Led by a leaping girl in a short skirt, her arm raised triumphantly, five German teenagers are pictured smiling as they run down a brightly lit corridor. Beneath the group is a sinister demand: "Islam-free schools!"
These are the latest campaign posters from Germany's surging right-wing populist party: Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The posters, plastered across the southern German state of Bavaria ahead of next month’s elections, have predictably stoked outrage for their bluntly anti-Islam message, and come at a time when tensions over immigration are once again dominating the national spotlight in Germany.
Educators and politicians have condemned the new campaign as divisive and likely to stigmatize Muslim students.
“The terrible poster of the Bavarian AfD reminds me of the dark Nazi era when Jewish pupils were no longer allowed to attend German schools,” Katharina Schulze, candidate for the Bavarian Green Party, told VICE News. “With this poster, the AfD divides our society and incites against Muslims in our country. That is intolerable.”
But the AfD appears to be revelling in the attention. The party has played a central role in anti-migrant protests that have roiled the eastern cities of Chemnitz and Koethen this month following the deaths of residents there, allegedly in clashes with migrants.
“The terrible poster of the Bavarian AfD reminds me of the dark Nazi era when Jewish pupils were no longer allowed to attend German schools.”
The AfD’s role in the unrest, which has seen senior party figures march in anti-migrant rallies and declare that the anger of protesters is understandable, has fuelled a debate over whether the far-right party should be monitored as a potential extremist threat by Germany’s domestic intelligence services. Earlier this month, the party announced that its youth wings in the states of Bremen and Lower Saxony were disbanding after being placed under state surveillance.
In Bavaria, the state’s teachers’ association has come out against the populist party’s latest campaign stunt, saying it undermined diversity in schools by sowing division between students of different cultures.
“To make politics on the backs of foreign children in this election campaign, and to split society, this is very dangerous,” association president Simone Fleischmann told VICE News. “I think it is outrageous that politics is being done using such slogans and propaganda.”
Fleischmann worries the AfD’s message encourages the ostracism of Muslim students, and risks encouraging the type of radicalization the AfD was supposedly concerned about.
The campaign has also attracted criticism in neighboring Austria, where anxieties over immigration and identity have helped propel the right-wing populist Freedom Party into government. Florian Klenk, editor-in-chief of Austrian news magazine Falter, tweeted that the poster would some day appear in a history museum as an example of hate propaganda. Michel Reimon, an Austrian Member of the European Parliament, tweeted a picture of the poster, noting: “If you don't see fascism, you just don't want to see it.”
“Burqas? We prefer bikinis”
Yet the posters aren’t all that surprising for the populist group. The AFD rose to prominence by capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany, in the wake of a large influx of asylum seekers and a spate of high-profile crimes linked to migrants, to upend the country’s political order.
In last year’s federal elections, for which it campaigned using explicitly anti-Islam slogans such as “Burqas? We prefer bikinis,” the populist party shocked the political establishment by winning 12.6 percent of the vote. Since then, its support only seems to have grown, with the latest polls placing it on 17.5 percent, making it Germany’s second strongest political force.
Ahead of next month’s elections in Bavaria, the conservative southern state that is Germany’s wealthiest, the rise of the AfD is eating into the support for the governing center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), sending the conservative party into panic mode. With the AfD polling at about 13 percent, the CSU now looks set to lose its absolute majority in the state for the first time in decades.
In response to the populist threat, the governing party has sought to bolster its hardline credentials on immigration, with CSU leader Horst Seehofer nearly bringing down the federal government with demands for tougher border controls earlier this year, and claiming he would have joined far-right anti-migrant protests if he weren’t an elected official.
From burqas to books
The AfD has said its posters are not calling for Muslim students to be barred from schools, but for the scrapping of Islamic religious education for Muslim students, and the wearing of headscarves. The party’s manifesto says that “Islam is a political ideology,” and therefore any Islamic religious education should be banned from Bavarian schools.
But educationalists say that pilot programs that have been running Islamic education classes for Muslim students in the state since 2011 have been a success — and that scrapping them as a result of populist politics would simply be a mistake.
The program, which offers Muslim students religious education in schools in the same way it is provided to students of other faiths, has been supported by the CSU, which says it doesn’t want to leave such education to “backyard mosques.” Experts, such as Manfred Pirner, director of the Research Center for Public Religious Education in Erlangen-Nuremberg, say such programs provide an effective means of promoting integration and preventing radicalization.
The Greens, which are polling in second place in the state, at 16.3 percent, want to see the program expanded to all Bavarian schools.
“It’s a fight against a very successful trial.”
“Islamic instruction in schools, where it exists, is an extremely successful offering for young people,” Schulze, the Greens candidate, told VICE News. “It is good for the development of their personality, it has a socially integrative effect and prevents radicalization.”
But as a result of the jingoistic political climate set by the AfD, the expansion of the program has been placed on hold. And if the AfD gets it’s way, the program will be scrapped altogether.
“It’s a fight against a very successful trial,” said Fleischmann, the teachers’ association president, adding that, as a former teacher and principal, she had seen firsthand the benefits of an inclusive approach to minorities in the classroom.
“I saw again and again how good it was for Muslim children to identify with themselves strongly in the schools,” she said. “I also believe that Islamic studies in the schools can prevent radicalization. And that's why I find it very, very difficult to read a poster like that.”
Judy Bretschneider contributed reporting to this story.
Cover image: An Alternative fuer Deutschland delegate holds a German and a AfD flag at the party's federal congress on April 30, 2016 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)