Monday, January 12, 2015

Germany: anti-Islamic PEGIDA rally draws 25,000 but is outnumbered by counter-protests

PEGIDA protesters in Dresden
Since October last year, Germany has become increasingly polarised, as weekly marches by a new right-wing movement opposed to a perceived “Islamisation” of Europe continue to grow by their thousands – a growth now matched by counter-protests nationwide.

The organisation – PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”) – was founded in October after an anti-Islam march in Dresden organised by 41-year-old Lutz Bachmann through Facebook.

While the first march only attracted three hundred supporters, PEGIDA has held rallies in Dresden every Monday since, with numbers swelling to 18,000 on January 5. On January 12, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, they reached a record 25,000.

The regularity of the protests is a conscious appropriation of the “Monday demonstrations” of the pro-democracy movement in the former East Germany in 1989, which also grew rapidly and eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German government.

As well as attracting a variety of conservative and islamophobic elements of German society, PEGIDA also operates as an umbrella for a number of right-wing groups, including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), as well as other neo-Nazi groups and right-wing football hooligans.

While PEGIDA claims not to be racist or right wing, Ralf Jäger, SPD interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, has dubbed the protesters “neo-Nazis in pinstripes", and the protests are widely viewed as thinly-concealed expressions of blatant xenophobia.

PEGIDA has indeed banned neo-Nazi symbols and slogans from its rallies, and openly rejected any association, but the organisation has received glowing praise from German fascist groups, and leading members of the NPD are seen regularly at PEGIDA rallies.

Flags at a PEGIDA march
The banners and speeches at PEGIDA rallies also undermine their claims to moderation. In addition to the popular slogan “Wir sind das Volk” ("We are the People”) – also appropriated form the East German democracy movement – many are openly xenophobic, with protesters carrying banners reading “Courage to be German,” “Freedom for Christians”, “Keep Germany for the Germans” and “Potatoes rather than döner kebabs”.

Along with the ubiquitous German flag, the flag of Saxony, the flag of the Kingdom of Saxony, and a number of symbols of the Holy Roman Empire can frequently be seen at rallies.

Key among PEGIDA's demands is an immediate halt to immigration into Germany and Europe. Their list of complaints includes protecting Germany’s “Judeo-Christian values” from “Islamisation”, and stopping “criminal immigrants”, “religious fanaticism”, political correctness and “gender mainstreaming”.

Some protesters also echo the conspiracy theory that “Muslims are plotting to infect our food chain with their excrement”, while many claim that Muslim migration will inevitably lead to terrorist acts in German like those in France.

In fact, Bachmann has already tried to take advantage of the tragedy in Paris. At Monday's march he claimed that the attacks “justify” the existence of PEGIDA, and its anti-immigration and anti-Muslim demands.
100,000 march against PEGIDA

Clones and counter-protests

At Bachmann's initative, PEGIDA clones have begun to spring up elsewhere in Germany – LEGIDA in Leipzig, BOGIDA in Bonn, and BÄRGIDA in Berlin, for example. They have also begun to appear elsewhere across Europe Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden all laying claim to their own fledgling PEGIDA group.

The size of PEGIDA marches outside Dresden have remained small – usually only in the hundreds, rather than the thousands and these newer groups have so far failed to take serious root. On the contrary, the Monday marches have turned Dresden into a Mecca for Germany’s islamophobes, who have taken to travelling from across the country to take part in the protests.

Meanwhile, colourful counter-protests have also grown across Germany, vastly outnumbering the efforts of anti-Islam protesters. Attendees have carried placards and banners condemning racism and bigotry, welcoming refugees and celebrating multiculturalism.

On January 10, over 35,000 anti-PEGIDA protesters marched in Dresden. The counter-demonstration – jointly organised by the city of Dresden and the State of Saxony – also observed a minute’s silence for the 17 victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Anti-PEGIDA protesters in Düsseldorf

"Thirty-five thousand people attended this event, and they made clear that they love this city and that they're proud of this city, and that this is a tolerant and cosmopolitan city," said Saxony State Premier Stanislaw Tillich.

On January 12, while 25,000 joined the PEGIDA rally in Dresden, anti-PEGIDA rallies drew over 100,000 across the country, with 7,000 in Dresden, 30,000 in Leipzig, 20,000 in München and 19,000 in Hannover.

During counter-marches on January 5, several churches and a museum joined the iconic Catholic Köln Cathedral by switching off their lights in protest against PEGIDA. Thousands of anti-PEGIDA protesters lined Köln’s largest bridge as the cathedral stood in darkness, holding placards that read "refugees welcome", "I heart immigration" and "no Nazis here".

The cathedral's provost, Norbert Feldhoff, described the PEGIDA rallies as “Nazi-ist, racist and extremist”, while Josef Schuster, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, described fears of “Islamisation” as "absurd".
Köln Cathedral goes dark to protest PEGIDA

The lights of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin were also turned off in solidarity, as were lights on bridges across the Rhine.  Volkswagen’s Dresden plant also went dark as a sign that the company “stands for an open, free and democratic society”.

Rising neo-Nazi violence

While PEGIDA supporters have so far been outnumbered on the streets, their rising numbers are causing serious concern, especially among Germany’s 4 million Muslims – mostly Turks – who constitute 5 percent of the population.

