Kirsten Danner and Niklas Mengel
Just while writing this article, terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that published cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, killing 12 people. The night after this horrible crime, other attacks took place: “As a response” people put fire to mosques in different parts of France. The beneficiaries of the bloodshed will most probably be populist movements all over Europe who spread hatred against immigrants and Muslims, among them Marine Le Pen, leader of the French nationalist party Front National which already received 25% of the votes in recent European elections.
In Sweden, mosques were burnt during the last weeks; in England, right-wing politicians discuss ways of strengthening the nation state against the idea of a united Europe, and many other countries see an increase in the votes for extremist parties of different political colors. At the same time, the world is looking at Germany where thousands are joining the movement PEGIDA and proclaiming their fear of a so called “Islamization of the Occident”, spreading hate against Muslims, immigrants and asylum seekers. Different countries, different symptoms, but an alarming common
tendency of radicalization.
The movement PEGIDA which is the abbreviation for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” attracts thousands of people since the end of 2014, to be seen during large public demonstrations – despite the cold temperatures of German winters.
Who demonstrates against what?
The first PEGIDA protests took place in the city of Dresden, a city known for its active political right, in October 2014. Starting with a few hundred, the number of protesters has grown until 5th of January up to a number of 18,000. The movement rapidly expanded to other German cities like Cologne, Dusseldorf and Bonn where local initiatives were founded. The crowd’s composition is heterogeneous. What unites the participants: They don’t feel represented by mainstream political parties and they don’t feel understood by currently governing politicians. Many of them are disenchanted with politics and frustrated. Likewise they do not trust German media and accuse them of collaborating with the established parties and of printing lies. All in all, the movement unites populist characteristics: xenophobic attitudes, anti-establishment attitudes, islamophobia, emotionalization and a simplification of complex political and social issues.
Initially, the protests were directed against Islam and its assumed influence in Germany and a supposedly “failed” immigration and integration policy. The populists’ ‘favorite scapegoats’ are refugees, probably one of the most vulnerable groups in Germany with hardly any lobby. The protesters demand stricter immigration laws, less asylum seekers to be accepted and more of them should be deported back to their home countries. It is ironic that especially the initiator of the original PEGIDA in Dresden, Lutz Bachmann, calls for the deportation of criminal foreigners. He himself was sentenced to jail because of burglary and drug offenses and escaped to South Africa, from where he was deported back to Germany.
Far away from reality
The majority of the protesters have neither any personal contact to Muslims nor any knowledge about Islam, its values and principles, nor about how it is practiced in Germany. It is highly probable that none of them knows asylum seekers in person; neither has any of them ever seen state-provided accommodation for refugees, which is often in very bad condition. Let’s consider the facts: Only 2.5% of the population in Saxony, the region where Dresden is located, does not have the German citizenship. In addition, only 0.7% of all Muslims in Germany live there. According to scientific data, foreigners living in Germany are not more criminal than Germans. On the contrary, in the past year accommodations for refugees all over Germany have been attacked several times. Moreover, asylum seekers were assaulted physically in at least 55 documented cases, verbally in many more.
Officially, the movement distances itself from the violent obvious racism. Many of the protesters do not call themselves xenophobic. Statements like “I am not against refugees in general, but not in my neighborhood” are common. The movement itself states that it is “in favor of the reception of war refugees, in favor of the protection of the Christian-Judeo culture of the Occident, in favor of sexual self-determination and against the delivery of weapons, radicalism and religious hatred”. Representatives claim not to be racist, but claim to represent the political center and not the extreme right wing. However, the initiators of many of the local protest initiatives are members of extreme right-wing movements. Lutz Bachmann obviously sympathizes with the extreme right-wing parties such as the NPD – which is inspired by Hitler’s former party.
Do we forget our past?
During Nazi era and under Hitler, Germans committed probably the cruelest crimes in the history of mankind. Millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma, handicapped people, homosexuals, political opponents and people deviating in any way from the majority of the population were persecuted and killed. “This must not happen again”, speeches held at commemoration ceremonies often contain this phrase. Considering the PEGIDA movement it seems that Germans are about to forget their past.
However, opponents of the PEGIDA movement organized themselves in the meantime. Only a few hundred meters away from the PEGIDA demonstrations people gather for a tolerant, open and pluralistic Germany. On 22nd of December 12,000 people demonstrated in Munich against xenophobia and racism. All over Germany, up to 45,000 people protested against the PEGIDA movement on 5th of January, clearly outnumbering the latter. On 11th of January up to 35,000 went on the streets in Dresden to demonstrate their opposition to PEGIDA.
While in the beginning some politicians responded to PEGIDA demonstrations by offering “understanding for their worries”, the tide has turned. Both German chancellor Angela Merkel in her traditional New Year’s Address and German president Joachim Gauck in his yearly Christmas Address have clearly stated both their worries about the demonstrations and their clear opposition to those spreading fear and hate. The churches in Germany have reacted instantly stating clearly that no Christian should participate in PEGIDA movements. Church officials are switching off the cathedral lights when PEGIDA and similar movements are trying to abuse these landmarks for their doubtful messages and the Christian churches are seeking a closing of ranks with other religions in Germany, thus opening a new opportunity for ecumenical peace and understanding. Even more important is the awakening of the civil society: During the last weeks, anti-PEGIDA demonstrations have attracted far more people than the PEGIDA ones could and #NoPegida tweets, posts and petitions have united millions all over the country.
What does it say about German society?
Broadly speaking the movement sheds light on the fact that issues of immigration, asylum and the role of religion and especially Islam in Germany are to some extent unresolved or not discussed appropriately. Attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo can easily be exploited by movements like PEGIDA as prove for their messages. In some articles about the current developments the question came up: “Are we – as a society – strong enough to deal with all that?”
Therefore, lastly, we’d like to allow for a more personal opinion on the issue:
The appeal to PEGIDA can also be traced back to failure on the political level. European politicians have made mistakes, they haven’t given the European countries modern immigration laws, they haven’t dealt with the challenges of integration in multicultural societies, they have been too willing to mark the European Union as the source of unpopular decisions, and some of them have taken advantage of latent xenophobia among their voters for populist election campaigns. All this has established breeding grounds for right-wing parties or movements like PEGIDA. But the last weeks have shown that PEGIDA is not, like it might be perceived, the core or heart of our society but the ugly right margin. PEGIDA must not be ignored but as long as the civil society is awake it should not be feared either, but encountered with clear rejection. Our main message therefore is: This is 2015, not 1930. PEGIDA is not representing Germany and the German society. And we hope that people around the world don’t only read about 20,000 ‘slobs’ spreading hate and fear, but also about many more people speaking up for tolerance and respect. And the fact that there is persistent resistance against PEGIDA or any kind of extreme right-wing political activities in general, have rather filled us with hope than with despair. A popular slogan these days in Germany is: “We are Charlie, but we are not PEGIDA!”
Still, right now, the end of PEGIDA’s activism cannot be foreseen. According to Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA marches in Dresden and in other German cities will take place weekly. It is not sure whether PEGIDA is only a temporary phenomenon, but it certainly shows how important it is to differentiate between Islam, Islamism and Terrorism and the responsibility of politicians, citizens and civil society to encounter populist simplifications.
Kirsten Danner and Niklas Mengel are Master students in political sciences and economics from Germany.