Germany braces for clashes between Islamists, right-wing activists

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BERLIN -- Days after a bloody street battle led to more than 100 arrests, authorities in Germany’s biggest state braced for the possibility of more violence Tuesday between a right-wing political party and an Islamic group.

Police in historic Cologne, the largest city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, were preparing for a tense standoff as Salafi Islamist activists planned to protest a campaign rally in front of a mosque by the anti-Islam party Pro NRW.

The potential clash of demonstrations follows an outbreak of violence whose scale has caught Germany by surprise.

On Saturday, 29 police officers were injured, including two with serious knife wounds, and 109 Salafi Islamists were arrested in the former West German capital of Bonn after members of Pro NRW provoked the Salafists with mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.


On Monday, Pro NRW held smaller rallies in three other cities in North Rhine-Westphalia.

‘We will not tolerate these attacks on the constitutional state and our police officers and will increase our pressure on both Pro NRW and the Salafists as much as possible,’ North Rhine-Westphalia’s governor, Hannelore Kraft, told the newspaper Bild. ‘That means denying entry to Salafists who are known to be violent, as well as preventing Pro NRW from showing any more anti-Islamic cartoons.’

Salafism is a movement within Sunni Islam that advocates a return to an earlier form of Islam. Only a radical minority of Salafists advocate violence, but the German intelligence service has said that nearly all violent jihadists in Germany have had prior contact with Salafists. German Salafists attracted national attention last month by launching a campaign to hand out 25 million free copies of the Koran.

Authorities have forbidden more than 100 Salafists from entering Cologne and have said they won’t allow Pro NRW to demonstrate near the mosque. But efforts to prevent Pro NRW from using offensive images were complicated by two court rulings Monday that displaying cartoons of Muhammad was protected free speech.

‘We will allow peaceful protest against the campaign event,’ Cologne’s police chief, Michael Temme, said on Tuesday. But, he warned, ‘we will swiftly and systematically oppose any form of violence.’

Muslim leaders in Germany have condemned the attacks on police in Bonn.

‘Reacting to these provocations with violence is not the way of peace-loving Muslims because it is un-Islamic and moreover plays into the hands of the right wing,’ the Central Council of Muslims in Germany said Monday in a statement.

Provocation is a deliberate part of Pro NRW’s strategy. ‘It is of course part of the campaign,’ Pro NRW general secretary Markus Wiener told the German magazine Der Spiegel. ‘We are a party that is critical of Islam, and we wanted to show our standpoint.’

Germany, with 4 million Muslims, is one of the few European countries with a sizable Muslim minority that has not seen the rise of a powerful national anti-Islam political party. Pro NRW received only about 1% of the vote in the last statewide election in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2010 and is fielding candidates in this Sunday’s election.

The country’s largest far-right party, the National Democratic Party, has never come close to the 5% hurdle needed to gain representation in the German parliament, though it has been represented in several state parliaments in the former East Germany.


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-- Aaron Wiener