On Monday evening, a truck ploughed into a busy Christmas market in the German capital, killing 12 and injuring 48. But what makes this attack very significant for Germany?
The suspected terror attack, in the heart of Berlin, set a wave of horror and fear all over the country, forcing heavily armed police and ambulances rushing to the popular square, Breitscheid Platz. The attack turned this popular touristic attraction into a scene of chaos and reminded Europeans of July’s lorry attack in the French city of Nice, which killed 86 people.
Shortly after the incident, pictures and videos aired on several TV channels showing injured victims lying on the ground while ambulances and police vans rushed to the site. Soon after the attack, a Pakistani national named Naveed B. was arrested as a suspect. He had entered Germany in December last year as an asylum seeker. According to the authorities, he registered at multiple places under different names and thus his identification process was complicated, pointing to loopholes in the registration system and a lack of coordination among different government institutions. A day later, only after forensic tests bore results was he acquitted of the charges.
Useful for the far-right
Theresa Locker, a journalist working in Berlin, was not far from the crime scene. According to her “some people (far-right supporters)” are actually happy about the incident. “Anti-immigrant parties would use this event now against Chancellor Merkel’s open-door policy and would benefit from it,” she noted.
In Germany, far-right parties and movements have already gained immense popularity in recent months by criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policies for refugees. They are likely to now attempt to capitalise on the fear and anxiety generated by the attack to attract even more German voters in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This year, the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) grabbed record seats in different state legislative assemblies while the major mainstream parties, both, Chancellor Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union and part of government coalition Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands have lost many seats. Germany is preparing for parliamentary elections and according to analysts, it would be the most difficult test for Merkel to acquire the chancellery for the fourth successive term. Many opinion polls suggest that Merkel’s popularity has fallen sharply since she announced the border opening for the refugees in August 2015.
At a recent party convention, she took a relatively tough stance against migrants and especially Muslims to assure backing from party leaders, who are criticizing her policies. This was perhaps why Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere took such pains to not play into their hands by saying: “There is a psychological effect on the whole country connected to my choice of words here, and we want to be very, very cautious and operate close to the actual investigation results, without any speculation.”
The psychological effect that de Maiziere is referring to is fear; it is a potent political force that has been unceasingly employed by some radical elements to magnetize the far right. “Both terrorists and the far-right movements are employing the tool of fear to fulfill their agendas and are ultimately harming the people and culture,” says Tom Weichert, a former German Red Cross aid worker currently working for the German federal office for migrants and refugees.
The AfD, for one, will try to milk the attack. It has been continuously propagating anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric which has been easy to do because of consecutive terrorist attacks in Germany and in neighboring France and Belgium. An attack in the heart of the country, by an alleged asylum seeker might help AfD gain popularity, especially in the capital, which has so far entertained thousands of refugees. Just minutes after the news spread, AfD wrote on Twitter message: “Terrorist attack in Berlin is not an individual incident but a direct outcome of Merkel’s asylum policies.”
While Germany has so far been spared the jihadist bloodbath that has hit next-door France and Belgium it has, nevertheless, already suffered from a wave of smaller terror attacks this year. Many of the assaults were claimed by the so-called Islamic State, carried out by refugees and asylum seekers.
At the party congress, Chancellor Merkel hinted that she would support a nationwide ban on the burqa or veil. This was clearly seen as a move to satisfy angry German voters who see the huge influx of Muslims as a threat to their culture and freedoms.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise in the western world since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Brexit was a big setback to moderate forces in Europe, where the migrant crisis played a decisive role. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections has given this trend a further boost. In France, the anti-migrant nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is now regarded as a formidable challenge for both conservative and socialist parties. Moreover, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland have also curved towards a populist leaning. According to the political analysts in Germany, Merkel and her party would be compelled to rely on “right narratives” to tackle the challenge of the far-right AfD. The election discourse might also fuel anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe’s biggest economy.
And so, even though the authorities released suspect Naveed B. the news that he was an asylum seeker was received with anger. The German government had clearly affirmed that “economic migrants” would not be entertained and would be sent back to their native countries. Migrants from Pakistan, generally, are regarded as “economic migrants”. Government statistics show that over 90 percent of Pakistani asylum applications have also been rejected and deportations will start soon. In the last one year, around 8,000 Pakistani migrants entered Germany but only 143 were granted refugee status. It is feared that this attack will make it even more difficult for Pakistani asylum seekers to apply. It certainly does not help that the second suspect is possibly a 24-year-old Tunisian national who also sought asylum and was granted a temporary residence permit.
Atif Tauqeer is a journalist and media researcher based in Germany. He is an author and is currently working for Deutsche Welle