Anti-Islamisation protests in Germany: What we can learn from PEGIDA

by Julia Chladek, a German student, reading International Relations in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

After having been on the news headlines in Germany almost daily for several weeks, the Anti-Islamisation movement PEGIDA now seems to be on the decline. Should we thus tick it off as a random trend, now over and done? Certainly not. We should rather ask ourselves how and why the ‘phenomenon’ occurred. Who were the people participating in these demonstrations?
Were they racists and right-wing extremists, as their opponents claimed? Or were they just Europeans, taking a stance against radical Islamisation and uncontrolled mass integration, as they themselves claimed?

Pegida, an abbreviation for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”, started as a rather local movement in Dresden, a city in the east of Germany. Soon it spread throughout the whole country, attracting more and more people to more and more demonstrations. The centre of the movement though remained Dresden, reaching its peak point with approximately 25,000 people attending the demonstration on January 12, 2015. Located within the former GDR and looking back to a quite troublesome history, Dresden and a couple of other cities in the eastern region of Germany tend to provide a political atmosphere quite different from that in the west of Germany. Right-wing parties have traditionally had a larger influence here and the Neo-Nazi party NPD has several times made its way into the federal state parliaments.
But these premises seem self-explanatory for the rise of a movement such as Pegida only at first glance. When the NPD managed to get into the parliament, it often received only slightly more than the required 5% – contrary to the left-wing party “Die Linke”, reaching percentages up to 20% and considering the east of Germany as their strongest base. Thus Dresden does apparently provide a greater variety of political opinions, on no account though only for right-wing tendencies.

What the people of Dresden think about those kind of political judgements about their city they impressively demonstrated through a huge concert against Pegida at the end of January, organised under the slogan “offen und bunt” (open and diverse) with a range of German celebrities and more than 10,000 viewers taking part.
This event was one of the peak points of a large anti-Pegida movement that had come into appearance during the last couple of weeks in many German cities.
Soon the demonstrators against Pegida outnumbered the actual participants by far.
Signs of support for the anti-Pegida movement went as far as the archdiocese of Cologne deciding to switch off the lights of the world famous Cologne cathedral during the Pegida demonstration in Cologne on the 5th of January 2015. More and more people felt the need to set a sign against what they considered Pegida to incorporate: intolerance, xenophobia and racism.
And to be clear on this point: They were absolutely right.

Pegida had become a melting pot for right-wing extremists, among them many active Neo-Nazis, who promoted far more than a fear of Islamisation. Many within the operational staff and management team looked back to a more or less unambiguous history in right-wing organisations and Neo-Nazi groups.
Their slogans were racist, their ideas radical and intolerant and their aims certainly not what a liberal democracy should ever pursue. Especially in a country such as Germany, the emergence of this movement inevitably had to lead to a division of the society.
In Germany our history, of course especially in terms of racism and xenophobia, and the memory of the Holocaust are far more present in every-day life than many people in other countries might realise.
Germany has developed a line of zero tolerance against any type of racism, racial slogans or right-wring extremism. Every statement that allows even the slightest possibility of interpreting it in a certain (racist or xenophobic) way immediately faces a huge number of critics and has to bear more than critical examination.
The same happened to the AfD, a new centre-right and Euro-sceptical party recently gaining popularity in Germany. Their ideas are, of course, not mainstream and can easily be understood completely wrong when people don’t take time and effort to understand their concepts. After having signalled willingness to talk to the people – certainly not the Neo-Nazis among them – forming Pegida (whilst at no point officially stating support for the movement) they were immediately pushed into the extremist right-wing corner – a compete misjudgement of their political aims.
Don’t get me wrong on this point – popular awareness of racism is important and we can count ourselves lucky that, looking back to such a troublesome history, we have made our way towards an open, liberal and multi-cultural society with zero tolerance for racism.

The backside of this coin though is that this attitude in the case of Pegida denied any chance for dialogue and any opportunities to understand the roots and underlying causes of this movement.
As mentioned above, Pegida had quickly become a welcome occasion for extremists and Neo-Nazis to promote their aims and therefore every politician who recently demonstrated his non-willingness to negotiate with the Pegida organisers and every individual who took part in the counterdemonstrations was right at this point.
But the character Pegida had adopted quickly did not correspond with its original goals and certainly did not reflect the majority of people taking part in the demonstrations.

Surveys have shown that the vast majority of Pegida participants, apart from those extremists and Neo-Nazis who distorted the whole image, have been middle-aged to elderly people, coming from the middle to upper class, well educated, respected and established within the society, conservative, but certainly not extremist.

What made them participate in the demonstrations in the first place was as simple as that: They were worried.
Many of the elderly people taking part have lived about two thirds of their life in the GDR, a country not facing any immigration at all, walled of against the West and hardly providing the opportunity for any contacts to other cultures. Now being confronted with huge waves of immigration and seeing more and more news about radical Islamism on the media, the changing realities of the 21st century evoked an unprecedented fear of the unknown in them.
Similar were the motives of many other participants.
The same headlines mentioned before made them worry about the future outlook of immigration policy and the appropriate measures the government should take.
Though predominantly coming from conservative backgrounds, this does certainly not mean they are automatically racists.

What was at the heart of many moderate participants was thus not racism, but the feeling of insecurity, fears about the future and worries if the strategies the government is taking to manage the upcoming challenges are the right ones. Unfortunately, the right-wing extremists taking advantage of the emergence of Pegida quickly destroyed any possibility of cooperation and discussion.
This should though not prevent us from paying attention to what was at the heart of Pegida: Deep worries and dissatisfaction of citizens with the current political situation and the government.
Living in a liberal democracy and promoting liberal rights on demonstrations against Pegida, such an extent of dissatisfaction and anxiety among our fellow citizens should in the first place only do one simple thing: Make us worry as well and ask ourselves how and why this state of opinion could occur.
In a democracy, the freedom of speech applies to everyone.
Yes, we should fight racism and xenophobia.
But as much as we demand from people to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, we should ourselves be able to distinguish between insecurity and racism.
Pegida was, in the very beginning, nothing more than a group of people expressing their concerns and worries about the current political situation.
And among all justified and important standing up for freedom and diversity, we should perhaps take a moment to think about what worried these people, what this says about the state of our society and how we can enter into a fruitful dialogue with them rather then deepening the anger on both sides further and further.
The only way to remove xenophobia in the long-term is to take seriously the worries people have rather than condemning them immediately, trying to elevate them and to provide grounds for a better communication among all groups within our society.
This is what we can and have to learn from PEGIDA, if we want to make any progress on our way fighting against xenophobia and racism.

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