Anti-Islam marches split Germany along old fault lines

Growing number of public figures condemn Pegida movement as racist and intolerant

Cologne cathedral turns off its lights in protest against recent anti-Islam marches in German cities. Video: Reuters

 

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Cologne cathedral and other German monuments extinguished their lights on Monday night in protest at anti-Islam marches spreading across the country.

Some 18,000 people marched through Dresden in the latest protest against immigration policies, while similar but smaller demonstrations took place for the first time in Berlin and Cologne.

In all cities, loud and lively counter-demonstrators took to the streets.

In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki ordered the lights illuminating the cathedral extinguished as an anti-Islam demonstration attracted a few hundred marchers on the opposite side of the Rhine. In Berlin an estimated 5,000 counter-demonstrators stopped a 300-strong anti-Islam march reaching the Brandenburg Gate, also in darkness.

Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, remained in darkness. As did the nearby Semper Opera’s decision to turn off its lights before its baroque facade was co-opted by marchers from anti-immigration group “Pegida”.

Lightning conductor

An acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”, the group sees itself as a lightning conductor, and their marches a valve, for pent-up frustration and anger in Germany at the scale, cost and consequences of unchecked immigration to Germany.

Organisers say they have drawn attention to a long-simmering problem that has boiled over with the struggle to cope with an influx of refugees from war-torn Syria. Critics accuse Pegida of using concerned citizens as a front and a pressure platform for far-right politics.

At yesterday’s gathering in a chilly January drizzle, protestors carried banners protesting against everything from break-ins in Saxon border regions to frustration with US Middle East policy.

“Raise your candles, your mobile phones and send a sign that this Germany, our fatherland, is for us and our children,” chanted an organiser.

The group has yet to sketch out its long-term plans, though organisers in Dresden have already held exploratory talks with the euro-critical, hard right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The marches have grown exponentially each week in Dresden, organised via social media, but the weak turnouts in Cologne and Berlin suggests eastern Germany is its stronghold.

After first ignoring the Pegida protestors, a growing number of German politicians – joined by church, union and business leaders – have condemned the movement as racist and intolerant. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s has attacked Pegida for co-opting the traditions and “we are the people” slogan of East Germany’s civil rights groups that toppled the Berlin Wall.

“Do not follow people who organise these [marches], for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” said Dr Merkel in her new year address last week.

Opinion polls suggest the group has touched a nerve in the German population. Some 13 per cent in a Stern magazine poll said they would attend a march near their home while 29 per cent said they viewed the marches as justified because of the degree of influence they felt Islam was having on German life. Saxony, with a population four million, is home to around 100,000 non-German migrants and has an estimated Muslim population of just 0.1 per cent.

Local politicians

“We want our politicians to listen to us, that immigration needs to be controlled or we’ll be strangers in our own land,” said Volker Krüger, a 62-year-old marcher pro-Pgida marcher in Dresden.

Local politicians in Saxony have shown a readiness to respond to Pegida’s claims – if not Pegida itself – by holding public meetings promising to explain policies. There is also a willingness expedite processing of applications for asylum and refugee status.

Migration experts called it a welcome, if belated, reaction to the challenge. “Until now politicians didn’t want to even engage with the Pegida supporters,” said Prof Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden’s Technical University. “If you don’t try to engage people you can’t be too surprised when you don’t succeed in reaching them.”

As the Pegida demonstration grows, so too have the counterdemonstrations under the “Dresden for All” umbrella. Wielding brushes and brooms, thousands of protestors took part in a lively “spring clean” event, brandishing posters that challenged Pegida’s “Islamisation” claims. “Scapegoat lottery,” read one poster, “please tick your favourite box: refugees; jobless; Muslims; other.”