Disturbing evidence has emerged linking PEGIDA supporters with a brutal knife attack on migrant youths shortly after a PEGIDA protest in Dresden on 20 December, where a group of 50 masked and armed PEGIDA supporters stormed the city’s Galeria shopping mall and attacked a group of 30 migrant youths.

“The attack was applauded by normal bystanders,” Danilo Starosta, a spokesman for Dresden’s Cultural Affairs Office, told the TAZ newspaper.

The morning after the January 12 rally in Dresden, 20-year-old Eritrean Muslim refugee Khaled Idris Bahray was found stabbed to death and covered in blood in the street. Three days before his death, a swastika was drawn on the door of Bahray's flat which he shares with fellow refugees accompanied by the threat "We’ll get you all".

Despite this, Dresden police initially found "no indication of foul play", and it was only after a public outcry that they conceded it was a murder. Greens MP Volker Beck has since initiated formal complaints proceedings against the Dresden police, claiming they attempted to "cover-up" the murder.

Neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant graffiti and swastika have also been daubed on Mosques in Nürnberg and elsewhere. The Turkish-Islamic Union Süleymaniye Mosque in Dormagen has been attacked twice in the past three weeks, with swastikas and slogans including “Germany belongs to the Germans”, “You will be sent to concentration camps" and "Long live Hitler, long live the NSU" scrawled on the walls.

The NSU (“National Socialist Underground”) is a neo-Nazi German terrorist group responsible for a series of murders of Turks, also known as the “döner murders”, in the early 2000s. While the murders took place across Germany, the NSU was based in the state of Saxony.
Neo-Nazi graffiti in Dormagen

When NSU members were finally captured key government documents on the group were destroyed the day they were due to be handed to the Federal Prosecutor. Not only had German anti-terror and police organisations known the identities of the perpetrators for years, they had allowed it to operated unhindered and had most likely funded its activities.

Saxony – and Dresden in particular – is also a stronghold of the neo-Nazi NPD, which has occasionally won seats in the state legislature.

Anti-Islam sentiment growing

Nonetheless PEGIDA’s anti-Islam rhetoric seems to strike a chord with many Germans. A poll of 1,006 people published by Stern magazine two weeks ago found that 13 percent of Germans would attend an anti-Muslim march if it were held nearby and that 29 percent believed that the marches were justified because of the Islam was having on life in Germany.

Protesters celebrating multiculturalism: "Munich is colourful!"
While Germany has one of the highest refugee intakes in Europe, it is also ironic that the strongest protests against the supposed “Islamisation” of Germany are taking place in Dresden. Dresden has one of the lowest immigrant populations, with only 2.5 percent of the population having been born outside of Germany, and only 0.1 percent is Muslim.

According to a Bertelsmann Stiftung study on Muslims in Germany, published the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to one-third of Germany’s Muslims, 46 percent of the population view Islam as a threat, while in Saxony – with its miniscule Muslim population – 70 percent do.

PEGIDA supporters question these figures, claiming instead that the government and media are “lying” to them. In fact, the exact term of abuse they use Lügenpresse” ("lying press") – was a favourite of Hitler's Nazi party to slander the media as a whole.

Bachmann, who has a criminal record for burglary, theft and drug dealing, and once fled to South Africa before being deported back to Germany to face criminal charges, refuses to speak to the media, communicating only through his Facebook page. 

Using her New Years address to the nation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel roundly criticized the PEGIDA rallies, urging Germans to stay away from the rallies. When the PEGIDA demonstrators chant "we are the people," Merkel said "they actually mean 'you don't belong because of your religion or your skin”.

PEGIDA protester against multiculturalism
Left-wing party party Die Linke, however, has blamed the policies of Merkel's government over the past few years for feeding the recent increase in racism and xenophobic demonstrations. In 2010, Merkel claimed that “multi-kulti” – a derogatory term for multiculturalism – had failed. 

Right-wing politicians have blamed Merkel too but have called on her government to respond more favourably to the demands of PEGIDA marchers, many of whom are traditional conservative voters.

Media and political opportunism

The media has played a role in the growth of anti-Islamic feeling in Germany in the past few years.

In 2010, Thilo Sarrazin – a former Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician and Deutsche Bundesbank executive – published his book Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany is abolishing itself”). The book – which blamed Muslim immigration for Germany’s “destruction” – became a best-seller, and a lightning-rod for anti-Islamic sentiment in Germany.

The media helped make Sarrazin an overnight celebrity, and the right-wing tabloid Bild am Sonntag commissioned a poll on support for a “Thilo Sarrazin” party, despite no such project having been proposed. The poll, published in September 2010, suggested up to 18 percent of Germans would vote for such a xenophobic political project, but – unsurprisingly – no such party eventuated.

Nearly five years later, they may have their chance, with the announcement that the right-wing euro-skeptic party Alternativ für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany” – AfD) – which has been present at PEGIDA rallies since early on – has held discussions with Bachmann and PEGIDA for a closer collaboration between the two groups.

While PEGIDA remains a regional phenomenon, confined largely to Dresden, it poses little threat to German politics so far, despite its polarising effect, and the encouragement it provides to neo-Nazi groups. Were it to find a national political vehicle for its xenophobia and cheap populism, then there would indeed be cause for concern.

As Wolfgang Bittner, a 65-year-old local at the most recent counter-protest in Dresden, put it: “I think Pegida’s plan is to attract as many people as they can now, with what sounds like reasonable demands, before revealing their true agenda.”

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