PEGIDA: Who is behind Germany's growing anti-Islam campaign?

The Paris attacks that killed 17 people last week have sparked a surge in anti-immigrant rallies across Germany. But the rallying cries are not unified and counter-rallies for tolerance and unity led by Germany’s government are also on the rise.

Rallies against Muslim immigration are drawing thousands in Germany

Supporters of anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) hold flags during a demonstration in Dresden on Monday. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The attacks in Paris that killed 17 people last week have sparked a surge in anti-immigrant rallies across Germany. But the rallying cries are not all alike, and counter-rallies for tolerance and unity led by Germany’s government are also on the rise.

Groups like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym PEGIDA, have been staging regular rallies for months now and are using the Paris attacks to raise the nationalistic rhetoric.

Whether groups like PEGIDA are an opportunistic flash in the pan — or a sign of a growing reactionary movement and change in the European dynamic — remains to be seen. 

In PEGIDA's case, it was launched in October as a Facebook group by Lutz Bachmann, 41, who runs a public relations agency in Dresden, to protest against what he saw as the sharp growth in immigration in Germany, particularly from Muslim countries.

Germany accommodates more asylum seekers than any other European country. An estimated 200,000 people sought asylum in Germany in 2014, many from war-torn Syria and Iraq.

It is estimated that roughly four million Muslims live in Germany, most of them of Turkish origin.

Protesters take part in an anti-racism demonstration against the anti-immigration movement PEGIDA. (Ina Fassbender/Reuters)

With one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Germany faces a demographic crisis over the coming decade, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has encouraged immigration to combat this.

But PEGIDA organizers see this recent wave of immigration as a dangerous increase in the influence of Islam in Europe.

They believe that immigration and national identity are issues too long neglected by politicians — and say they are trying to raise public awareness.

PEGIDA has held weekly rallies in Dresden since October, but attendance has ramped up since last week’s attacks in France.

"The terrible acts of Paris are further proof that PEGIDA is needed," said Bachmann.

The group’s weekly anti-Islam rally drew its biggest crowd yet on Monday, an estimated 25,000, police said, after organizers declared it a tribute to the French victims killed at the Charlie Hebdo satirical publication and at a Jewish grocery store. 

At the same time, counter-rallies in Berlin and elsewhere drew an estimated 100,000 or so, police estimated.

Why Dresden?

Support for PEGIDA has been far greater in Dresden, a city in eastern Germany near the Czech and Polish borders, than in other German cities, which has struck some observers as odd as Dresden has a much lower immigrant population than most other German municipalities. 

"When people are afraid they retreat into those kinds of nationalistic appeals," says Richard Haass, the president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

A German riot police officer looks at opponents of anti-immigration movement PEGIDA in Dresden on Monday. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

This week, in response to Dresden's anti-immigrant marches, the Cologne Cathedral and Berlin's Brandenburg Gate switched off their lights to protest against the PEGIDA rallies.

Still, PEGIDA is spreading to other places in Europe as well.

A PEGIDA march was held in Oslo, Norway, on Monday, and PEGIDA followers plan marches in Denmark next week. Based on video footage of the Oslo march, turnout was significantly lower than in Dresden, but large enough to fill a city street.

The Swiss branch of PEGIDA was launched two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The branch’s Facebook page had 3,000 Likes on Sunday, and by Monday that number grew by 600.

Who attends PEGIDA rallies?

At this point, it seems that some PEGIDA supporters are Germans who see overcrowded shelters for asylum-seekers in Germany as a strain on the country's resources.

Lutz Bachmann, co-leader of anti-immigration group PEGIDA, makes a speech during a demonstration in Dresden. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

A large number of rally supporters are generally unhappy with the German government, and complain about the disparity they see between what asylum seekers are offered compared to what poor Germans receive in social assistance.

PEGIDA protests are held on Mondays, and are similar to the regular protests that were held in a still-divided Germany in 1989.

"They have borrowed tactics from those protests that happened in the last months of the East German government," reported CBC’s Nahlah Ayed. "They have borrowed slogans like, 'We are the people,' which seems to have lent them some credibility."

The government's reaction

PEGIDA’s critics, including all of Germany's mainstream parties, have accused the group of exploiting the Paris attacks to stir up hatred.

Europe asylum applications

Jan.-July 2014

Germany: 94,200

Sweden: 41,250

France: 36,680

Italy: 30,755

U.K.: 17,505

Top four countries account for 70 per cent of all applications

Germany had 200,000 for 2014, up from 127,000 in 2013

Source: Eurostat and German interior ministry

A day after calling Islam part of Germany, Merkel said on Tuesday that her government would use all means at its disposal to fight intolerance and discrimination, calling the exclusion of certain groups from society "humanly reprehensible."

"What we need to do now is to use all the means at our disposal as a constitutional state to combat intolerance and violence," Merkel said at a conference in Berlin.

"To exclude groups of people because of their faith, this isn't worthy of the free state in which we live. It isn't compatible with our essential values. And its humanly reprehensible," she said.

German President Joachim Gauck told a crowd of several thousand — some with "We are Charlie" placards — that Germany has benefited from immigration. He noted there were reasons to be concerned about young German Muslims going to fight in Syria and Iraq, but insisted Germany wouldn't allow itself to be split by extremists from any side.

"We stand against any form of demonization and ostracism," said Gauck.

What are PEGIDA’s demands?

Bachmann has set out PEGIDA’s legislative demands, including drawing up a new immigration law, forcing immigrants to integrate more fully into German society and making sure that Islamists who leave Germany to fight are not allowed back into the country.

"We are getting more support each week," co-founder Kathrin Oertel told Reuters.

"We are against all violence that is religiously motivated whether Muslim or Christian ... People have been confronted by it now and are thinking about it more."

Alexander Gauland, head of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, has called PEGIDA a natural ally, and the two groups could present a political challenge for Merkel.

A recent poll by the Bertelsmann Foundation, conducted before the deadly attacks by Islamic militants in Paris, showed 57 per cent of non-Muslim Germans feel threatened by Islam.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press


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