BERLIN — As the number of refugees in Germany rose over the past three years, so did the fortunes of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD. One of its core messages was opposition to Islam's growing place in German life. “Islam does not belong to Germany,” one of its popular slogans read.
Now a former high-profile party official has become a Muslim himself. Suddenly far-right officials stress in public religion is very much a “private matter.”
Arthur Wagner, a 48-year-old former member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, joined the AfD as a Christian — even becoming an active member of the “Christians within the AfD” association. He later appeared in a video in which he condemned Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to keep Germany's borders open and allow more refugees to enter the country. In it, Wagner warned Germany was “mutating” into a different, undesirable nation.
His drastic rhetoric helped him rise through the ranks to become a member of the AfD's executive committee in the state of Brandenburg. That regional committee occupies a particularly influential role; it is headed by Alexander Gauland, a major party figure who heads the AfD's delegation in Parliament.
Wagner's name has since disappeared from the list of committee members. It appears he had only recently converted to Islam, and he resigned from his position on Jan. 11 for “private reasons.” Party officials denied the developments were related and said Wagner still holds another, lower-profile post. “Wagner still is the vice chairman of the AfD's branch in Hafelland,” said Lion Edler, a press spokesman for the AfD in Brandenburg's regional parliament.
Edler said the AfD had “no issues” with Wagner having converted to Islam, despite the party's frequent warnings of an “Islamization” of the West. “We view this as his personal decision,” Edler said. Wagner himself has not commented on his conversion, and he did not respond to requests for an interview from The Washington Post on Wednesday.
For the far-right party, Wagner's conversion comes at an uncomfortable time. It is now the largest opposition party in Parliament, with the two biggest parties — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — again looking to form a coalition. In that role, the AfD heads several committees and is facing pressure to portray itself as a more moderate, solutions-focused political movement.
The party's base consists mostly of staunch critics of Islam and immigration. Frauke Petry, a former AfD head who was considered a moderate, argued in 2015 that officers should shoot migrants or refugees entering Germany, if necessary. Its political manifesto also includes various anti-Islam references. “The AfD [views Islam] as a great threat to our state, our society and our values, due to its spreading and the steadily growing number of Muslims,” it reads.
As more German papers began to report about Wagner's conversion on Wednesday, the AfD's Brandenburg branch took to Facebook to respond to the rumors. “We have taken note of this development not without surprise,” wrote Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD's regional head, before echoing previous remarks it was up to Wagner to make this decision.
At the bottom of the post was an image. “Islam does not belong to Germany,” it read.
More on WorldViews: