Silencing Speech on Islam
Bavaria's Interior Ministry announced April 12, 2013, that the provincial Office of Constitutional Protection (Verfassungsschutz) will monitor local chapters of the website Politically Incorrect (PI) and the small conservative Freedom Party (Die Freiheit). As reported in the media, Bavaria is the first province in Germany to take this step, an important German milestone in ostracizing criticism and/or condemnation of Islam.
As the ministry website explains, the Federal Republic of Germany is a "militant democracy [wehrhafteDemokratie]." The Verfassungsschutz hereby functions as an "early warning system" against threats to a free society. Verfassungsschutz offices at the federal and provincial levels "observe anti-constitutional efforts" (including with secret surveillance) across the political spectrum and report to authorities and the public.
The press release announcing the decision stated that a "hostility to Islam had developed outside of rightwing extremism that was significant for the Verfassungsschutz." The press release thereby focused on the provincial chapter of Die Freiheit that "consisted, among others, of the hardcore of the local Munich PI group." The "central leadership person" here was Michael Stürzenberger, the spokesman of the PI group and provincial Die Freiheit chairman since early 2012.The objective of these groups, Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann accused, was "to stoke general fears of Muslims and to defame them on the basis of their faith as enemies of a society of law. Freedom of religion, human dignity, and the principle of equal treatment as core elements of our underlying free democratic order are thereby harmed."
The press release further criticized a referendum campaign initiated by these groups in late 2012 opposed toa Center for Islam in Europe-Munich (Zentrumfür Islam in Europa-München or ZIE-M). Stürzenberger and his associates have opposed ZIE-M's building because of, among other reasons, the questionable views and background of its proponent, the imam Benjamin Idriz, a man who himself has previously appeared in Bavarian Verfassungschutz reports. The press release condemned this campaign as a "platform for generalizing Islam-hostile propaganda."
In his press release speech, though, Herrmann "distinguished" such propaganda "from criticism of Islam" such as the "referendum against the ZIE-M" that is "in principle... within... the fundamental right of free expression." Herrmann argued that "rightwing extremists" exploit the fact that "other elements of the population critically deal with Islam, for example with respect to" gender equality. Hermann's speech and the press release itself, meanwhile, noted that the "threat to Germany due to international Islamist terrorism remains unvaryingly high." Accordingly, Herrmann and the press release both stated that Verfassungsschutz monitoring did not apply to those "who support the referendum with their signature."
The Bavarian action fulfills a wish often expressed in the past by various German media outlets, Stürzenberger's mutual enemy Idriz, and Sebastian Edathy, Social Democratic (SPD) chairman of the German parliament's interior committee. Yet analysis of PI and Die Freiheit, widely seen as a German version of Geert Wilders' Dutch Freedom Party (Partijvoor de Vrijheidor PVV), does not reveal anti-constitutional sentiment. Regular PI readers know that this popular (over 100,000 visitors on one record day) conservative German website criticizes Islam's aggressive and authoritarian aspects in a manner very similar to Robert Spencer's American Jihadwatch website. Indeed, Spencer cooperates with PI's Stefan Herre in Stop the Islamization of Nations (SION) and has participated in an August 4, 2012, international "counterjihad" conference in Stockholm with Stürzenberger. Other conservative outlooks such as support for American and Israeli national security measures round out PI's issue portfolio.
Given Herrmann's own references to Germany's Islamist threats and to elements that "critically deal with Islam," it is not apparent why PI and Die Freiheit deserve Verfassungschutz attention. Like Wilders, Stürzenberger in response to the monitoring has written that PI's "educational work does not direct itself against Muslims, but rather against the political ideology of Islam. Muslims are its first victim, above all women. We want to free them."
Verfassungsschutz monitoring alone entails no legal penalties, yet as Germany's supreme court already ruled in 2005, such a listing is a state "intervention-like measure" with "indirect effects." This listing has a "disadvantageous" effect upon a media's "action possibilities" in terms of advertisers, writers, and readers. Contrary to the Bavarian case, the 2005 decision demanded that anti-constitutional sentiments be "sufficiently weighty" to justify a Verfassungsschutz naming.
Analysis of the present case indicates a related concern raised by the 2005 decision. Inappropriate Verfassungsschutz statement compiling does not allow for proper public distinguishing between entities like PI merely under monitoring and others already designated "extremist." Thus the high court demanded that any such listing "differentiate clearly" between the two. Yet Munich's national daily, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, cavalierly referred to PI as "extremist" and "hostile to the constitution."
"There are days on which a country falls over," a German lawyer summarized in an email his dispirited view of the PI case. "It is then still difficult to speak of rule of law. Today is such a day. Bavaria pursues people as rightwing extremists and constitutional enemies merely because they speak the truth about Islam.... The world should know." Advocates of open debate concerning Islam or any other matter, both within and without Germany, should heed this lawyer's concern. After all, a threat to free speech anywhere, is a threat to free speech everywhere.