Will the British PEGIDA repeat the movement’s German 'success'?

Will the British PEGIDA repeat the movement’s German 'success'?
Comment: The rise of the far-right street movement in Germany has dragged its government to the right, but the UK might be a different matter, writes Hilary Aked.
5 min read
15 Jan, 2016
Attempts to expand German PEGIDA to the UK have largely failed to gather momentum [Getty]

The PEGIDA movement in Germany is seeking to exploit the fact that a wave of violent attacks in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve - many involving sexual assaults on women - were allegedly perpetrated by migrants.

The group, which holds weekly demonstrations in Dresden but which has also spread to numerous other cities in Germany and beyond, has drawn big crowds on the back of incidents like this and in the wake of acts of political violence, when they are accompanied by resurgent racist sentiments.

A few days after the January 2015 attacks in Paris, 25,000 people marched with PEGIDA.

But beyond sustaining its own momentum in this way, what explains the rise of PEGIDA (a German acronym for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West") in Germany?

Some analysts suggest that the absence of a powerful populist right-wing party in the country means that anti-Islam and anti-immigrant feelings - assumed to pre-exist naturally - can only get an airing through street-based movements like PEGIDA.

The logo aims to position PEGIDA as centrist and moderate

An alternative hypothesis claims, however, that the presence of such parties in the mainstream in Austria, Denmark and the UK creates more political space for street movements of this kind by legitimising their ideas.

PEGIDA's symbol - the IS flag being thrown in the trash along with a communist hammer and sickle, and (simultaneously) a Nazi swastika and the red and black anti-fascist flag - illustrates not only the deep contradictions of the movement, but also how it has borrowed from the official mainstream rhetoric of "anti-extremism" that emerged with the war on terror.

The logo aims to position PEGIDA as centrist and moderate. In reality it is embodies the contemporary far-right, a far right dominated by so-called "counterjihad" currents that has reinvented itself as respectable, hides behind cries of "not racist!" and is hostile predominantly to Islam - though it also still harbours anti-Semitism as well as other racisms, and has always been xenophobic.

Initially, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was happy to call PEGIDA what it was and warned against those with "prejudice, coldness and even hatred in their hearts". But although German authorities used water cannon to suppress the most recent demo, the government's policies are shifting slowly towards PEGIDA's demands.

After admitting more than a million refugees last year, Merkel has now pledged to legislate to enable asylum seekers who commit crimes to be deported more easily.

Sweden, another European country that significantly opened its doors to migrants from the Middle East and Africa fleeing war and deprivation, is also witnessing a sharp tightening of immigration restrictions.

Now the founder and former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson - real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon - has attempted to start up a PEGIDA UK in the hope of uniting Britain's Islamophobes and dragging its government yet further to the right.

The move comes after several abortive attempts to organise in the UK under the PEGIDA banner, which saw disparate far-right groups stage poorly attended marches in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and London.

But high-profile Robinson is better placed to capitalise on the success of the German movement, and boasts that his incarnation will be "official" - because he has the backing of Dresden-based leaders such as Lutz Bachmann, with whom he met last year, when he spoke at a Dresden rally and at the launch of a PEGIDA branch in the Netherlands.

Nonetheless, PEGIDA UK 2.0 could still flop in the same way Swedish, German and other "Defence Leagues" failed to successfully franchise Robinson's EDL movement, after its rapid rise to prominence in 2009.

Like the planned cartoon exhibition, the aim is to provoke tensions and turn communities against each other

The man Robinson named as "leader" of the new incarnation of PEGIDA UK, Tim Scott, quit after just two days following a disastrous interview with London's Channel 4 News. Robinson has since teamed up with Paul Weston of the far-right Liberty GB party and Anne Marie Waters of UKIP, who also runs a group named Sharia Watch UK.

Significantly, these are the same people he worked with to try to pull off an exhibition of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the UK last September, an attempt which failed.

However, PEGIDA UK plans to hold a rally on February 6 in Birmingham, the UK's second largest city and home to a high proportion of Muslims (though far from a "Muslim-only city", as Steve Emerson once infamously claimed).

Like the planned cartoon exhibition, the aim is to provoke tensions and turn communities against each other.

Whether Britain First, the remnants of the EDL and other far-right UK factions will join the march remains to be seen. But even if PEGIDA UK cannot transcend domestic rivalries, Robinson and other figures within the movement are seeking to galvanise a pan-European macro-nationalist network that can overcome the challenges and paradoxes of nationalist organising across national borders.

The February march in Birmingham is planned as part of a Europe-wide day of action, with protests also mooted to take place in 11 other countries. As Islamophobia continues to grow across the continent, the fate of any one particular street movement matters less than the steady rightward pull exerted on our supposedly "liberal democratic" European governments.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.