Hundreds of leftist demonstrators tried to block access to a far right-wing political party conference in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart, prompting scuffles been the two sides and police, who detained at least 400 people.
Video and photos showed hundreds of police officers deployed to the conference area, where Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) was expected to rebrand itself as explicitly anti-Islam. Some demonstrators burned tires and hurled fireworks at police, who formed a line in an attempt to keep the two sides apart.
The demonstration continued into Stuttgart's city center. Some protesters held up signs saying: "Whether Pegida or AfD – stop the shift to the right in Germany," referring to the ultra-far right group whose popularity has also surged in recent months. Other signs said "Cosmopolitan, anti-racist, free together. This is the design of our society.
Despite the protests, the conference went ahead as scheduled.
Some Germans are alarmed by the AfD's increasing popularity. In March, the party won seats in the three states holding regional elections, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party suffered losses across the board.
The AfD want to make wearing a burqa illegal in German and ban minarets — the tower of a mosque from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. Alexander Gauland, AfD's Brandenburg leader has previously said that Islam was "not a religion like Catholic or Protestant Christianity, but rather always associated intellectually with the takeover of a state." Beatrix von Storch has said that Islam is a "political ideology that is not compatible with the constitution."
Aiman Mazyek, who heads Germany's Central Council of Muslims, has condemned such comments.
"It is not Islam which is against [the German constitution] but the AfD which does not conform to it," Mazyek, who has said that the AfD's decidedly anti-Islam rhetoric was dangerous, said. "For the first time since Hitler's Germany, there is a party which is discrediting and existentially threatening a religious community."
Other parts of the manifesto which are set to be agreed upon during Saturday's conference, ahead of the party's campaign for the 2017 general election, include withdrawing from the Euro and reinstating military conscription.
According to the BBC, Gauland said that the AfD was a party that "has arrived in society and which is here to stay, whether the consensus parties like it or not."
Polizei versucht Blockade zu räumen. #afd #noafdstg #nika3004 @welt @n24 #noafdhttps://t.co/V6JAAdIpmD
— Martin Heller (@Ma_Heller) April 30, 2016
Saturday's protest comes at a complex time for Germany. Cracks in the country's "culture of welcome" have started to show, with anti-immigrant sentiment creeping into political rhetoric in response to the influx of asylum seekers fleeing war and conflict at home.
"I think the AfD is playing with people's fears," Burhan Kesici, the head of the Islamic Council, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "We had a wave of refugees last year, we have a lot of unemployment, we have other problems. I think now they are trying to score, using Islam to attract new voters."
In countries across Europe and in the United States, some politicians have capitalized on the fear and xenophobia which intensified in the wake of the terror attacks on Paris and Brussels. Anti-immigration groups have used those attacks as a platform to promote the idea that refugees entering Europe or seeking asylum in the US are a trojan horse for militants who trained with the Islamic State group in Syria or Iraq, despite the fact that the vast majority of those responsible for attacks have been born in or lived in the EU or US for years.
But the anti-immigrant rhetoric is drawing crowds on both sides of the ocean — and European countries seem increasingly, starkly, divided down ideological lines when it comes to issues of immigration.
Just last week, a man who says he carries a Glock to defend himself from refugees made big wins in the latest round of voting in the Austrian presidential election. Norbert Hofer, candidate of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPOe) took home almost 37 percent of the vote out of five candidates.
Right-wing nationalism has also seen a surge of support in recent elections in France, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
However, there isn't a one-size-fits-all roadmap to understanding the rightward shift in each country. Each nationalist party has its own distinct set of objectives, which are responding to the specific circumstances of their country. For example, the rise of UKIP reflects a growing desire among some voters in the UK to leave the European Union entirely. In part, that desire is driven by anti-immigrant sentiment, but not entirely.
Meanwhile, politicians from the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn pandered to Greeks who became disenfranchised during the financial crisis, and said that they risked becoming a minority in their own country if the government allowed refugees to settle in Greece.
In her weekly podcast, Merkel urged EU member states to avoid seeking national solutions to European problems. On Saturday, the German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere announced plans to ask the European Commission to extend temporary border controls within the Schengen zone of passport-free travel until late May, to keep EU nations from independently tightening their borders.
A German government official said the request was a joint initiative by Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden and the letter would be sent to Brussels on Monday.
Germany took in more than one million refugees last year. The flow of asylum seekers into western Europe has significantly slowed since Austria and Balkan countries introduced border checks, and a deal with Turkey created a system for returning refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey, even if they made it to EU territory on the dangerous Aegean Sea crossing.