monolithic entity, Muslims in Germany, of whom 1.5 million are eligible to vote, are a very heterogeneous category - there has never been a cohesive Muslim voting block.

A group of Muslim interest organizations recently published a guide to parties' policies on various Muslim issues - the AfD refused to participate.

And the Central Council of Muslims is offering a draft sermon entitled "My vote counts" for religious services on Friday, September 22. It describes voting in the election two days later as a religious duty.

"This is all the more so because we Muslims as a social group in this country are directly effect and our religion has become a topic of party platforms,” the sermon reads. "Unfortunately, as we all know, there are parties running whose platforms are based on xenophobia and fear of Islam…we can't complain about far-right populism that is increasingly directed against Muslims, if we can't even turn out and vote."