Religious freedom for Muslims: the AfD have picked their first fight in the Bundestag
The new German parliament only met for the first time at the end of October and already the first impasse has been reached. The other parties are refusing to accept the Alternative for Germany (AfD) nominee for Bundestag vice-president. Is this petulance or principle?
Who is the Bundestag President?
On October 24th Germany’s long-time Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was elected Bundestag President (BP) at the first sitting of the new parliament.
Bundestag President is the second highest office in the country, after that of the President, higher even than the Chancellor.
While it is a position of considerable prestige, the incumbent holds little power. He or she runs the proceedings of the Bundestag, holding the power to stop someone from speaking if they go off topic too much or if they “damage the integrity of the parliament”. In extreme cases, they can even fine disruptive lawmakers.
According to a law passed in 1994, each party represented in the parliament gets to have a deputy Bundestag President. The vice-BPs meet with the BP every week to discuss issues which affect the running of the parliament.
What is the controversy?
The AfD entered the Bundestag for the first time after winning over 12 percent of the vote in national elections at the end of September.
They fought a strongly anti-refugee, anti-Islam campaign, with leading party members repeating the mantra that “Islam doesn’t belong to Germany.”
As their candidate for vice-BP, they nominated Albrecht Glaser, a 75-year-old veteran local politician from Frankfurt.
As well as denying the science behind global warming, Glaser has made several controversial statements regarding religious freedom.
“We are for religious freedom," he said in April. "Islam is a construction that doesn’t recognize religious freedom and doesn’t respect it. Wherever Islam has power it suppresses religious freedom. Whoever treats basic rights like that should have this basic right taken away from them.”
Albrecht Glaser. Photo: DPA
Politicians from the other parties point out that the German constitution enshrines the right to religious freedom.
“Whoever puts religious freedom in doubt has disqualified himself. I can’t vote for such a person,” Green party leader Cem Özdemir told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) last month.
This is a view shared by lawmakers across the political spectrum. So when Glaser’s nomination came up for vote, he only won 115 of the over 709 MPs' votes. When the AfD re-nominated him, he won 123 votes. At the third attempt, he mustered only 114 votes.
But the AfD are standing by their man, with party leader Alexander Gauland saying that Glaser’s views represent those of the whole party.
Are the other parties right to block Glaser?
The German constitution is clear on the right of every citizen to practise their religion as they wish. Article 4 of the Basic Law states that "the freedom of religion, conscience and the freedom of confessing one's religious or philosophical beliefs are inviolable."
The principled argument for blocking a candidate who wishes to take a basic constitutional right from a Muslim population of 4.7 million is clear. Nonetheless, not everyone agrees with it.
“I have complete respect for the MPs who voted against the AfD candidate and I understand why they did it,” Aiman Mazyek, head of the Central Council of Muslims, said on Friday. But he added that it would be better to accept Glaser “so that the AfD can’t portray themselves as victims.”
“Then we need to get by with the fact that we have an Islam hater and racist as German vice-BP - that is Germany in 2017, it’s sad but true.”
Mazyek said that Glaser’s views had "nothing to do with how most Muslims in Germany think", accusing the 75-year-old of holding a view of Islam similar to that of radical Salafis.
The AfD’s attitude to religious freedom was also met with stern criticism from the new Israeli ambassador in Germany on Wednesday.
“When it comes to the rights of Muslims in Germany I can only refer to the example of Israel,” Jeremy Issacharoff told Die Welt.
“We have been at war with Arab countries and have internal problems. But we have always had a very established Muslim community.”
“We have never limited the religious freedom of Muslims. I can’t remember a single time when someone has suggested doing this,” he said.