Anti-Islam protests ‘tearing apart’ German society

Anti-Pegida protestors gather in Berlin. Monday, 5 January. [GillyBerlin/Flickr]

Amid a new wave of racist, Islamophobic demonstrations, leading migration researchers warn of a division of German society. EURACTIV Germany reports.

In Germany, the scope of the anti-Islamic movement known as the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” – known under its German acronym Pegida – continues to gain momentum.

Members of the group on Monday (5 January) evening again held demonstrations in Cologne, Kassel, Hamburg and Berlin.

According to initial estimates, 10,000 people took to the streets in Dresden, In Cologne and Berlin. However, reports indicate that only a few hundred Pegida demonstrators turned out for these protests.

Meanwhile counter-demonstrations witnessed considerably higher numbers. Berlin, Cologne and Dresden each saw many thousands of participants opposing the right-wing extremists.

>> Read: Anti-Islam protests ‘paint a twisted picture’ of German sentiment

Still, leading researchers warn against downplaying the Pegida movement. “We must take Pegida seriously. This phenomenon cannot be tackled with moral and short-lived appeals,” explained Werner Schiffauer on Monday in Berlin. Schiffauer is chairman of the Council for Migration, which consists of around 80 migration researchers throughout Germany.

The anti-Islam protests are far-removed from reality, he said, deny integration and aim at a homogeneous national state, which can only be created by reverting to violence. At the same time, the group reveals and strengthens the rift in German society, concerning immigration issues.

“These divisions are by no means spontaneous but, rather, have a long prehistory,” Schiffauer continued.

Several studies by the researchers indicated that half of polled Germans support the growth in diversity, but that 1 in 3 calls for more stronger national sentiment, and excludes immigrants in this statement.

Germany’s metropolitan areas, in particular, have developed a pluralist and multiethnic culture that has been met with a high level of support, the researcher said.

At the same time, right-wing populist arguments from the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Pegida movement are enjoying a boost in popularity: annoyance with immigration is repeatedly voiced by those who have the least to do with immigration, explained Schiffauer.

According to researchers, the Pegida movement is based on a strong scepticism of democracy, and a feeling of powerlessness opposite political elites, but also a fervent desire for a strong national identity.

“People for whom a national sense of belonging is highly valued are more likely to deprive Muslims of cultural-religious, socio-spatial or symbolic rights,” said Berlin-based researcher Naika Foroutan. 68% would prohibit circumcision, 56% would ban headscarves for teachers, and 55% would restrict the construction of mosques, according to the results of a study by the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (BIM), where Foroutan is deputy director.

“We need a new image of Germany”

The researchers also say it is high time for politicians to take proactive measures against the societal division.

“It does not help to simply debilitate the usual prejudices of anti-Islamists. That will only strengthen these prejudices. More importantly, we need a new guiding concept for Germany,” said Andreas Zick from the University of Bielefeld.

The Council for Migration is calling for a “Concept Commission”, similar to systems in Canada and the United States. Within this parliamentary term, the commission should develop a “republican” model of society, the council emphasised, along which all classes of the population can orient themselves.

In schools and in other educational facilities, the important role migration has played historically for Germany must be more strongly conveyed, they argued. Additionally, in a factual debate, the public must recognise that Germany is a country of immigration, the researchers said.

West Bank signifier. Hermannplatz, August 2012.

“We must rethink and redesign Germany,” Schiffauer explained. In the past, the Federal Republic used various overall societal concepts to mark new eras. After WWII, the motto was “Never again Auschwitz.” After the Fall of the Wall it became, “Grow together, what belongs to together”.

At the same time, a substantial number of politicians stayed true to the post-war mindset, that Germany was not a country of immigration. “The illusion of an ethnically homogenous Germany has not been up-to-date for a long time,” Schiffauer pointed out.

The “Concept Commission” is meant to work under close supervision of the German government’s integration officer, Aydan Özoguz, who hails from the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Members of the commission will include representatives from civil society, academia and politics.

