By Elsa Buchanan, International Politics reporter
They have been labelled “Nazis in pinstripes” by members of the government and rally by the thousands against asylum-seekers and the supposed threat of the “Islamification” of Germany. Yet, they are desperate to prove they are not racist to attract a wide range of supporters.
Welcome into the world of the fast-growing “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”, best known under its acronym PEGIDA.
In its most recent show of strength, the German-born far-right populist movement attracted over 15,000 protesters during its latest weekly Monday night rallies in the east German city of Dresden. But the nascent anti-foreigner campaign group is dividing opinions in Germany.
“Patriots”, “not racists”
The interior minister Ralf Jäger from the centre-left Social Democratic (SPD, in the ruling coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats), described PEGIDA as “neo-Nazis in pinstripes”. “It is worrying that organised right-wing extremism is succeeding in drawing in people from the middle of our society who have a fear of Islamisation and pulling on the edge of society,” he told the German press.
But the movement, which was unheard of until 20 October when it held the first such rally with only a few hundred turning up, is trying to paint a friendlier portrait for itself.
Its banners, bearing “For the preservation of our culture” or “Against religious fanaticism”, are intentionally vague. Organisers speak of “Judeo-Christian Western culture”, and use slogans like “We are the people,” a phrase famously shouted 25 years ago by East German pro-democracy protesters in the prelude to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Right-wing symbols have been let go. PEGIDA’s logo reads: “This is what we stand for! Away with all the radical rubbish!”. It depicts a man throwing away four symbols in a bin: the Islamic State (ISIS)’s rougher version of the shahada flag, the Antifa (the “anti-fascist” anarchists) logo, a communist flag and the swastika.
What has shocked politicians and commentators in Germany and across Europe, though, is that many in the crowds at Dresden are not extremists or openly neo-Nazis. Supporters are concerned mothers and pensioners, families with children. They call themselves “patriots”, and explain fellow demonstrators are “not far-right. They just love the country and its traditions”.
As if trying to distance the group from right-wing extremism, the movement’s founder Lutz Bachmann, 41, a chef-turned-graphic designer and a convicted criminal, has insisted that he is not racist. One of the witnesses at his wedding was Turkish, he said. He has at times spoken of his many Muslim friends.
In a recent interview with the German centrist newspaper Bild, Bachmann also made a point of differentiating between Islam and Islamism and between “war refugees” and “economic refugees”. “We are not against asylum! War refugees – no matter where they come from and where they believe God – have a right to be protected! But we are against admission of economic refugees,” he said.
But when he was asked what the aim of the demonstrations was, Bachmann answered unabashedly: “No one dares to speak openly about it [immigration and asylum seekers]. We knew, whoever starts on this subject gets attacked as a Nazi.”
In the interview with Bild, Bachmann also described the presence of Hooligans and notorious Nazis at the marches. “According to police, there were last 80 to 120 people from the hooligan scene and 25 from the right-wing environment – with several thousand participants! We distance ourselves from all radical groups and associations.”
Some participants have shown less restraint. They use “Islamist” to describe Muslims, and label “economic refugee” refugees in general. Demonstrators and supporters say they are opening a debate about the supposed threat of the “Islamification of the country, uncontrolled immigration, abuse of asylum, social deterioration and gender insanity”.
Immigration: a hot topic
Bachman repeated PEGIDA’s aim during the latest demonstration in Dresden in front of people waving the black-red-gold national flag: “Everywhere now, in every news rag, on every senseless talk show, they are debating, and the most important thing is: the politicians can no longer ignore us!”
And polls suggest this is a growing campaign issue for a majority of Germans. A recent survey on the website of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit found that over half of Germans (49 per cent) sympathise with PEGIDA’s stated concerns. 30 per cent of respondents said they “fully understood”, or backed the demonstrations against the “Islamisation of the West”.
What’s more, almost three in four said they worried that “radical Islam” was gaining ground in Germany. But this attitude is not restricted to the older populations. While 78 per cent of respondents over 55 years said they were concerned about these issues, 66 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds shared those worries.
Immigration became a hot topic in Germany this year, amid a surge in the numbers of asylum seekers, fuelled by the wars in Syria and Iraq. In 2013, Germany took in more asylum seekers than any other country in the EU, and the authorities expect 200,000 asylum claims for 2014, up from 127,000 in 2013.
Andreas Zick, a director of studies at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Research at the western GermanyUniversity of Bielefeld, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “Now, a populist, right-wing movement has formed that’s far more difficult to protest against, since they’re less vulnerable to extremist labels. Though a counter-demonstration last Monday succeeded in stopping Dresden’s PEGIDA demonstration, counter-demonstrators were the minority, numbering just a thousand.”
Düsseldorf researcher Alexander Häusler who focuses on right-wing extremism told the Spiegel PEGIDA’s demonstrations are particularly attractive “to those on the fringe right”. “A movement that wants to be broadly effective with the demonization of Islam cannot be openly associated with the radical right […] It has to have the have the appearance of the middle class, of the serious, on the outside.”
PEGIDA, according to Zick, also has the potential to spread nationwide; and worries of Islamic radicalism means the movement has already spawned smaller clones in half a dozen cities. More than a thousand registered to participate on “DÜGIDA”, the Facebook page of a PEGIDA demonstration in Düsseldorf (the capital of Germany’s most populous state). Meanwhile, Bonn’s has its own “BOGIDA” demonstrations, while Kassel now boasts its own “KAGIDA” Facebook page.
Splitting German society
Germany’s justice minister Heiko Maas has described the movement as “shameful for Germany”. He added the country is experiencing an “escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees”, which he qualified as “repugnant and abhorrent.”
The leader of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, told AFP that PEGIDA could split German society and that the movement’s use of the chant “we are the people” sought to divide “you, the bad Muslims, and us, the good Germans.”
Mazyek also blamed politicians and the media for mainly speaking about Islam and Muslims “in the context of security, threats and danger” in recent years.
This comes as seemingly unrelated incidents have shaken the nation. The National Crime Office said there have been some 86 attacks against refugees in the first nine months of this year, nationwide. Last weekend, three buildings that were set to house refugees in Bavaria were burned down, and swastikas were daubed on one of the properties.
At the end of October, a major riot by neo-Nazis and football hooligans, organised by a far-right group going by the name of HoGeSa (“Hooligans Against Salafists”) left 40 officers injured and saw 17 arrests in Cologne, a city in the heart of West Germany.
Less than a month before the violent riot, Berlin faced firebombs attacks on the Reichstag and the Christian Democratic Union headquarters. While none caused any damage, the attacks were claimed by the far-right – a flyer from a neo-Nazi group was found at the Paul-Löbe-Allee entrance to the parliament building where a Molotov cocktail was thrown.
Yet, PEGIDA is steering away from the violence, and its Facebook page has swelled to just under 70,900 fans. In time for the Christian festive season, organisers have updated the ads for the weekly marches. The flyer calling for this Monday (22 December)‘s rally boasts red and silver Christmas tree baubles.