Peddling high-brow Islamophobia
As I was approaching my neighbourhood shopping street the day before the European election, I was struck by a large truck bearing German flags and logos for the far right-wing party, Alternative fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, but also by a large reproduction of an oil painting. It featured some swarthy, sinister-looking robed men sizing up an enslaved, lighter-skinned woman and was accompanied by the slogan: "Europeans vote AfD … So Europe doesn't become Eurabia!"
Eurabia is an Islamophobic term used in connection with a conspiracy theory positing that Muslim people will soon overrun Europe – a theory pushed by Norwegian extreme-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in 2011.
Intentional recourse to popular cultural memory
The poster – one of several from the AfD's "Learning from Europe's history" campaign that re-interpreted famous artworks to push a xenophobic agenda during the EU election – features "The Slave Market" (1866) by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome, an Orientalist work that itself has been judged to present racist tropes from colonial times.
The same image was also used to remind voters of what happened in Cologne during New Year's Eve in 2015, where hundreds of sexual assaults were attributed to men of "North African" appearance.
Just as the AfD refused to take down the poster after requests from the owners of the original work, party activists have been trying to censor cultural institutions. The party recently pressured the organisers of the exhibition titled "Immer wieder? Extreme Rechte und Gegenwehr in Berlin seit 1945" (Again and again? The extreme right and resistance in Berlin since 1945) at Berlin's Rathaus Neukolln (Neukolln Town Hall) to remove content related to the party during the elections to the European parliament.
"We want to use the exhibition to draw attention to the continuities of the extreme right in Berlin and at the same time to point out facets of social resistance," said Vera Henssler of the "Antifaschistisches Pressearchiv und Bildungszentrum" (Antifascist Press Archive and Education Centre) in an interview. "The AfD is only a small part in this story, but it is unquestionably one of the actors."
The AfD-related exhibition material mentions, for example, how party members joined neo-Nazis on the streets in anti-"Islamisation" protests during the peak of the migrant crisis in 2014 and 2015. It also traces how right-wing elements have gained ground within the AfD – initially an anti-EU party – and made Islamophobia a central platform.
After the election, the removed panels were restored to the exhibition. In reaction, the party says it will seek a court order to have them removed, calling the exhibition organisers a "left hate" organisation and adding that since they receive government funds, they should be neutral and uncritical: "We will not tolerate this in public spaces with public funds," said AfD Berlin party spokesperson Ronald Glaser.
Freedom of expression?
The AfD has sought to censor cultural and educational institutions on a number of occasions. It sued the Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB) over a study on the "Parliamentary Practice of the AfD in German State Parliaments", declaring that it violated their "personality rights." But in April, a court declared the study valid and in accordance with the right to academic freedom and freedom of speech.