Anti-Islam Conference Right-Wing Populists to Gather in City of Immigrants

Europe's right-wing populists want to build a united front to battle what they call the continent's creeping Islamization at a conference set to take place in Cologne this weekend. Powerless to stop the event, local officials are anticipating the arrival of thousands of counterprotesters.
Von Lenz Jacobsen

Cologne's Heumarkt, a cobblestone square in the city's Old Town, is best known as the place where thousands and thousands of costumed revellers converge each Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. to ring in the new season of the most famous festival along the Rhine River, Carnival. This Saturday, though, Heumarkt will become the focal point for an altogether different and decidedly less cheerful event. Instead of the sound of relentlessly upbeat Carnival songs, the square will be filled with radical right-wing slogans and anti-Muslim baiting.

Pro Cologne (Pro Köln), a group that has risen to political prominence in this city of 1 million with its vociferous campaign to stop the construction of a major mosque  -- and even landed seats on the City Council along the way -- is to hold a conference aimed at halting what it describes as the creeping "Islamization" of Europe. It would be hard to find another German city where the debate over integration and the role of Islam has been as concrete and vocal as it has been here. And nowhere else has it been easier to observe the collateral damage that can occur when politicians attempt to address the fears many locals have about purported Islamization.

For weeks now, Pro Cologne has been promising to turn the historic site into a stage for European right-wing populists, with 100 participants and several hundred supporters gathering at the planned "Anti-Islamization Conference." More than 40,000 counterprotesters are also expected in the city, and police are describing it as one of their "most difficult assignments" ever. Cologne, after all, is home to 330,000 people with immigrant backgrounds -- among them 64,000 holding Turkish passports. Three-thousand police officers from all over the state of North Rhine-Westphalia will be deployed in the city.

In an effort to attract large crowds to the event, Pro Cologne recently unveiled a lineup that reads like a Who's Who of the European right-wing populist scene. As keynote speakers, it listed Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French National Front ("I believe in the inequality of races") and Heinz-Christian Strache, chancellor candidate for the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) -- a man who had contact to the banned right-wing extremist Viking Youth group and is seeking to amend the Austrian constitution to forbid mosque construction. The group also said it expected Mario Borghezio of Italy's Northern League and Filip Dewinter of Belgium's Vlaams Belang, the right-wing Flemish group that garnered 12 percent of the vote in Belgium's last election, to attend. Their goal is to form an alliance against the Islamization of Europe.

Stretching the Truth

But just a few days before the event is set to take place, news emerged that the conference's organizers may have stretched the truth about famous attendees.

When contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE this week, a spokesperson for Le Pen claimed the French politician had never agreed to speak or attend and accused Pro Cologne of using his name "to create propaganda." Earlier this week, Austria's Strache cancelled his appearance. Instead, FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky is slated to attend.

Both Le Pen and Strache are still listed as keynote speakers on the conference Web site. But rather than removing their names, Pro Cologne is complaining of what it has described as a "campaign of disinformation." Without the two far-right political superstars, the list of attendees is starting to look a lot less impressive. But the conference will likely still go on.

Conference organizer Pro Cologne holds the issue of Europe's "Islamization" near and dear. Recently, the group has benefited from the backing established political parties have given for building what has been described as a "mega-mosque" in the city. On August 28, city officials gave their final approval for construction of the Muslim house of worship , which will have 55-meter-high (180 foot) minarets. Led by Markus Beisicht, a former member of Germany's far-right Republikaner (Republicans) party, Pro Cologne's opposition to the mosque gave it a boost in recent local elections, with the right-populists garnering 4.7 percent of the total vote.

Pro Cologne differentiates itself from the politically unpalatable far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), instead identifying itself as a moderate conservative catch-all group for those opposed to what it describes as the Islamization of German society. For its first-ever conference, it has invited like-minded people from across Europe.

From the point of view of participants, the summit will take place on neutral ground. "The Right in Germany is still very weak," explained Flemish separatist Dewinter. "So there will be fewer internal quarrels here." Dewinter and the others say they will attempt to organize a list of like-minded candidates for the upcoming 2009 elections for the European Parliament. The Belgian leader even dreams of creating an "International of Nationalists," a wordplay on the international organization of Communists.

It's a prospect that is already making some Middle Eastern countries nervous. Two weeks ago, Iran asked the French -- who currently hold the rotating presidency of the European Union -- to prohibit the conference. Politicians and public authorities in Cologne have been seeking to do just that for more than a month now. An administrative lawyer advised the police it was unlikely a ban on the gathering would hold up in court. Police did succeed, however, in preventing the right-wing activists from meeting in front of the world famous Cologne Cathedral.

'A Huge Stomach Ache'

"It's a huge stomach ache," says Cologne Mayor Fritz Schramma, whose city will be forced to make its own offices available to the nationalists on Friday. Officials had little choice, as members of the city government, Pro Cologne politicians are merely exercising their legal right to announce an "extended party conference" with their party group in city hall along with their guests. Pro Cologne leader Beisicht said the group would likely meet "around Cologne and out in the surrounding countryside." Also on the docket is a bus trip out to Ehrenfeld, the neighborhood where construction of the massive mosque is soon slated to begin.

On the eve of the conference's start, the exact agenda is still unclear. One thing is certain though: A three-day battle between Germany's right- and left-wing scenes is expected as the conference opens, with players in both camps converging from all over Germany to attend protests surrounding the event. In the left-wing scene, some have already been trained in blockading techniques so that they can attempt to paralyze the conference this weekend.

But Markus Beisicht appears to be more anxious about other groups than the leftist Black Bloc. Indeed, he's worried about getting unwanted support from the wrong quarters.

"It would be really bad if the neo-Nazis drew the wrong attention to us," the lawyer says.

It's an assessment shared by senior officials at the state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German domestic intelligence agency established after World War II to prevent neo-Nazi activity. "That would destroy the centrist-conservative public image (Pro Cologne) has carefully sought to build," said the agency's vice president, Burkhard Freier.

Meanwhile, the city of Cologne has come up with its own unique way of defusing the situation. This weekend, it plans to deploy two of the most valuable weapons in its Carnival arsenal. Popular local Carnival pop groups Die Höhner and Brings are set to perform concerts and belt out songs critical of the European Right.

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