Germany divided over the 'Islamisation of Europe'

Germany divided over the 'Islamisation of Europe'
A growing anti-immigration and anti-Islam protest movement in Germany has shaken the political establishment and instigated a nationwide debate that is playing out on the streets.
5 min read
06 January, 2015
Tens of thousands of Germans have taken to the streets in rallies and counter-rallies as a debate over "the Islamisation of Europe" rages across the country.

What started as small gatherings of anti-immigration protesters in October has rapidly gathered momentum, with 18,000 supporters of the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West ["Pegida"] taking to the streets of Dresden on Monday.

The Pegida phenomenon has elicited condemnation from much of the political and media establishment - and in recent days, counter demonstrations have dwarfed the Pegida marches in cities such as Berlin and Cologne.

Germany has one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world and the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany, many from the Middle East, jumped to around 200,000 last year.
     Not everyone in the Pegida marches is a racist but some... are finding a platform to spread their hatred.
- Henriette Hanig, Auslanderrat Dresden

Not just racists

"Not everyone in the Pegida marches is a racist but some extreme racists are finding a platform to spread their hatred," said Henriette Hanig, deputy executive of Ausländerrat Dresden, an advocacy centre for local migrant communities.

"What is scary is that lots of normal people are coming out to join them."

Popular Pegida placards in Dresden have read: "Stop the Islamisation of Europe" and "I am against multiculturalism, against parallel societies, against economic refugees"..

German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her new year speech to urge Germans not to attend the rallies - while saying Pegida's leaders had "prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts". 

Much of the media have also taken a hard line against Pegida. The top-selling tabloid Bild, along with 50 prominent Germans, on Tuesday called for an end to what they see as rising xenophobia.

Pegida, as with several other anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movements in Europe, portrays itself as the legitimate voice of a people neglected by an elite political and media establishment.

"How would you see it when we are insulted or called racists or Nazis openly by all the political mainstream parties and media for our justified criticism of Germany's asylum seeker policies and the non-existent immigration policy?" said Pegida organiser Kathrin Oertel at Monday's rally in Dresden. 

     There is a degree of scapegoating involved here.
- Yassin Musharb, Die Welt

Among the chants from the crowd were "lying media" and "we are the people", reinforcing the idea that the rallies represented an overlooked and silenced majority.

"The Pegida marches are about more grievances than just [the alleged Islamisation of Europe]. The sense of being left behind by the political parties and the fear of losing out economically seem to be important drivers as well," explained Yassin Musharb, deputy editor in the investigative department of German newsweekly Die Zeit.

A counter weight

The mass anti-Pegida rallies across Germany show, however, that it is clearly not just an out of touch elite who are critical of the movement.

Marches in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Stuttgart, Muenster and Hamburg each attracted up to 30,000 supporters, considerably outnumbered the pro-Pegida gatherings in those cities.

Interestingly, in cities where there are large migrant and Muslim communities - such as Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin - the Pegida supporters could muster only a few hundred to their cause, whereas their opponents brought thousands to the streets.

Dresden itself has a very small Muslim community.

"There is a degree of scapegoating involved here," said Die Zeit's Musharb.

"Knowing Muslims and living alongside them probably helps unmask the rallying call of fighting against the alleged Islamisation of Europe."

Even Cologne's landmark cathedral turned off its lights in protest at a pro-Pegida rally in the town. Cathedral provost Norbert Feldhoff told n-tv the intention was to encourage supporters of the group to think twice before joining.

"You're taking part in an action that, from its roots and also from speeches, one can see is Naziist, racist and extremist," Feldhoff said. "And you're supporting people you really don't want to support."

A number of other churches, along with the Volkswagon plant in Dresden, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the museum in Cologne also turned off their lights in a gesture of protest.

     Now some people feel free to threaten and even in some cases attack migrants.
- Henriette Hanig, Auslanderrat Dresden

The legacy of Naziism, with its extreme ideologies of ethnic purity and cultural supremacy has ensured that post-war Germany became one of the most inclusive countries in Europe.

However, the political culture of a country is not defined so much by what individuals think but by what they feel they are able to say in public.

The rupture playing out on the streets of the nation's major cities is instigating a debate that many say can longer be ignored.

Saying it loud

"People are now saying things that they would not have dared to before," Henriette Hanig told al Araby al Jadeed.

"Now some people feel free to threaten and even in some cases attack migrants. Somehow they feel they have the support of the people and they say 'if the politicians will not act, then we will'."

Dresden police said on Sunday they were investigating an attack on a group of migrant youths in a shopping mall by some 50 masked people on the back of a major Pegida rally in the city just before Christmas.

Pegida has taken efforts to distance itself from violent or extremist anti-immigration groups. It has banned neo-Nazi symbolism, posting on its Facebook page: "PEGIDA is for resistance against an anti-woman political ideology that emphasises violence, but not against integrated Muslims living here." 

The conflagaration around the so-called Islamisation of Europe has shaken the German political establishment - but as Yassin Musharb posits, the main question for Germany now is where this movement will move next.

"Will [Pegida] seek and find a political outlet or will this just be a street movement?"