But Schiffauer emphasised that the decision should not be a purely national one. “This discussion must be European in nature. After all, movements like Pegida also exist in other EU member states,” the Council for Migration chairman said, indicating right-wing populist movements in European countries like France, the United Kingdom, Hungary and the Netherlands.

The researchers appealed to politicians to decidedly oppose the Pegida movement. They welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position, when she called on citizens not to follow the demands of the anti-Islamist “Pegida” Demonstrations.

“Do not follow the ones who are advocating for this,” said Merkel, during her New Year’s address. “Too often, there are prejudices, coldness, even hate in their hearts,” she said.

At the same time, researchers particularly warned the centre-right parties not to get caught in the slipstream of Pegida and accommodate critics of Islam with their slogan “No party to the right of us.” It is above all the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) that is leaning towards advocating for a homogeneous national state, the researchers contended, an image that stopped being useful in the 70s at the latest.

Pegida supporters demonstrated for the first time this year on Monday (5 January) in Dresden, Berlin, Cologne, Kassel, Hamburg and Munich. They primarily protested against supposed “foreign infiltration” in Germany by Islam but also against the “political conformity” of the media.

The Euroskeptic AfD intends to be the first party to sit down at the same table with organisers of the Pegida movement. The chairman of the Saxonian state parliament faction Frauke Petry invited them to exchange ideas in her parliamentary office in Dresden on Wednesday (7 January).

The move was criticised by Left Party chairman Bernd Riexinger, who said, “The AfD is mutating more and more into the parliamentary arm of right-wing incendiaries.”

Chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer rejected a sweeping condemnation of the Pegida demonstrators. The influx “surely also has to do with right-wing radicals, who want to pursue their own agenda,” Seehofer said. But there are also many citizens with legitimate concerns. “A dialogue should be initiated with them. They should not be condemned across the board. These are no Nazis,” the conservative Bavarian governor contended.

Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas, from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) called on all parties to join in opposition. “Even in political conflicts of opinion there are boundaries. All political parties should clearly distance themselves from these protests,” Maas told Spiegel Online. “We may not keep silent while xenophobic sentiment is being built on the backs of people who have lost everything and come to us seeking help,” said Maas. The protests paint a twisted picture of sentiment in the country, he commented. “We must make it clear: these demonstrators are not in the majority.”

Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière said in an interview on the television channel Phoenix, the description “Patriotic Europeans” is “an impertinence”. “We do not need any extra lessons on that. And the leading representatives are not exactly beacons of patriotism and legal compliance,” said the Internal Affairs Minister. De Maizière also emphasised, “that we as Christian Democrats also have a responsibility with regard to refugees who come to us”.

“We are an exporting nation and that goes along with cosmopolitanism and tolerance,” said co-chairman of the German Green Party Cem Özdemir. Still, that should not be confused with arbitrariness. There should not be any tolerance for intolerance, he said, this applies to Islamists as well as for right-wing extremists. “I also fear Islamism. But fanaticism cannot be fought with different fanaticism,” said Özdemir. According to the Green politician, Chancellor Merkel’s words against xenophobia were also directed at the centre-right alliance in the German government. There, Özdemir said parties make right-wing signals in the hopes of belittling Pegida and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). “The only thing this accomplishes is that the centre-right alliance becomes smaller and Pegida and the AfD grow in size.”

For weeks now, the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident” - 'Pegida' under its German acronym - have been demonstrating against supposed “foreign infiltration” of German society through Islam.

The movement also campaigns against numerous other phenomena: against asylum applicants, against Germany’s and Europe’s Russia-policy and against the media.

The largest Pegida demonstration included 18,000 participants and took place at the end of December in Dresden.

Organisers and supporters of the Pegida movement consider themselves a “citizen’s movement” and publicly distance themselves from right-wing extremists. They rely on the “Christian idea of man” but church leaders accuse them of “racism veiled by religion”.

Pegida uses fear of Islamic terror to spread general sentiment against refugees and foreigners. The alliance itself speaks of a defamation campaign.

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