CAIRO - Seeking to benefit from political gains of Europe's rightists, an anti-Islam German party has found Islamophobic cartoons the easiest and quickest way to gain votes in Germany's western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) regional elections.
"It is always difficult for small parties at election time," Pro-NRW head Markus Beisicht told Spiegel Online.
"We have a hard time competing with the larger parties. We had to find ways to have an effect with relatively small amounts of resources."
To win votes in NRW regional election, the far-right party had decided to center its electoral strategy on a contest to draw lampooning cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
The party also designed a cash prize for the "best" caricature, named after Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who was responsible for the 2005 cartoons which provoked anger in the Muslim world.
Despite warnings from Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of a possible confrontation between Muslims and right-wing extremists, Beisicht insisted on exhibiting the cartoons outside mosques.
Violence erupted last month Bonn's suburb of Mehlem when "Pro-NRW" supporters showed caricatures depicting a man said to be the prophet outside the Saudi Fahd Academy.
Hundreds of Salafi Muslims gathered in response to protest the rightist rally, which developed into clashes that left 29 policemen injured.
More than 100 Salafist protesters were briefly arrested to launch a flood of journalistic and political attention which suddenly focused on Salafists as an extremist Muslim group, demonizing the whole Muslim minority of four million, who lived peacefully for years in Germany.
For Beisicht, the Pro-NRW leader, police injuries made the best result of the caricature campaign.
"Up to that point, the election campaign in the state had been free of content and proposals," Beisicht says.
We, on the other hand, were able to establish the terms of the debate.
But the Islamophobic campaign by the far-right party has failed to win support, earning it only 1.5 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, a mere 0.1 percent more than it received in state elections there two years ago.
"We have been stigmatized as though we have initiated a civil war," Beisicht said.
"We really didn't think there would be the kind of violence that erupted."
Other commentators accused Pro-NRW of being very much interested in an intense reaction as a way of drawing as much attention as possible
"With the display of Islamophobic caricatures, the Muslims were massively provoked," police spokesman Harry Kolbe said in a statement.
North Rhine-Westphalian Interior Minister Ralf JÃ¤ger walked a similar line.
While condemning the violence, he said it makes me furious that police officers, who were there to protect the (right to) freedom of assembly, ended up in the hospital. The malicious provocation of Pro-NRW is to blame for the fact that our officers must suffer.
The right-wing radicals of Pro-NRW are intentionally fomenting hate against 4 million Muslims who live peacefully among us here in Germany.
Participating in the anti-Islam contest, many cartoonists said they expected violence.
"I see things a bit differently than Mr. Beisicht," Sebastian Nobile, an unemployed Mormon trucker with an Italian father, who submitted several cartoons to the Pro-NRW contest, said.
"I expected there to be violence."
Admitting the fact that he has angered Muslims, he claimed that the caricatures had higher goals of democracy and freedom of expression.
"I see the common values of freedom and democracy as being of greater value than my life," says Nobile
In 2005, Denmark's Jyllands-Posten daily published 12 cartoons, including one showing a man said to be the Prophet wearing a tomb-shaped turban.
Another caricature showed the Prophet as a knife-wielding nomad flanked by shrouded women.
The cartoons, considered blasphemous under Islam, were later reprinted by European newspapers on claims of freedom of expression, straining relations between the Muslim world and the West.The cartoon crisis, however, has prompted Muslims worldwide to launch campaigns to highlight the merits of the Prophet.