German counter-extremism programme – a ‘spying charter’

February 24, 2011 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete, Sibille Merz

As we await Lord Carlile’s much trumpeted review of the Prevent strategy, anti-racist groups are revealing the sinister danger in Germany’s new counter-extremism strategy

The Berlin group ReachOut is amongst a number of victim support organisations which have refused to sign up to new grant conditions announced by the German federal government. Under a clause entitled ‘Affirming democracy against extremism’ (Demokratieerklärung gegen Extremismus), all federally-funded associations will have to sign a statement in which they swear allegiance to the German constitution. The clause also instructs funded groups to abide by the same definition of extremism as that of the Federal Office for the Defence of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) which is the government’s domestic intelligence agency which gathers intelligence on threats concerning the democratic order, the existence and security of the federation or one of its states, and the peaceful coexistence of people. Finally, the new clause holds all funded groups responsible for the acts of all institutions and individuals it works with, stating that it ‘lies within’ the funded group’s competence to ensure that all its partners act in accordance with the constitution. This is referred to as the duty of funded groups to monitor its project partners’ loyalty to the constitution (Treue zum Grundgesetz).

Definitions of extremism

In Germany, right-wing extremism and neo-Nazi violence has been an intractable problem with deadly attacks on asylum hostels and Turkish families, as well as repeated attacks on synagogues and Jewish graveyards, throughout the 1990s. After the brutal murder of the Mozambican guestworker Alberto Adriano in Dessau in July 2000 and a bomb attack injuring at least ten people, mainly Jews, in Düsseldorf, the Social Democrat government set up an official programme to combat right-wing extremism. Up until this point, state funding had only been given to programmes concerned with the rehabilitation of the offender. Hence, the Social Democrat’s programme to combat right-wing extremism, while not without problems, was welcomed as an important shift in state policy. It was the first time, for instance, that state funding had been provided to small, local initiatives against right-wing extremism, and included the funding of support and counselling for the victims of neo-Nazi hate crimes.

But in 2009 – at the same time as the state intelligence services announced that the right-wing was more violent and better organised than before – the Christian Democrat federal ministry of the interior announced a new approach. It stated that in addition to resources set aside for programmes against right-wing extremism extra money would be allocated to combating left-wing and Islamist extremism, as well as foreigner criminality. Grassroots groups like ReachOut found themselves being told that if they wanted to continue to receive federal funding they should consider providing counselling to the victims of left-wing violence as well as the German victims of foreigner violence and racism. Loose definitions of extremism, furthermore, seemed to categorise anti-fascism as a form of left-wing extremism.

Now Kristina Schroeder, the minister for family, women, youth and seniors, has gone one step further. A review of government counter-extremism policy has led to two programmes – ‘Advocating Tolerance, Strengthening Competence(s)’ is aimed at combating right-wing extremism, while the ‘Initiative Strengthening Democracy’ is targeted at left-wing and Islamist extremism. It is in the context of these two new initiatives that the new funding clause has been introduced.

Why oppose the clause?

Biplab Basu, director of ReachOut, is at the forefront of the campaign to get the allegiance clause, which he describes as a ‘spying charter’, rescinded. He told IRR News that anti-racist groups are opposed to the stigma that the clause places on funded organisations, as well as the suspicion it generates that groups combating extremism are somehow opposed to democratic values. ‘In fact, the opposite is the case as ReachOut’s opposition to neo-nazism starts from the basis of support for democracy’, he told us. Another victim support group AKuBiZ, was recently awarded the Saxony Democracy Award for its work countering the rise of neo-Nazism in Saxony. But AKuBiZ has refused to accept the award, because to do so would signal acceptance of the clause, the introduction of which, as far as it is concerned, undermines the internal democracy and open spirit of AKuBiZ, forcing it to work in a climate that promotes mistrust between members, partners and all stakeholders.[1]

Another problem is the Verfassungsschutz’s definition of left-wing extremism that dates back to its Cold War role where Communists were defined as subversives. And then there is also the Verfassungsshgutz’s ‘slippery slope’ view of Islamic extremism, criticised by the International Crisis Group for lumping together many non-violent Muslim organisations with a few potentially violent groups and classifying Muslims, who are simply devout, as just a notch or two below the potentially violent on a continuum of radicalisation. Already, a number of very important challenges have been brought against the German intelligence services for a definition of left-wing extremism that has led to the surveillance of journalists, lawyers and anti-fascist activists. How precisely does a left-winger become classified as a threat to the state? Journalists such as Friedrich Burschel[2] and the highly-respected Bremen lawyer, Dr Rolf Gössner, who is also vice-president of the International League for Human Rights,[3] have successfully filed suits against their classification as extremists by the Verfassungschutz which they argue is an anti-democratic organisation, for which the principles of transparency and accountability do not apply. (The North Rhine-Westphalia anti-fascist newspaper LOTTA NRW has also filed a successful suit.)[4] And a number of representative Muslim organisations, that the intelligence services placed under surveillance as ‘non-violent Islamists’ are also challenging definitions that have labelled its members extremist, subjected them to reduced employment opportunities in certain professions, and excluded them from citizenship via naturalisation.

