BERLIN // The leader of a newly created anti-Islamic party in Germany said he wants to stop the immigration of Muslims and described Islam as a "totalitarian system" bent on supplanting western liberal values.
In an interview with The National, Rene Stadtkewitz, 46, said Muslims were not integrating into German society as well as other immigrants and that authorities should become stricter, by banning headscarves in school, stopping public funding for teaching young children the Quran and curbing the influence of Islamic organisations.
"Islam is far more than a religion. It's an entire model of society that is incredibly binding for many people," he said. "It's basically a political system with its own legal system that seeks to regulate all aspects of life. We criticise the socio-political component of Islam, which I see as an ideological one similar to other totalitarian systems, and which I think is dangerous."
He called Islam "the opposite of a free society" and said the faith posed a threat because it sought to instil different values in Germany, and because it encouraged immigrants to segregate themselves.
Mr Stadtkewitz, a former member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), set up his party, Freedom, last October. He had been expelled from the CDU's parliamentary group in the Berlin city assembly for inviting Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch Islam critic and head of the Party for Freedom, to Berlin for a conference.
Germany has had no populist, anti-Islamic party until now. Opinion polls suggest a party such as Freedom could get some 20 per cent of the vote in a general election. A recent survey commissioned by Berliner Zeitung, a local newspaper, showed as many as one in four Berliners could imagine voting for it.
Mr Stadtkewitz and his supporters reflect growing sentiment across Europe.
On Saturday, the British prime minister, David Cameron, declared during a speech in Munich that state multiculturalism had failed and left young Muslims vulnerable to radicalisation.
Mr Cameron, in the speech to a security conference, argued that Britain and other European nations needed to "wake up to what is happening in our countries".
Mr Stadtkewitz said his party now had 1,400 members and was setting up regional branches across Germany. It plans to contest its first election in September when Berlin votes for a new mayor and city parliament. Mr Stadtkewitz said the aim was to cross the 5 per cent threshold needed to obtain seats in the assembly. "If that goes well, we'll prepare for the general election in 2013," he said.
He wants a temporary halt to immigration and favours introducing Swiss-style referendums in Germany. He said he would not stand in the way of a public vote on banning the construction of minarets, as Switzerland did in 2009, although he saw such a move as just "scratching at the surface" of the problem.
Mr Stadtkewitz denied accusations that he was a far-right populist. He said his party was espousing mainstream views about Islam and was part of an "uprising" by people across Europe against growing Islamic influence.
"Anyone who criticises Islam stands in the centre of society," he said. "Islam is becoming more visible in western countries and people are starting to rise up against that."
Political scientists have been saying for years that an anti-immigrant party could do well in Germany if it had a charismatic leader. It remains to be seen if Mr Stadtkewitz can assume such a role. With his melancholy eyes and soft, deep voice resembling that of a late-night radio DJ, he does not at first sight fit the description of a radical firebrand. But his quiet eloquence might enable him to attract the middle class voters he is appealing to.
Mr Stadtkewitz was born in communist East Berlin, worked in a factory making industrial equipment and fled East Germany with his wife and son in September 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He returned to Berlin after German unification in 1990 and joined the CDU in 1995.
In a sign that Freedom will face a struggle establishing itself, the party had to cancel its first congress this month because the language school that owned the venue withdrew its permission when it found out about the party's political leanings.
When he tried to hold a news conference on the street in front of the building, a group of 30 left-wing demonstrators surrounded him chanting "Nazis" and "racists", and dozens of police were deployed to keep order.
Mr Stadtkewitz said his party's platform closely resembled that of Mr Wilders, who has called for a ban on the Quran in the Netherlands and whose party became the third-strongest force in the Dutch general election last June.
Populist parties have become more influential across Europe in recent years by galvanising public concern about Islam in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. An anti-immigrant party won seats in the Swedish parliament for the first time in an election last September.
More than 15 million people in Germany, almost a fifth of the population, have an immigrant background, including four million Muslims, most of whom are descendants of Turks invited by the government in the 1950s and 1960s as "guest workers" to make up for a shortage of manpower after the Second World War.
Many of them live in virtual ghettos in the big cities, and the children of Muslim immigrants have higher unemployment rates and lower school qualifications on average than ethnic Germans.
Many analysts say Germany is partly to blame because it has not done enough to adapt its education system to the needs of immigrant children, especially regarding language teaching.
Mr Stadtkewitz said: "More than 15 million people in Germany are immigrants and most of them have integrated themselves. The problems are mainly with people who have come here from Islamic countries, and that's what we have to tackle.
"We must defend our own values much more strongly and stress that we have a leadership role. That will make integration easier."
So far, Mr Stadtkewitz has failed to recruit prominent Germans to join his cause, and even Mr Sarrazin has declined to join the party. "There is always the desire to tie in really well-known people, and I wouldn't be opposed to that," Mr Stadtkewitz said. "But I know we'll make it without them too."