Erfurt, Germany- This medieval city of timber-framed buildings and cobblestone streets is on the front lines of the escalating culture war over Islam in the West.
Donald Trump may be calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, but on this side of the Atlantic, too, Islam is under fire, with political opposition to the faith growing as an anti-Muslim message emerges as the rallying cry of Europe’s far right.
In few places is the shift more startling than in Germany, where attacks by Islamist radicals in neighboring nations and a record wave of Middle Eastern migrants are testing the national will to protect minority rights adopted after World War II.
A libertarian force opposed to the euro and Greek bailouts, the fast-growing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), has now squarely joined the anti-Islam ranks.
In recent weeks, the AfD unveiled a scathing denunciation of the faith, warning against “the expansion and presence of a growing number of Muslims” on German soil.
Adding fuel to the party’s campaign, German authorities on Thursday arrested three Syrian men who had posed as migrants, accusing them of plotting an attack on the historic center of Düsseldorf in the name of ISIS.
Saying it wants to protect women’s rights, national security and German culture, the party, supported by almost one in six voters, is calling for a ban on headscarves at schools and universities and is preparing to release an anti-Islam “manifesto” based on “scientific research.”
Here in the formerly communist east, the party has gone further, startling local Muslims by launching an effort to stop the construction of Erfurt’s first mosque.
According to city records, 75 percent of Erfurt’s 200,000 residents say they have “no religion.”
However, AfD officials are outraged by the thought of minarets rising only a few tram stops away from the steeples of Erfurt’s ancient churches.
“This issue is too important to remain silent about,” said local AfD politician Stefan Möller. “We owe it to our country to speak out. We are patriots.”
Muslim leaders and progressive politicians, meanwhile, are sounding the alarm, while calling the AfD’s move against Islam a sign of the times.
This year, at least two German universities have closed Muslim prayer rooms, arguing that places of higher education should be secular and that Islam should not receive “special treatment.”
They are encouraging Muslims who want to pray to use generic “rooms of silence” designed for all students.
In Germany, as in other parts of Europe, there has also been a recent series of attacks on mosques, including attempted arsons and vandalism.
Some here, and not only Muslims, are deeply worried by the trend.
“The crematoriums for the concentration camps of World War II were built in Erfurt,” said Bodo Ramelow, the left-wing governor of the state where Erfurt is located.
“Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps were here. The first big wave of racism was directed against our fellow Jewish citizens. We must never again allow a majority vote to prevent a minority from thriving.”
Muslim leaders see rising opposition in Germany as part of the same phenomenon that has turned Islam into a campaign issue in the United States as well as in France, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland and other nations in Europe.
“For the first time since World War II there is a party again attempting to existentially constrain an entire religious community and to threaten it,” Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, said about the anti-Islam stance of the AfD. “This reminds us of the times of Hitler.”