Scandal may not stop Pegida’s momentum

The resignation of Pegida’s founder and co-leader Lutz Bachmann is the footnote to a difficult week for the far-right movement. But it is not the hammer blow some suggest.

Pegida’s rapid and alarming rise gave Bachmann an almost demagogic overture as he attempted to downplay accusations of anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and xenophobic sentiments. Yet that pristine mineral image shattered after a German tabloid splashed a photo of Bachmann seemingly mimicking Hitler’s appearance on Facebook.

Bachmann’s resignation had little to do with the actual photo in question (a photo he dismissed as a joke) – but rather statements aimed towards asylum seekers on Facebook – Bachmann labelled the individuals in welfare offices as “scumbags” and “animals” (he later apologised for the comments). In a week of scandal it is not surprise that Bachmann is erasing aspects of his Facebook musings from public scrutiny. A week earlier Bachmann apologised for suggesting that Green Party leader Claudia Rother required ‘execution’. Remarks he again tried to downplay as humorous or simple flippancy.

Scandal may not stop Pegida’s momentum. Repeated condemnation from Angela Merkel did not stop their momentum. How Pegida’s leadership re-organises at a time when the group is banned from protesting amid threats will hold some sway.

Yet, Pegida’s success owes more to its ability to influence perception and tap into wider cultural anxieties in an area of Germany almost untouched by Muslim or migrant populations. At worse, scandal potentially galvanises numbers. Numbers that ranged from 25,000 to 40,000 in the wake of the Paris atrocities.

Racism and xenophobia in Dresden existed before and will continue to exist in spite of Pegida’s continued success (and possible decline). But the atmosphere grows more toxic and xenophobic hate crimes rose nationwide.

The murder of an Eritrean migrant, a 20-year-old Muslim by the name of Khaled Idris Bahray, on the night of the Pegida previous rally raises fresh questions. Questions about how Pegida’s non-violent yet bigoted message is potentially inspiring racists to react with murderous violence. Three days prior to Bahray’s murder, a swastika was daubed on his apartment door with the message ‘We’ll get you all’.

Police have now arrested a man on suspicion of his murder, and Bild reported the suspect was an Eritrean flatmate. A solidarity march was held at the site of Bahray’s murder, supporters held up signs that read ‘Je Suis Khaled’ and ‘Ich Bin Khaled’, as police faced fresh criticism for their initial handling of the murder.

Pegida’s growing popularity is also creating chapters across Europe (and Germany). But Legida (based in Leipzig) is causing the movement a headache. Incensed by a refusal to sign their 19-point plan, Pegida’s leadership may issue an injunction against them. Unlike in Dresden, this copycat movement is often outnumbered by counter-protesters.

Affiliated Pegida chapters exist in the Czech Republic, France (with two official Facebook pages), Spain, Italy, Iceland, the UK and Denmark. A recent protest in the latter drew around 200 people and tensions in the crowd ran high when participants learnt Muslims came to peacefully observe. An elderly man yelled at one individual “Go back to Gaza, go back to Gaza,” when asked for a response, the unnamed Muslim told one journalist “They think we’re all Arabs”. But the individual was actually a Kurd.

In response to an accusation of fascism, one Danish Pegida supporter retorted “F**k Islam”. In terms of Facebook numbers, Pegida UK hold over 10,000 ‘likes’ since launching on January 4 and the online anti-Muslim echo chamber it creates is self-evident.

One of Pegida UK’s founders attended several marches in Dresden. The other claims to be an ex-army paratrooper. Both want to see the movement expand on a street-level but there’s a concern about more violent far-right individuals hijacking any protest. In spite of these concerns, the founders hope to march in Newcastle and Manchester in the ‘coming weeks’.

Supporters of the English Defence League are often the most vocal about Pegida UK’s need for street protest. But their leadership remains concerned about a racist image tarnishing the movement in its infancy.

Scandal aside, the influence of Pegida continues to shape and evolve and numbers will potentially keep increasing once the group is allowed to restart its Dresden protests.