Riding the Wave of Islamophobia
The German Geert Wilders
The 52 men and women meeting in a conference room at the Hotel Maritim in Berlin's Tiergarten district were determined to remain undisturbed. No one else was privy to the location and time of the meeting, in a deliberate attempt to prevent protestors and journalists from showing up at the scene. The only outsider present was Daniel Pipes, an American author, critic of Islam and advisor to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who happened to be in the city.
The Hotel Maritim is on Stauffenbergstrasse, near the Memorial to the German Resistance. It is an historic point of reference that the 52 attendees would likely have drawn encouragement from. Like would-be Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, after whom the street is named, they too hope to protect Germany against what they perceive to be pending disaster. The group drafted a set of bylaws and discussed a 77-page party platform, which includes such statements as: "We will do everything in our power to oppose the Islamization of our country."
They gave their party a grand name, a name worth fighting for: "Die Freiheit" (Freedom).
The 52 men and women chose as their party chairman an unprepossessing man with a short haircut and melancholy eyes, the 45-year-old manager of a company specializing in alarm systems and security technology and a member of the Berlin state parliament, René Stadtkewitz.
A few weeks later, Stadtkewitz, a former member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), is sitting at the wheel of his BMW 5 Series. It is a cold November morning as the Berlin skyline gradually fades away in the rear-view mirror. At first, Stadtkewitz's most noticeable feature is his voice, the kind of warm, rich bass often found among radio announcers on classical music stations. But despite his appealing voice, the words coming out of his mouth lose their weight due to their strangeness.
"If we don't get things right demographically, we'll have Algeria in Berlin before long. Islam has always been a religion of conquest," Stadtkewitz says in his throaty bass, the voice of a smoker who fills his lungs with cigarette smoke every two hours. It's about a 550-kilometer (344-mile) trip to Wetzlar in the western state of Hesse, but Stadtkewitz plans to return to Berlin that evening. His day will consist of more than 1,000 kilometers on the road, with political meetings and a press conference sandwiched in between the two legs of his trip.
Stadtkewitz speeds down the autobahn.
"There is a press conference, isn't there, Marc?" Stadtkewitz asks.
The question is directed at the man sitting in the back. Marc Doll, 33, is a teacher who has been a vegetarian for the last 15 years. Doll, who has an honest face and keeps his hair parted neatly on the side, is the deputy party chairman.
"Yes, René, as far as I know," says Doll.
Stadtkewitz nods in satisfaction. The event in Wetzlar sounds promising. A few members of the local chapter of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) intend to join the Freedom Party. Stadtkewitz doesn't know these people and has only communicated with them by e-mail and phone, but if FDP members are indeed defecting to his new party, it will be a coup that "will cause a lot of hype in Hesse, even in the media," says Stadtkewitz.
'Geert Wilders Is a Great Democrat and Liberal'
It's the kind of hype that can't be bad for a new, virtually unknown party, particularly as its chairman, Stadtkewitz, is also virtually unknown: a former member of the CDU from Berlin who never made much of an impression as a politician, never held any significant positions and produced few headlines. Stadtkewitz is the classic second-tier politician. His only media exposure consists of a few stories in Berlin newspapers that have generally described Stadtkewitz as a right-wing populist.
But what does that mean?
"Well, what exactly is that supposed to be, a right-wing populist?" Stadtkewitz asks, scratching his head.
Perhaps someone like Dutch politician Geert Wilders?
"That's nonsense. Right-wing populist. Geert Wilders is a great democrat and liberal. I know him well."
But Wilders says that the Koran should be banned, just as Hitler's "Mein Kampf" was banned.
"Well, Wilders does exaggerate sometimes," says Stadtkewitz. "But you have to be able to bring things to a head sometimes. The internal rejection of Islam has long been a majority view in Germany. You can see it in the Sarrazin debate."
For Stadtkewitz the debate that broke out after Thilo Sarrazin, the former member of the board of the German Central Bank, published a book claiming that Muslims would soon outnumber ethnic Germans and that they were dumbing down the country, went something like this: After reading Sarrazin's book, shortly after it was published, Stadtkewitz realized that he liked what he was reading. He felt validated and encouraged.
By the time he had finished reading the book, it had already set off a heated debate in Germany, first about the book itself and eventually about the broader issue of integration. The vehemence of that debate surprised him at first, says Stadtkewitz.
Another German Integration Debate
The book is thick and full of numbers, not exactly the classic formula for a bestseller. Nevertheless, it seems to expose a hidden undercurrent of threat and loss in the German psyche.
There have been similar debates in the past. Indeed, the German integration debate is a ritual that appears with the regularity of an outbreak of herpes. This time, however, the debate has been centered around a clear bogeyman: Muslims.
Book buyers and not politicians are the people who dominate today's integration debate. The mere act of buying the book constitutes a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that Sarrazin is right.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were buying the book encouraged Stadtkewitz in his belief that his fledgling party could be a success. He recognized that there was a certain mood in the country, and that all he had to do was to channel it into a political movement.
Within a few weeks of its establishment, the Freedom Party had already received about 6,000 membership inquiries. Stadtkewitz and his team were overwhelmed and hardly able to respond to all of the inquiries.
In a poll commissioned by the left-leaning newspaper Berliner Zeitung, 24 percent of Berlin residents stated that they could imagine voting for a "party directed against Islam." And a survey conducted by the Emnid opinion research firm concluded that 18 percent of Germans would vote for a Sarrazin party.
A Sarrazin party doesn't even exist.
But now there is one lead by René Stadtkewitz, a small business owner from Berlin's Karow district.