Plenty is at stake over the upcoming federal election in Germany on September 24. Big questions loom over the future of the country: The sustainability of its social market economic model, its defence obligations and responsibilities, energy dependency, the direction of the Eurozone project… But perhaps more important than ever, the very social fabric and cultural identity of modern Germany in an era of migration and displacement. A Federal Parliament that is set to be formed this time with actual right-wing, populist representation from the ranks of Alternative for Germany (AfD) is likely to make it much harder for both of the two major parties central to German politics, Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD), to put effective brakes against worrying societal changes.
Less room for tolerance
Germany is a country where reservations over Islam’s compatibility with perceived “European values” and attitudes towards the integration of Muslims into mainstream society have already hardened. A two-part survey study by Mercator Foundation has revealed a strengthening of conservative attitudes over migration and cultural integration in Europe’s most populous nation.
Whereas 33.5% of respondents expressed that Germany should exercise “stronger self-confidence” towards newly-arrived migrants in 2014, this figure shot up to 44.5% by early 2016. In 2014, 36.2% of respondents held the view that the onus was on migrants alone when it came to adapting to German life. Two years later, this figure had risen to 54.9%.
In such a context, the AfD has certainly capitalized on a set of events that have created anxieties over the integration of Muslim migrants and refugees from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. These include the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, the attempted suicide bombing in Ansbach and the train stabbing spree in Würzberg.
The AfD, which is already represented in 13 out of 16 state parliaments, has succesfully portrayed itself as the “Defender of the Fatherland,” promising to protect Germany’s Euro-Christian identity from Islamic “colonisation” and “aggression”. And there is much reason to believe that the party’s critical stance on Islam resonates with many Germans.
A research by the University of Münster showed that few Germans believed that Islam was compatible with core values of the Enlightenment. Only 6% of native German respondents associated Islam with human rights, 5% linked the religion to the principle of tolerance, and a paltry 7% felt Islam and peace go hand-in-hand.
Migrants also reveal confrontationism
However, what perhaps truly aids the AfD’s anti-Islamic rhetoric are the worrying socio-political attitudes expressed by ethnic Turks, largest migrant group in Germany, 1302 of whom were interviewed in the same study by the University of Münster.
47% of the respondents agreed that it was more important to follow the core tenets of Islam than abide by German laws. Further evidence of their religiously conservative mindset, 32% supported the idea of Muslims striving to secure a return to the societal order of the time of Prophet Muhammad. When it came to levels of support for religiously-motivated violence, 20% of the ethnic Turks agreed that “the threat the West poses to Islam justifies violence”, while an alarming 7% also agreed that violence could even be justified as a means to spread Islam.
These figures do not only support German sociologist’s Claus Mueller’s description of Germany’s ethnic Turks as being “separated by religious and cultural lifestyles” from the social mainstream but also taps into the AfD’s central message of an “ideological conflict” between German democratic values and the religion of Islam.
In the last Federal Election, the AfD won 4.7% of the vote, narrowly falling below the 5% threshold needed to win seats in the Bundestag. The party is now, however, widely expected to fare better, winning over both traditional blue-collar ex-SPD voters opposed to EU freedom of movement and “well-to-do” devoutly Christian former CDU/CSU voters wary of Islam’s growing presence in Germany.
In all likelihood, Merkel will continue to be the chancellor for a fourth term but the Bundestag is also likely to witness the arrival of the AfD – undoubtedly a watershed moment for modern Germany.
To address the country’s brutal, expansionist history, the German political class in the post-WWII era has generally followed a policy agenda of enthusiastic multilateralism and a compassionate refugee policy while also respecting the rights of religious minorities. A strong AfD showing on September 24 will, however, place significant pressure on a ‘Grand Coalition’ likely to continue between Christian and Social Democrats on a number of issues including the integration of migrants and the role of Islam in German society as well as the country’s refugee policy.
The federal arrival of the AfD will be political confirmation of a more assertive Germany, one where scepticism of liberal internationalism and demands for Euro-Christian cultural preservation are stronger than ever.