Germany is concerned that the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed could inflame tensions in the country, which has four million Muslims, and hurt German interests abroad.
Germany grappling with violence at demonstrations
Berlin // The German government is considering banning some radical Muslim groups and expelling violent demonstrators from the country after several police were attacked and injured by Islamists protesting against displays of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by a far-right organisation.
Twenty-nine police officers were injured, including two who were stabbed, during a protest on May 5 outside the Saudi-financed King Fahd Academy in Bonn where Pro NRW - an extremist right-wing party - had held up placards displaying drawings of the Prophet Mohammed originally printed in Danish newspapers in 2005.
Last week, 30 Muslim demonstrators were arrested in Solingen after injuring three police officers and a passer-by. There, too, they had been taunted by Pro NRW, which had put the Prophet Mohammed cartoons on display near a mosque.
The government is concerned that the cartoons could inflame tensions in Germany, which has four million Muslims, and hurt German interests abroad.
The demonstrators are described by police, politicians, the media and some Muslim groups as Salafists, although it is unclear how many of them actually belong to the Sunni movement that espouses a particularly strict interpretation of Islam and seeks the introduction of Sharia.
In Solingen and Bonn, many Muslim protesters had masked their faces with scarves. They refused to speak to reporters.
One man who did not identify himself and who gave a speech at the demonstration in Solingen on May 1 posted a video message on the website Die Wahre Religion (The True Religion), which the domestic intelligence service believes to be a hub for radical Islamists on the internet.
"We wanted to show that we were present, that we love our Prophet Mohammed, that we're defending him," said the man. "If people want to live in peace together, then one thing is very, very important, that one respects the religion of Islam."
The interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, has warned that German embassies and companies abroad may face demonstrations or boycotts similar to the worldwide protests in 2005 and 2006 following the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.
"We in Germany won't allow religious wars to be imposed on us, either by radical Salafists or extremist parties," Mr Friedrich said.
"There is no question that the Salafists have an ideological proximity to Al Qaeda," said Mr Friedrich. "We will use all means at our disposal to take action against them when they fight against our democratic state and against our constitutional order."
Germany has 3,800 Salafists, according to an estimate by the domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which last month published a report saying the movement was spreading an ideology "that serves as the breeding ground for Islamic radicalisation ... and for recruitment for militant Jihad".
Pro NRW, which is openly anti-Islamic and has campaigned at length against the construction of a large mosque in Cologne in recent years, launched a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest last month.
Its members have been holding up posters of the original 2005 caricature by Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist, at or near mosques in several German cities in what has been widely condemned as a deliberate provocation of Muslims.
The party's aim is to gain publicity ahead of a regional election today in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to many of the country's Muslims. It has little backing in the population, and is expected to fall far short of the five per cent threshold needed to win seats in parliament.
On its website, Pro NRW said it was offering a €1,000 prize (Dh4,746) for the "most courageous Islam-critical cartoon". It said it would put the best entries on display outside mosques and "Salafist Islamist centres" as part of its "Freedom Instead of Islam" tour. It has demonstrated in cities across the North Rhine-Westphalia in recent weeks.
"They want to provoke and unsettle Muslims," said Ralf Jäger, North Rhine-Westphalia's interior minister. "They're trying to garner votes with anti-Islamic agitation to whip up prejudice and intolerance."
German authorities have taken legal action to try to prevent Pro NRW from showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but regional courts have overturned the bans because of considerations over freedom of speech.
The Central Council of Muslims in Germany condemned both Pro NRW and the Muslim demonstrators. "To react to these provocations with violence is not the way of peace-loving Muslims, because this is un-Islamic and only plays into the hands of the far right," said Nurhan Soykan, general secretary of the council, which is suing Pro NRW for incitement to hatred.
"We expressly distance ourselves from violent Muslims that incite vigilantism and attack the police. Extremists are trying to stage a '2nd Denmark'. We will have no part of it. We expect the government and justice system to take all possible legal action to stop this racism festering and becoming socially acceptable."
Pro NRW's rallies in recent weeks have numbered only a few dozen people. Its campaign follows a controversial programme by a Muslim businessman to distribute hundreds of thousands of free copies of the Quran from stalls in city centres this year.
Palestinian-born Ibrahim Abou Nagie, 47, who denies he is a Salafist, has said the copies are "a present from the Muslims to their neighbours". He has given speeches urging followers to "die as martyrs" saying non-believers will "go to hell forever".
German authorities have criticised the Quran handouts as a stunt to attract young people to radical interpretations of Islam.