A "lying press" poster at an AfD demonstration in Rostock. (Photo: Oliver Cruzcampo/endstation-rechts.de)
A controversial week for the AfD
Breaking off a discussion with the Central Council of Muslims, the Central Committee of German Catholics excluding the party form its "Catholics Day" and the deputy leader saying that Germans would rather not live next to footballer Jérôme Boateng. What exactly happened? And is the party drifting further to the right?
Luckily Frauke Petry gave some insights in an interview with Deutschlandfunk last weekend.
by the Know Nothing Enquirer 31/05/2016
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) seemingly produces controversial statements on a daily basis. This week was especially controversial for the party - or rather successful. The party's provocative statements usually follow similar patterns. A party member or sympathiser makes a contentious statement, which receives great resonance on social media. Or a party official makes an ambiguous comment about some current issue and triggers a political outcry. The party leadership then points out that the statement was taken out of context or misunderstood and that the mainstream media and the established parties are plotting against them. The party actively seeks the role of the victim, which makes it even more popular. This gives the already deeply unsatisfied working and lower middle class (which - in many cases - already has a deep aversion against the media and the ruling government's stance on migration) more reasons to identify with the AfD.
In the party convention a month ago the party members decided to include passages on Islam and its incompatibility with German culture. This prompted Aiman Mazyek, the leader of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (CCM), to invite the AfD leaders to a talk about Islam in Germany and "why they hate us". The talks were destined to fail from the onset - not only because of the islamophobic tendencies of the "alternatives". Unlike other institutions representing religions in Germany, such as the central councils of Catholics, Protestants or Jews, the CCM does not represent all Muslims in Germany. Even though there are 4m to 5.5m Muslims in Germany (depending on the statistic), it only represents around 10,000 members. There are four other institutions representing Muslims in Germany (the former mostly representing non-Turkish Muslims). It has also been criticised for not fully endorsing the German constitution and having links to the Muslim Brotherhood. So it is fair to say that the CCM is not exactly an uncontroversial institution.
Mazyek had accused the AfD prior to the talks of defaming all Muslims and acting anti-constitutionally. He had also compared the party with the NSDAP before the convention in early May. This prompted MEP Beatrix von Storch to accuse Mazyek of "trivialising the atrocities or the Third Reich".
The two parties spoke for one hour before the talks were called off. Both sides were blamed by observers for not seriously trying to engage in a conversation. Mazyek criticised the AfD for not giving up their apparent anti-constitutional positions. Petry in return said an objective discussion was not possible with the CCM. No journalists were allowed to attend the actual talks. The two discussants had planned on giving a common press conference after the talks. In the end both gave separate press conferences, blaming each other for not acting rationally.
Both made irreconcilable demands prior to the talks and did not seem to make any movement towards the other side. The CCM insisted that the AfD change their party programme regarding the controversial passages. The AfD demanded Mazyek to take back his controversial comparisons with the NSDAP. Not exactly a good foundation for a discussion between a newly founded populist, anti-(Muslim)immigration party and a religious institution. The talks had to fail. Both regard themselves as victims, but also as the moral winners of the "combat". Many hardline AfD supporters prefer a resolute line with the Muslim community ("integrate or leave") and do not want to compromise on "European values". After all that is what the established parties apparently stand for. Mazyek stands under similar pressures from his community. Maybe the two were not even seeking dialogue but just arranged the talks to prove a point - that agreeing on principles is not possible with the "enemy". Or maybe the talks were simply badly prepared and the content not coordinated well enough, as the more moderate co-leader of the party Jörg Meuthen claimed in an interview with the newspaper Bild.
The AfD accusing the Central Council of Muslims of acting arrogantly. (Photo: Frauke Petry/Twitter)
Unlike the CCM, the Central Committee of German Catholics (CCC) refused to enter a serious dialogue with the party. At least they specifically excluded them from the Catholics Day (Katholikentag) in Leipzig that started on Wednesday last week. In a DLF interview, Franke Petry criticised the CCC for acting unchristian. According to the head of the party, the Christian churches are acting against their own principles by not engaging in a discussion with the party. She further stated that it was unacceptable that representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches had declared that Christians should not vote for the party. Petry also identifies the Protestant church to follow a "left-green agenda". Thomas Sternberg, the leader of the CCC and CDU politician, justified the exclusion of AfD politicians from discussions at the Catholics Day by pointing out that they are not TV talk shows. Rather, according to Sternberg, they are a platform for Catholics to discuss certain issues and find the best solution in the interest of all. In other words, not a space for controversial and "inhuman" opinions.
