- Associated Press - Sunday, December 26, 2010

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany | The 200 robed and bearded men gathered at dusk on the market square, rolled out their prayer rugs and intoned Allah’s praises as dismayed townspeople looked on.

It was Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and the group that calls itself “Invitation to Paradise” was mounting a defiant response to weeks of public protests against construction of a religious school to teach its austere, militant interpretation of Islam.

In Germany, where the racial crimes of the Nazis have bred extreme sensitivity toward the rights of minorities, such confrontations would until recently have been limited to the far-right margins. The weekly rallies in this city of 250,000 near the Dutch border these days look decidedly mainstream.

It’s part of a trend seen across Europe: Spooked by what many see as a terrorism threat, ordinary people are becoming increasingly vocal in opposing radical Muslims. They are ditching traditions of tolerance and saying ‘no’ to cultures that do not share their democratic values. Some lament the decline of multiculturalism - “Utterly failed,” in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - while others say Europe is defending its way of life against those who would destroy it.

In the Netherlands, anti-immigrant sentiment has risen steadily since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic. In elections this year, the anti-Islam “Freedom Party” of Geert Wilders emerged as the country’s third-largest political force and is helping a conservative government keep campaign promises to ban the burqa, cut immigration and imprison illegal aliens.

Swiss voters have approved a ban on minarets, an anti-Islamic party has gotten into the Swedish parliament for the first time, and France’s ban on wearing face-covering veils in public has broad popular support.

Germans are even more negative toward Muslims than their European neighbors, according to a survey published Thursday.

While the majority of the Dutch (62 percent), French (56 percent), and Danes (55 percent) think positively of Muslims, only 34 percent in western Germany and 26 percent in the formerly communist east, the poll by the University of Muenster said.

The pollsters said they questioned 1,000 people in western Germany, 1,000 in eastern Germany and 1,000 in each of the other European countries surveyed. They gave a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The man leading the opposition to the religious school in Moenchengladbach is Wilfried Schultz, a 60-year-old Internet consultant. His organization, “Citizens for Moenchengladbach,” points to online videos of the Muslim group that call for the execution of secular Muslims, demand women never leave their homes without male chaperones and say people who have sex before marriage will go to hell.

“We are not going to tolerate that these Islamists undermine our liberal German values,” said Mr. Schultz.

Some Muslims in Germany also are dismayed and are trying to recruit community leaders to blunt the hard-liners’ appeal.

“These extremists often fill a vacuum because they give very simple answers to extremely difficult questions in life,” said Mohammed Assila, a Moroccan-born municipal official in Hilden, a town next to Moenchengladbach that has a large Moroccan community.

The Invitation to Paradise group says it numbers about 400 adherents, a mere scattering among the 9,000 Turks in Moenchengladbach, some of whom have been here since the 1960s and are more likely to dress in Western clothing and speak good German.

Mr. Schultz said the hard-line group began arriving about five years ago, robed men and veiled women who stood out in sharp contrast to other Muslims of Moenchengladbach.

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