The four young men look unremarkable in Cologne's downtown pedestrian zone. Now and then they press a pamphlet into somebody's hand with a smile. They seem as harmless as volunteers gathering donations for, say, starving children in Africa; but their project belongs to a political movement that is being viewed with alarm by intelligence officers in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.
These young men handing out flyers work for an organization called "Pro Cologne," which has been watched with suspicion by the domestic intelligence agency -- the Verfassungsschutz or Office for the Protection of the Constitution -- for several months. They are gathering support in the otherwise liberal-minded and open city of Cologne to protest an enormous mosque slated for construction in the district of Ehrenfeld. Around 300 members of Pro Cologne have collected more than 20,000 signatures, and a few unsavory characters on the German far right hope to use their success as a way to win seats in state parliaments.
With a new political party called "Pro NRW" (Pro North-Rhine Westphalia), stemming from the Pro Cologne movement, two leaders named Markus Beisicht and Manfred Rouhs want to win enough votes to enter the state parliament in 2010. About a dozen Pro Cologne spinoffs are already preparing local campaigns across the state -- in Gelsenkirchen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Essen and Bottrop, among other places. Where no new mosques are being planned, Beisicht says, the party will just fight smaller existing mosques.
The Rhinelanders also have their eyes on Berlin: Party functionaries sent mailouts last October to addresses in the capital to protest a planned mosque in the Berlin district of Charlottenburg. They've even established a citizens' movement with an even more awkward name: "Pro Deutschland."
'A Second Mecca'
Officials at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution think it's possible that Beisicht and his friends will gain resonance with voters and even overtake the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) in western states. The NPD -- which tends to line up with Israel-hating Muslim groups -- has tried to block the new competition by mounting similar anti-mosque efforts. They've organized a group in Münster called "Citizens' Movement Pro Münster" to hinder the Cologne party's march to state power.
This playing on fears of a supposed Muslim invasion seems to work on the busy public street in Cologne. Some people who took pamphlets also signed a petition against the planned new mosque. One person, who said he was a bureaucrat, said he didnt "want a second Mecca in Cologne." A saleswoman was afraid her neighborhood near the new mosque would get "loud."
A Düsseldorf neo-Nazi expert named Alexander Häusler says anyone who signs these petitions will be placed on anti-immigrant mailing lists -- a charge Pro NRW denies.
But critics like Häusler also blame city officials for the dubious personalities now leading the anti-mosque movement. Almost all factions of Cologne's government greeted the big new mosque project with open arms, without involving voters to any adequate degree. A city spokeswoman says at least a debate has been led over "the height of the minarets." But established political parties, says Häusler, "ignored the fears and concerns of local citizens for too long."
The methods of the anti-mosque movement have been studied by far-right groups in other countries, like Austria's FPÖ ("Austrian Freedom Party") and Belgium's Vlaams Belang ("Flemish Interest") party. In November, Markus Beisicht gave a special presentation on the Cologne movement to FPÖ members in Graz. "We will lead our fight across Europe," he told them, "whether it's in Graz, Cologne or Vienna." He's invited friends from the FPÖ, Vlaams Belang and France's National Front to a big "Anti-Islam Congress" in Cologne next September.
Beisicht is a lawyer who once belonged to Germany's far-right Republikaner (REP). Like a number of executive Pro NRW members, he's cultivated links to the radical right for years. With members of the "German League for Home and Folk," in the early '90s, he laid a 1,000-mark bounty on the location of an immigrant woman who had applied for asylum in Germany and then disappeared underground. Rouhs, his right-hand man, was a member of the NPD. And André Picker, a lawyer on the party's executive board, once represented a neo-Nazi band called the The White Wolves, who had trouble with the German government over lines like "Clear out the Jews and wake up Germany" ("Juda verrecke und Deutschland erwache"). Nazi propaganda is not protected speech in Germany.
Meanwhile, the Pro NRW party has also discovered a solvent financial supporter. A 90-year-old contractor named Günther Kissel has recently joined up; he's known for financing far-right causes. He once invited the convicted Holocaust denier and British historian David Irving to speak on his business property.
But Kissel normally makes a clean distinction between politics and private enterprise. The firm he founded, which he still heads as principal stockholder, has taken on a project that doesn't quite fit with the aims of his new-found party. His contracting firm is in charge of building a €7 million mosque in a racially mixed neighborhood of Duisburg called Marxloh, in North-Rhine Westphalia.