ReachOut finds that the inclusion of certain non-violent Muslim groups in the Verfassungsschutz’s list of unconstitutional organisations presents a major barrier to its work around anti-Muslim hate crimes. In fact, the Islamophobic climate in Berlin has been strengthened since the debate launched by the publication of Thilo Sarrazin’s bestseller, Germany Abolishes Itself, and the formation, in the run-up to the September 2011 Berlin mayoral and city parliament elections, of a new anti-Islam party led by Rene Stadtkewitz (a former member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who was expelled from the CDU’s parliamentary group in the Berlin city assembly in October 2010 for inviting Geert Wilders to Berlin for a conference.) Since then, there have been repeated petrol bomb attacks on several Berlin mosques. ReachOut is one of the few groups on the ground which has offered support to the mosques’ administrators who are largely isolated in the current climate of hate. ‘We disagree strongly with the Verfassungscshutz’s definition of extremism’, Biplab Basu told IRR News, ‘signing such a clause would ensure that we would not be able to work with or share platforms with Muslim organisations – worst still we would be expected to report on them.’

Campaign gathers momentum

Several victim support groups, including ReachOut, came together for a day of action and launched an online petition against the clause. Part of the reason that the campaign is fast gathering momentum is that a large number of mainstream civil society organisations, supported by the Social Democrats and the Greens, which could in the past turn a blind eye to the Verfassungsshutz’s monitoring of left or Muslim organisations, are now directly implicated in the Verfassungsshutz approach to extremism Thus, the campaign has received an impressive amount of support from political parties, educational charities as well as Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews and Aiman Mazyek, secretary general of the Central Council of Muslims, who describe the clause as a ‘symbol of the mistrust’ that the government shows towards its citizenry and an attempt by the government to assert political control over civil society.[5] There is widespread opposition in Berlin where the state’s government has itself refused to agree to the conditions of the clause, though its appeal to the federal ministry to rescind it was refused. Holger Hoevelmann, the Social Democrat minister of interior of the state of Saxony-Anhalt has also spoken out against the clause, saying it is mischievous and spreads mistrust. Even the government’s own watchdog, the Scientific Office of the Bundestag (Wissenschaftlicher Dienst), is questioning whether the clause is compatible with the German constitution on the grounds that it runs counter to the constitutional guaranteed right to freedom of opinion. The Scientific Office of the Bundestag is also concerned that the duty to monitor loyalty of project partners to the constitution could be unworkable, promoting a climate of mistrust leading to a decline in democratic participation.

But while many groups are refusing to sign, others that are reliant on federal state funding have agreed to the conditions – primarily because if they don’t, their projects will close. On the day of action, the federal ministry was overwhelmed with faxes from campaign supporters. Some from the former GDR express outrage that once again citizens were being asked to spy and log the activities of their neighbours. Others speak of the lessons of German history, and the fact that young people who oppose fascism and right-wing extremism are doing it in the name of democracy and that Germany should not stigmatise them, but be proud of them.

Related links

ReachOut

Download an interview with Biplab Basu (pdf file, 192kb) of ReachOut

Our thanks to Nina Mühe for her help in preparing this article. References: [1] The declaration of AKuBitz on refusing the democracy prize can be found at http://ablehnug.blogsport.de [2] Friedrich Burschel is a freelance journalist who had written in several left-wing journals on issues such as anti-fascism and state racism and who successfully filed a suit against the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz after he was placed under surveillance in 2000 on account of being categorised by the intelligence services as a dangerous left-wing extremist. [3] In February 2011, in the case of Dr Rolf Gössner, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution was found guilty of a breach of the law that spans at least four decades. For further information on Dr Gössner's case see Germany: under permanent surveillance Junge Welt (1 November 2010) [4] After LOTTA NRW filed its suit, the verfassungsschutz of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia was forced to remove references to LOTTA NRW from its extremism report. LOTTA spokesperson Britta Kremers commented that it seems now to be the tendency within the verfassungsshutz to place the historical legacy of anti-fascism and the term itself under a general suspicion and equate it with left-wing extremism and undemocratic tendencies. More information on the attacks on anti-fascist newspapers and organisations at http://www.daburna.de/blog/2010/12/19/gericht-freier-journalist-ist-kein-linksextremist/ [5] The statements can be found at berlinonline

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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