The Big Chill on free speech continues to sweep Europe.
The recent controversial decision by the Bavarian Office of Constitutional Protection (Verfassungsschutz) to monitor the popular conservative German website Politically Incorrect (PI) has only subsequently become more questionable. Contrary comments by the director of Germany’s Federal Office of Constitutional Protection (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), public statements by local authorities in Munich, and suspicions of political calculations all raise grave doubts about the propriety of PI’s official “anti-constitutional” branding. Irrespective of motive, PI’s predicament demonstrates yet again how public authorities can have a proverbial “chilling effect” upon free speech with respect to Islam.
As previously reported, the Bavarian Verfassungsschutz decided on April 12, 2013, to begin monitoring local chapters of PI and the allied Freedom Party (Die Freiheit) due to their consistent criticism/condemnation of Islam. Such hostility to Islamic ideas prompted suspicions by the Bavarian Verfassungsschutz that these groups opposed Germany’s constitutionally-anchored equal rights before the law with respect to Muslim individuals. Verfassungsschutz offices in Germany at both the federal and the provincial level such as in Bavaria have the mandate to observe and report on such anti-democratic extremist groups.
Munich’s municipal Office against Rightwing Extremism (Fachstelle gegen Rechtsextremismus) noted this monitoring in a flyer available online. This “Info Paper Referendum ZIE-M [Infoblatt Bürgerbegehren ZIE-M]” discusses PI/Die Freiheit’s ongoing petition drive against building a proposed Center for Islam in Europe-Munich (Zentrum für Islam in Europa-München or ZIE-M). Containing citations from the previously discussed Bavarian Verfassungsschutz press release, this flyer warns that the “petition against the ZIE-M is being conducted by a group that stands under the observation of the Bavarian Provincial Office for Constitutional Protection.” Such observation ensued “because its [the group’s] activities violate our constitution.” In conclusion, the flyer admonished: “Please thoroughly consider therefore, whether you want to support this petition with your signature.”
Even as local Munich authorities are publicly associating such a stigma with a private political initiative, though, the federal (Bundes-) Verfassungsschutz has declined to follow Bavaria’s lead in monitoring PI and Co. As reported by a disappointed İsmail Kul at the Deutsch Türkisches Journal (“German Turkish Journal” or DTJ), Bundesverfassungsschutz President Dr. Hans-Georg Maassen saw no justification for watching what Kul described as a “hate page” and the “Der Stürmer 2.0,” in reference to the infamous Nazi propaganda organ Der Stürmer. At a Verfassungsschutz symposium in Berlin during the last week of April 2013, Maassen in response to a question had stated that “in Germany one may say that they do not like Islam, just as one may say that they do not like Christianity.”
Beyond Maassen’s assessment, meanwhile, the questionable Bavarian Verfassungsschutz decision has prompted other concerns. Writing in Germany’s leftwing Tageszeitung (taz), for example, Daniel Bax on May 7, 2013, had the possible “impression” of political motives underlying this decision, however much Bax welcomed action against the “notorious Muslim hater Michael Stürzenberger.” For Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union or CSU) this might be “more a matter of fighting a political competition on the right than seriously proceeding against anti-Muslim prejudices.”
In this context Bax referenced Bavaria’s chief executive from the CSU, Minister President Horst Seehofer. Two years earlier during a March 9, 2011, Ash Wednesday CSU convention speech he had pledged to fight “until the last round” so that immigrants would “not immigrate into German social welfare systems.” This statement brought Seehofer a criminal complaint under Article 130 of Germany’s Criminal Code against “Incitement to Hatred [Volksverhetzung]” from the Social Democratic (SPD) parliamentarian and former state secretary for transport, Ulrich Kasparick.
Explaining his decision on his personal website, Kasparick apparently conflated Seehofer’s Ash Wednesday speech with nationally controversial comments made earlier on October 9, 2010, to Germany’s Focus magazine. Therein Seehofer stated that it was “clear that all in all immigrants from other cultural backgrounds such as Turkey and Arab countries have a harder time” in assimilating. Seehofer concluded that “under all circumstances we need no further immigration from other” and “foreign cultural backgrounds.”
Thus the principled basis for Bavaria’s monitoring of PI/Die Freiheit is doubtful, even as this monitoring will almost certainly have concrete practical effects. Individual citizens will definitely “thoroughly consider” publicly exercising their right to sign an anti-ZIE-M petition, irrespective of its merits, if such civic expression entails contact with those denounced as enemies of the state. The previously reported “indirect effects” of Verfassungschutz monitoring analyzed by Germany’s high court are clearly evident in this case.
Yet Bavarian authorities have not satisfied the high burden laid down by the high court for imposing such burdens on Stürzenberger’s coterie of Islam critics. As the speculation about improper political favoritism influencing the Bavarian Verfassungschutz suggests, PI/Die Freiheit do not fundamentally differ from the unapologetic Seehofer in their cultural critique of Islamic belief’s effect upon behavior. Whether from Seehofer or PI/Die Freiheit, however, important issues involving an evaluation of Islam demand unhindered debate and dialogue. As correctly stated, however curtly, by Maasen, to “like Islam,” or any other faith, or not cannot be a matter of state sanction in a free society.
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