The position of the Catholic church was not only criticised by the AfD. The cultural minister of state Monika Grütters (CDU) said that the party should not be further victimised but rather the "true self" of the party should be exposed in public discussions. The sociologist Armin Nassehi highlighted the public should be able to listen to the positions of the party and counter them with rational arguments. The "power of argumentation", he continued, is necessary to convince the party from voicing their controversial statements. But it also seems like those articulating ambiguous or provocative statements actually hope to create a public outcry in order to stay in the political discourse. After all the party sees itself as the representatives of the protest voters who are deeply unsatisfied with the "political mainstream".
The latest such ambiguous statement was made by Alexander Gauland, one of the party's deputy leaders, who said in an interview with the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) “people like [Jérôme Boateng] as a football player. But they don’t want to have a Boateng as their neighbour.” Boateng is part of the national football team, a practicing Christian and has a German mother and a Ghanaian father.
The statement started a shitstorm on social media. The hashtag #neighbours trended on Twitter and Facebook. Many politicians and others in the public spotlight wrote that they would want to be neighbours with the footballer and accused the AfD politician of racism.
Even Frauke Petry eventually released an apology and tweeted that she is looking forward to the Eurocup in France. Boateng's neighbours, who were interviewed by the FAZ, all stated that he is a "very nice and down-to-earth" person. The leader of the SPD parliamentary party and the leader of the party "The Left" both tweeted that Gauland is a "nasty racist" (übler Rassist).
Gauland first denied that he mentioned Boateng's name in the interview but then acknowledged that the footballer might have been mentioned. Of course Gauland's statement is not racist in itself. He did not specifically say that he would not want to live next to Boateng. It is rather a comment of what many Germans (or rather AfD supporters) think. But he mentioned this in an interview about "being foreign in Germany and integration". He remained ambiguous about the consequences of "people" not wanting to have someone who does not look German as their neighbour. Further, he did not comment on whether "the people" are right or not and that racism is objectionable. The FAZ interviewers claimed that from the context of the conversation it was clear that Gauland was directly insulting Boateng as a person because of his ethnic background.
The controversy shows a further split developing in the party between the more moderate and the national conservative wings of the party. The party already underwent a massive split when the initial founders of the party left after a convention in July 2015. The national conservative wing is dominated by the highly provocative Björn Höcke (who has strong links to the PEGIDA movement) and Alexander Gauland. The party co-leaders Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen are seen as representing the more moderate wing of the party.
Even if the controversies do not stand for the emerging split in the party, they show how the communication strategy of the party works (for that matter most populist parties, including Donald Trump's campaign). They exploit the way the media functions in the age of social media. Newspapers and online journalists know that any controversial statements made by the AfD will attract a lot of online traffic. If they are the first to feature such a story, politicians and celebrities will instantly comment on it - spreading the story further and leading to a lot of clicks for the online publication. The AfD, on the other side, profits from the free publicity and remains in the public discourse. The AfD supporters do not necessarily care about the provocative nature of their statements - after all they find the protest character of the party most appealing. A win-win situation for both the publication and the party.
The FAZ (despite being one of the most respectable media institutions in the country) story was a very classic example of this symbiotic relationship. The story featured very prominently on the front page of the Sunday edition of the newspaper and all those with the FAZ app installed on their smart phones were woken up on Sunday to the message "Gauland insults Boateng". And of course AfD supporters point out how hysterical the media reacted, how Gauland did not actually mean or say the insult and that the press are liars anyway and should not be trusted ("Lügenpresse"). In the end, those critical of the AfD and the party supporters both see their opinions confirmed. A self-fulfilling prophecy for all involved.