Angst about Islamist groups goes mainstream in Germany

Members of the Islamic group Invitation to Paradise pray in Moenchengladbach, Germany.
Members of the Islamic group Invitation to Paradise pray in Moenchengladbach, Germany. (Roberto Pfeil)
By Kirsten Grieshaber
Sunday, January 9, 2011

MOENCHENGLADBACH, GERMANY - The 200 robed and bearded men gathered at dusk on the market square, rolled out their prayer rugs and intoned Allah's praises as dismayed townspeople looked on.

It was Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and the group that calls itself Invitation to Paradise was mounting a defiant response to weeks of public protests against plans to construct a religious school to teach its austere, militant interpretation of Islam.

In Germany, where the racial crimes of the Nazis have bred extreme sensitivity toward the rights of minorities, such confrontations would until recently have been limited to the far-right margins. But the weekly rallies in this city of 250,000 near the Dutch border these days look decidedly mainstream.

It's part of a trend seen across Europe. Spooked by what many see as a terrorism threat, ordinary people are becoming increasingly vocal in opposing radical Muslims. They are ditching traditions of tolerance and saying no to cultures that do not share their democratic values. Some lament the decline of multiculturalism - "Utterly failed," in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - and others say Europe is defending its way of life against those who would destroy it.

In the Netherlands, anti-immigrant sentiment has risen steadily since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic. In elections last year, the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders emerged as the country's third-largest political force and is helping a conservative government keep campaign promises to ban the burqa, cut immigration and imprison illegal aliens.

Swiss voters have approved a ban on minarets; an anti-Islamic party has gotten into the Swedish parliament for the first time; and France's ban on wearing face-covering veils in public has broad popular support.

Germans are even more negative toward Muslims than their European neighbors, according to a survey published last month.

The majority of the Dutch (62 percent), French (56 percent) and Danes (55 percent) think positively of Muslims, compared with only 34 percent in western Germany and 26 percent in the formerly communist east, the poll by the University of Muenster said.

The pollsters said they questioned 1,000 people in western Germany, 1,000 in eastern Germany and 1,000 in each of the other European countries surveyed. They gave a margin of error of three percentage points.

The local opposition

The man leading the opposition to the religious school in Moenchengladbach is Wilfried Schultz, 60, an Internet consultant. His organization, Citizens for Moenchengladbach, points to online videos of the Muslim group that call for the execution of secular Muslims, demand that women never leave home without male chaperons and say people who have sex before marriage will go to hell.

"We are not going to tolerate that these Islamists undermine our liberal German values," Schultz said.

Some Muslims in Germany also are dismayed and are trying to recruit community leaders to blunt the hard-liners' appeal.

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