Germany slams anti-Islam group as it draws thousands onto streets
Berlin // German politicians from all mainstream parties on Tuesday condemned the rise of a new anti-Islam movement that has been attracting increasing support at demonstrations since October, mainly in the eastern city of Dresden.
On Monday night, some 18,000 people gathered in Dresden for the biggest protest so far by Pegida, a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident.
One of the speakers at the rally, Udo Ulfkotte, a journalist, complained about the “Islamisation of our cemeteries”, demanded legislation to repatriate criminal foreigners and railed against the influx of refugees saying: “I only see strong young men.”
The rise of Pegida has dominated political debate in recent weeks, with some politicians calling for dialogue with the demonstrators and warning against dismissing their concerns.
But Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel clearly distanced herself from the movement last week and it has become clear in recent days that the political establishment has decided to shun it.
In her televised New Year address, Ms Merkel said the leaders of the movement had “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.
Former chancellor Helmut Schmidt said on Tuesday the protests “appeal to base prejudices, to xenophobia and intolerance. But that’s not Germany”. He was among 50 politicians and celebrities quoted in a “No to Pegida” appeal published by Germany’s best-selling tabloid, Bild.
The movement risks damaging Germany’s reputation at a time when it has won praise for taking in more refugees from Syria than other major European nations – about 60,000 so far.
The number of asylum seekers taken in last year jumped to about 200,000, up almost 60 per cent from 2013, most of them from Syria, Serbia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pegida originated from a Facebook campaign by Lutz Bachmann, 41, a trained chef who has a criminal conviction for burglary.
It has the support of the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which won 7.1 per cent of the national vote in the European parliament election last May.
The Pegida demonstrators, who gather every Monday, have been venting their anger at perceived Islamisation, criminal immigrants and the high number of asylum seekers. Banners have included “No Sharia in Europe” and “Ali Baba and the 40 dealers: evict them immediately”.
Similar protests in other cities have been far smaller than in Dresden, and outnumbered by counter-demonstrators.
On Monday night in the western city of Cologne, home to a large Muslim population, there were 10 times as many counter-demonstrators as Pegida protesters. In Berlin, there were 5,000 counter-demonstrators and just 400 anti-Muslim protesters, police said.
Cologne Cathedral and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate switched off their lights to protest against the rallies.
The head of the Forsa polling institute, Manfred Güllner, predicted that Pegida would fizzle out.
“Pegida in Dresden is a far-right protest group and Ms Merkel took the right step by ostracising them,” Mr Güllner told The National. “If you talk them up, you make their views acceptable and they get the mistaken impression that they represent a majority.”
Dresden should not be seen as representative of Germany, analysts say. The capital of the eastern state of Saxony is a major tourist attraction, but the city has a xenophobic strain. Mr Güllner said more than 28,000 people in the city voted either for the AfD or the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party in recent elections – about seven per cent of the electorate.
Intriguingly, while Germany as a whole has some four million Muslims out of a population of 81 million, they make up just 0.1 per cent of the population of Saxony.
“Pegida is a peripheral group. You don’t have protests on any such scale elsewhere,” said Mr Güllner. “It will die out if the politicians are clever and don’t pander to it.”
Politicians including Ms Merkel have criticised the demonstrators for using the famous chant “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”) shouted during the protests that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“What they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion,” Ms Merkel said in her New Year address.
Professor Hajo Funke, an expert on the far right in Germany, said: “It’s failing to gain ground elsewhere because it’s become clear that they’re trying to mobilise an authoritarian, aggressive, xenophobic sentiment. And people can see that’s rubbish.”
Muslims were being turned into scapegoats for all kinds of fears ranging from terrorism to social decline, he told The National. “It’s working in Dresden because it has a local political environment that’s easier to activate for this purpose.”
However, campaigners say Germany as a whole needs to tackle xenophobia and institutional racism, particularly in its police force.
A Forsa poll last week showed 29 per cent of Germans feel that Islam has such a big influence on the country that marches such as those by Pergida are justified, a sign that anti-immigrant sentiment is not as confined to Dresden as many suggest.
Yet immigrants will be increasingly important for the future prosperity of Germany’s ageing society, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe according to 2013 Eurostat figures.
“People are torn,” said Mr Güllner. “In their heads most of them know that immigrants are needed. But their gut tells them they don’t want foreigners.”