Germany’s AfD party claims its critical attitude towards Islam is religious criticism and hence falls under the right to freedom of expression. Yet the party fails to back its claim with convincing arguments, writes social scientist Ulrich Paffrath from the Frankfurt-based Academy for Islam in Research and Society in this feature for Qantara.de
When Germans mention «Islamophobia», the role of the country’s right-wing party AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland / Alternative for Germany) is always part of the issue. The party insists its views on Islam constitute a form of religious criticism and are thus protected by the right to freedom of expression. But many accuse the party of fomenting latent resentment.
The real question then is whether what the AfD says in statements, interviews and its party programmes can in fact be considered religious criticism – or whether this assertion merely serves as a cover for fundamental hostility towards Islam and those identifying as Muslims.
Where does religious criticism end and Islamophobia begin? The distinction – apart from overtly criminal statements or actions – remains controversial.
In the AfD’s 2016 party agenda, «criticism of religion» and «criticism of Islam» are mentioned in the same breath: «Criticism of religion, including criticism of Islam, is lawful under general legislation as part of the basic right to freedom of expression. (…) The AfD supports the efforts of critics of Islam to educate others about Islam, to initiate reforms within the Muslim community, and to adapt Islam to conform to the norms and values of enlightened modernity.»
AfD deputy party leader Beatrix von Storch said in a newspaper interview that Islam was «a political ideology that is not compatible with the Constitution». Nicolaus Fest , a former journalist at Springer and now a member of the interim executive committee of the Berlin AfD, also made a public statement after joining the party: «I consider Islam less a religion, than a totalitarian movement that is more akin to Stalinism or Nazism.» Islam does not separate state and religion, he said, and is therefore a political ideology. The AfD party agenda takes a similar stance: «Minarets are to be forbidden as signs of Islamic rule, as is the muezzin call, according to which there is no other god but Allah.»
Criticism of Islam sounds better than Islamophobia
This is a commonplace sleight of hand used by critics of Islam. First, Islam is deprived of its status as a religion. Then it is classified as a political ideology. The next step is to emphasise one’s own unqualified commitment to freedom of religion, conscience and creed – but not in relation to Islam, because these constitutional rights do not apply to a political ideology.
For the AfD, the relationship between its «Islam-critical» positions and criticism of religion is clear. The party members view their own statements as «critical of Islam» and not «hostile to Islam». They believe they are well within the boundaries of religious criticism, and so statements on Islam are covered by freedom of expression.
This apparent clarity dissolves, though, as soon as we consider both Muslim and non-Muslim reactions to the AfD’s statements. They are in fact not perceived at all merely as religious criticism, but are often seen instead as veritable «Islam-bashing», as «Islamophobic» and also quite frequently as «critical of Islam». The nuances are by no means without semantic consequences. The term «criticism of Islam» has much more legitimacy than the term «Islamophobia». In order to draw a line between the two terms, it is helpful to first of all focus on the question of whether religious criticism is in fact present here at all.