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Meeting between AfD and Muslim group breaks down

Ben KnightMay 23, 2016

A keenly-anticipated meeting between Germany's Alternative for Germany and the head of the country's main Muslim organization has ended in acrimony. The Muslim community leader said the AfD broke off the discussion.

Deutschland AfD bricht Gespräch mit Zentralrat der Muslime ab
Image: Reuters/A. Schmidt

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZDM), an umbrella organization that represents over 30 community groups, had invited AfD leader Frauke Petry to a discussion, hoping to persuade her to tone down her party's increasingly anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Instead, the meeting ended in acrimony after barely an hour, with Mazyek accusing the right-wing party of endangering social peace by making blanket judgments of a religious community.

Petry, meanwhile, told awaiting reporters that she had had to break off the meeting because they had not managed to "achieve what we considered the aim of the discussion," which was, "how to work with the differing values of a still politicized Islam ... and a secular society."

Instead, the angry leader said she had been personally offended by Mazyek's accusations that the AfD was a party "from the Third Reich." Petry said that she and her co-representatives - deputy leader Albrecht Glaser and board member Paul Hampel - "asked politely several times" for the comparison to be taken back.

Mazyek did not withdraw his words - in fact, he reiterated them, telling reporters that the AfD's manifesto reminded him of "the darkest time" in German history.

Pointless PR exercise?

Few were surprised that the discussion did not end harmoniously. Political analysts suggested that any other outcome would not have suited Petry at all - not least because many of her own supporters were not keen on the meeting in the first place.

"The AfD wasn't united behind it," said Hans Vorländer, professor of political science at the University of Dresden. "So for Petry that was an excellent way of getting out of it again, and then she could show that she stayed tough and put the blame on the Muslims. It could well have been a deliberate strategy."

"The AfD is increasingly presenting itself as an anti-Islam party," Vorländer told DW. "If she'd come out being more nuanced it would have altered that hard profile." That, as far as Vorländer is concerned, was never an option for Petry.

Vorländer also pointed out that Petry has recently been under pressure from the AfD's hardliners, who want the party to take an even tougher stance against Islam. She, on the other hand, wants to maintain the impression that the AfD could potentially play a role in government - which, Vorländer speculated, may have led her to accept Mazyek's invitation in the first place.

Mixed messages

There had been a lot of trepidation on both sides ahead of the meeting. Perhaps aware of the political complications, the AfD sent out somewhat mixed messages in the run-up.

"I'm not against mosques in Germany," the party's Co-Chairman Jörg Meuthen told local newspaper network "Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland" on Monday morning. "Mosques are part of it. They are places for practicing religion. We just have to watch closely what exactly is being preached there."

But Petry took a tougher tone in the Sunday's "Bild am Sonntag" newspaper: "If more than half of Muslims give precedence to sharia above the various country's laws, then something is coming together that is no longer controllable."

Deutschland AfD bricht Gespräch mit Zentralrat der Muslime ab
The meeting began with a polite handshakeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

To back up this figure, Petry cited a 2013 study by Ruud Koopmans, director of migration research at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). In an email to DW, Koopmans said that Petry had "interpreted the results of my study in an unacceptable way."

He said that Petry was quoting an average for Muslims in six European countries, and not those related to Germany, which were significantly lower. Secondly, he said that the number referred not to sharia law, but to "the rules of the Koran," which are much less systematic and "sometimes contradictory." "Not everyone who says that the rules of the Koran are more important to them than German law or democracy is therefore a follower of sharia," he wrote.

Belonging to Germany

A particularly awkward point between the two sides was a line in the AfD's manifesto that has been bandied around by various German politicians for years, but never before officially included in a party program: "Islam does not belong to Germany."

After the AfD put the words in their manifesto in April, Mazyek claimed that it contravened Germany's constitution and drew a comparison to the Third Reich that angered AfD leaders. Not since the end of Hitler's regime, Mazyek said, had there been a party in Germany that "discredits a whole religious community and offers an existential threat to it."

The ZDM had gone into the meeting expressing the hope that the AfD would withdraw its policy of banning minarets in Germany, which the party described in its manifesto as a "symbol of dominance" that was incompatible with a "tolerant co-existence of religions." Here, unsurprisingly, the AfD gave no ground.

Abdul Adhim Kamouss, a Berlin imam, said he did not necessarily agree with comparing the AfD to Nazis, but added that this was no reason to break off the discussion. "They should have explained their arguments or their view of the situation, but just cutting off the discussion, that's a minus point for them," he told DW.

Kamouss also argued that the minaret ban represented a violation of the German constitution. "Every religious community is allowed to practise their religion as they please, the constitution guarantees this freedom," he said. "And part of that freedom is building your temples and houses of prayer."