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April 26, 2016

Freedom of Expression and Religious Tolerance Under Fire in Germany

By Timothy Meyers

As Human Rights First’s Susan Corke reported last week, Germany faces an array of daunting challenges, from the refugee crisis to the rise of the far right to hate crimes. These issues are all inter-connected, and now, into this complicated tangle, another important issue is coming to the foreground: freedom of expression.

Germany’s xenophobic far-right AfD party, which performed well in last month’s regional elections, recently called for bans on all minarets, burkas, and muezzins. To promote this incendiary Islamophobic proposal, AfD claimed that Islam was a “foreign body” and a “political ideology” whose values could not coexist with those of the German state. “Islam is not a religion like Catholic or Protestant Christianity, but rather always associated intellectually with the takeover of a state,” AfD deputy leader Alexander Gauland explained.

In response, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, Aiman Mazyek compared AfD’s remarks to those of Hitler’s Nazi party. “It is not Islam which is against the Basic Law (Germany’s constitution), but the AfD which does not conform to it,” he added. AfD’s overt anti-Muslim rhetoric may be evidence of a strategic pivot away from fear-mongering over the refugee crisis and toward denigrating Muslims already living in Germany, in part because fewer refugees are entering Germany these days. AfD should be denounced for its hateful rhetoric and clash-of-civilizations demagoguery.

In addition, Lutz Bachmann, the head of the anti-immigrant Pegida movement, faced hate speech charges in court on Tuesday. Bachmann is on trial for allegedly describing refugees as “scum” and “cattle” on social media. He argues that multiple fake profiles use his name and were responsible for the discriminatory words. In response, the prosecution presented a video recording allegedly linking Bachmann to the online statements, quoting the Pegida leader as saying, “Some screenshots have emerged, which were partly altered and shortened, in which I used a few words that we've all used, I'm sure, in our local pub.” This case should be pursued in a manner that respects due process.

Chancellor Merkel’s apparent openness to further investigation in the case of German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who recited a satirical poem on his late-night program critiquing Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, has also caused an uproar. The chancellor’s popularity has suffered over the matter, with some commentators even saying she could lose the chancellorship if Böhmermann is prosecuted. Especially in light of the problematic deal on refugees between Germany and Turkey, Merkel should resist Erdogan’s pressure and uphold freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, an alarming Reporters Without Borders report published last week dropped Germany down from 12th to 16th place on its press freedom index. This demotion is due in part to 39 recorded attacks on journalists in 2015, most of which occurred at Pegida rallies and other far-right demonstrations. Pegida leaders have mobilized the Nazi-era rhetoric of lügenpresse, or lying press, to foster conspiracy theories, which lead to growing animosity toward journalists.

Germany is facing a crisis over free expression. We urge the government to stand up to both internal and external pressures to undermine free speech and tolerance.