The rapid rise of Pegida or ‘Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West’ is sending a chill down German political spines.
Thousands are expected to march in Dresden in the eastern state of Saxony on Monday evening, an event that will mark nine weeks of successive protests. Its first march attracted just 200 people. A week earlier and the protest attracted 10,000 individuals. A populist fusion of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment created a ‘Nazis in pinstripes’ critique. In an effort to prove itself a mainstream movement, Pegida bans the use of neo-Nazi images or slogans.
German media reported that the group grew from a Facebook page (with over 50,000 ‘likes’) created by Lutz Bachmann, 41, a chef turned graphic designer. Bachmann insists the group is not racist but is more open about his criminal past, including convictions for drug-dealing.
Pegida supporters oppose an imagined “Islamisation” of western countries and want tougher laws for asylum seekers. A communiqué highlighted its ‘othering’ of Muslims as an existential threat, point 13 loosely translates as “PEGIDA is for the conservation and the protection of our Jewish Christian Occident culture!”
But Dresden’s Jewish community and others are vocal in their opposition to Pegida and call on citizens to join equally large counter-protests.
Condemnation recently reached the highest level of government as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said: “In the name of the government and the chancellor I can say quite clearly that there is no place in Germany for religious hatred, no matter which religion people belong to.”
Merkel herself stated: “There is no place in Germany for Islamophobia or antisemitism, hatred of foreigners or racism”.
But security sources are warning Merkel that hate crimes are rising, as opinion polls reflect a growing support for a tougher domestic migration policy.
“There is a visible rise in xenophobic crime countrywide,” police chief Holger Muench told the German Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
Incidents of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attacks spiked in 2014 as groups sought to exploit international events.
Spiegel Online quoted police sources that hundreds of Pegida supporters are far-right linked hooligans from HoGeSa or Hooligans against Salafists.
Others view the movement as a platform to air their political or social disenfranchisement. Yet, a worrying poll found 34 per cent believe Germany is going through a process of “Islamisation” and the Merkel government does little to assuage concerns around migration.
Wars in Syria and Iraq are fuelling asylum claims in Germany, which is expected to hit 200,000 in 2014 (up from 127,000 in 2013). Germany does more than any other country to assist those fleeing conflict zones.
Police are investigating a recent arson attack on three proposed asylum shelters in the Bavarian town of Vorra. Swastika graffiti suggests a far-right motive.
Across the political spectrum, parties are using the incident to criticise Merkel’s coalition government. Left party leader Bernd Riexinger told local media that “established parties are making racism acceptable, violent right-wing gangs feel encouraged.”
The right-wing Eurosceptic AfD (Alternative for Germany) is less hostile to Pegida. One of its leaders Alexander Gauland plans to attend the latest Dresden march. Gauland was quoted as saying: “We are the natural allies of this movement.”
Merkel’s own Christian Democrats (CDU) are inconsistent with their stance on Pegida – some call for more understanding of their root support as others warn about a potential AfD alliance.
The peaceful nature of Pegida’s protests mark a contrast to the violence at past HoGeSa events, which poses an additional problem when confronting their ideology. Another problem is the normalisation of a rhetoric that requires more than simple condemnation.
Counter-protests are a consistent factor that follow Pegida as 10,000 are expected to stand against their message this evening. Copycat protests are springing up in other German cities like Dusseldorf, which hold larger migrant populations than Dresden. A potential danger is the movement spreading nationwide and muddying the political discourse further rightward.
Update: The protest on December 15 drew 15,000 Pegida supporters and a 6,000 strong counter-protest marched under the banners “Dresden Nazi-Free” and “Dresden For All,” organised by church, civic and other organisations.