“Anti-Islam Congress” in Cologne: European Parties Fail to Feed Resentment against Islam
by Frank Überall
European right-wing populist parties had planned an “Anti-Islam Congress” in Cologne for the past weekend. An alliance of local people, politicians, the media, churches and associations put a stop to these plans. Frank Überall reports from Cologne
Radical right-wingers from all over Europe suffered a major political defeat in Cologne. They had intended to hold a xenophobic “Anti-Islamisation Congress”, but were foiled by the people of Cologne’s vehement resistance. Thousands took part in peaceful demonstrations against the extreme right-wing meeting, accompanied by isolated incidents of violence. Cologne’s police eventually banned the central right-wing rally at the last minute due to the dangerous security situation. The organisers announced they would go to court over the ban and stage a repeat event.
The group Pro Köln was to host the three-day congress, planned as a critical discussion of Islam. The organisation is under official observation due to suspicion of right-wing extremism. It has built up a high public profile over the past few years, mainly through its protest against the construction of Cologne’s first major mosque. Pro Köln’s publications also routinely incite blanket resentment against migrants and Islam.
Local mayor admits mistakes
“We made the mistake of not taking public concerns seriously at an early point,” admitted the Social Democratic politician Josef Wirges. He is the mayor of the Cologne district of Ehrenfeld, where the large mosque and community centre are being built. One reason for its size is that the Turkish Islamic religious organisation Ditib has its German headquarters in Cologne. The district has had an improvised Muslim prayer-room in a former factory building for over ten years. Issues of increased traffic, possible noise pollution and architectural compatibility arising from the new mosque had been tackled too late, commented Wirges. “Pro Köln took advantage of this vacuum to gain votes.” Pro Köln now has a number of representatives on Cologne’s city council.
Josef Wirges was one of several thousand people who took part in this weekend’s demonstrations against the extreme right-wing events. According to a Pro Köln spokesperson, these were partly financed by the populist right-wing parties Vlaams Belang (Belgium) and FPÖ (Austria). The public demonstration was to be accompanied by a congress, where the participants intended to launch a Europe-wide patriotic party. But the events never took place, as the people of Cologne literally blocked out the radicals in their thousands.
“There’s no kölsch for Nazis here,” said landlord Markus Hemken, referring to Cologne’s famous local beer. He and 150 other bar-owners had beer mats printed with an unmistakeable message – they would not serve right-wing extremists. The unwanted guests were thrown out of a Cologne hotel after anti-fascist groups informed the manager exactly who had booked the rooms. Pro Köln, otherwise a verbal proponent of law and order, had rented a number of conference rooms and coaches under false names. As a result, the party’s members and their guests were not allowed in, and had to cancel almost every part of their congress.
Even the central rally “against Islamisation” at the heart of Cologne had to be called off, as the police were concerned about major security problems and banned the event.
Far-left activists had attacked police officers all over the city. “They were throwing stones, incendiaries and fireworks,” said police spokesman Wolfgang Baldes: “There were even isolated attempts to remove police officers’ guns.” More than 400 demonstrators were placed under temporary detention, with six police officers sustaining injuries. These incidents overshadowed the fact that thousands of people were involved in peaceful demonstrations against the right-wing extremists.
An alliance across broad swathes of the population had called the protest – including the Protestant and Catholic churches, the Jewish community and the Turkish Islamic organisation Ditib. “I think it’s great that the people of Cologne have blocked the way for right-wing extremists together,” said the German reggae singer Gentleman. “I’m proud of Cologne.”
Cologne’s Christian Democrat city mayor, Fritz Schramma, put across a clear message at a protest event outside the famous cathedral: “I say to this clique of eurofascists, these Haiders and Le Pens and whatever their names are: there’s the exit, that’s the way home. We don’t want you here.”
Researchers call for clearer information policy
Pro Köln, however, is not willing to leave it at that. “We want to make next year’s local election a plebiscite on the new mosque,” said councillor Markus Beisicht. Had the radical right-wing conference in Cologne been a success, the “Pro Köln model” would have been emulated across Germany. There are already local branches in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, though none of them are particularly active as yet.
Political scientists see deliberate incitement of resentment against mosques as a key element of the “Pro movement”. “This is an extreme right-wing party that consciously operates in the guise of respectable middle-class moralists,” says Alexander Häuser from the Neonazism Research Centre at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences: “They consciously pander to resentments against migrants and Islam held by parts of the population. The only thing that can help is a consistent public information policy.”
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire