Pegida supporters hold German flags and a portrait depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a demonstration in Dresden January 12, 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / Courtesy Reuters

The recent carnage in Paris could hardly be better fodder for Germany’s newest populist phenomenon. The movement is known as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, and this week it drew more backers than ever—an estimated 25,000—onto the streets of Dresden. The Islamophobic group pounced on the opportunity to depict Islam as an inherently violent faith that threatens Germany and is transforming the West. And, against the backdrop of heightened security concerns and the largest refugee influx since the early 1990s, it is well placed to exploit the fears that many Germans appear to harbor.

Before the Paris bloodshed, Pegida and its variants across the country, which oppose the “Islamization of Christian Europe” and Germany’s “foreign infiltration,” were faltering after a meteoric start that began this autumn. The group’s street protests—the biggest anti-Islam rallies in Europe—were tailing off, and counter demonstrations across the country had begun to dwarf Pegida events. Only in the eastern city of Dresden, the movement’s crucible, did the cause appear to have a tenacious core of more than a thousand. Meanwhile, internal divisions in the diffuse and nebulous organization—as well as cracks in Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD)—suggested that the group could crash and burn, joining other splintered and largely irrelevant nationalists in the no-man’s-land of Germany’s extra-parliamentary far right.

Indeed, the movement was so thoroughly riddled with logical discrepancies that most observers figured that it couldn’t last much longer. The grab bag of protesters claim that Germany is being overrun with Muslims and other foreign nationals who are at the root of the country’s social ills, high tax rates, crime, and security concerns. They say that there are so many Muslims and other nationalities in Germany that ordinary Germans don’t feel at home in their own country. If the trend continues, they argue, Muslims will outnumber Germans by 2035. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has spoken plainly in favor of welcoming refugees and against (unnamed) groups that preach hatred and prejudice has “betrayed them,” claims Lutz Bachmann, one of the group’s founders, who sees Berlin’s political parties and media as being in cahoots.

The facts are not in Pegida’s favor. Dresden, for example, has an infinitesimal number of Muslims (0.4 percent of the population), and far fewer immigrants (four percent) than other German cities. Sharia law is obviously not being enforced along the banks of the Elbe River nor are veiled women visible in Dresden’s Prague Street shopping zone. Germany’s 3.5 million Muslims (four percent of the population) are overwhelmingly law-abiding, polyglot, peaceful citizens. Ninety percent of Germany’s religious Muslims say democracy is a good form of government. Moreover, new studies show that, in terms of productivity and paying taxes, immigrants generate more revenue than they cost.

And the city of Dresden is not a downtrodden jobless backwater. To the contrary, it is eastern Germany’s prize pupil with its start-ups and cutting-edge technical university. With employment across Germany at an all-time high, economists agree that what the country needs most is more highly skilled labor to fill empty posts, which in the short term can only come from immigration. In the long term, Germany will need sheer manpower to compensate for its sagging population growth—again, most likely from beyond Germany’s borders. As for Christianity, eastern Germans are overwhelming secular.

But the tragic events in France—alongside the gruesome plundering by radical Islamists in Nigeria and an ongoing trial of Germany’s own homegrown jihadists—seem, at least in the eyes of Pegida supporters, to outweigh all the facts. “All of the people who ignored or maybe even laughed at the concerns raised by some of us about the dangerous threat of Islam are being punished by this bloody deed,” said Alexander Gauland on January 7, one of the AfD’s leaders, who also warned against Pegida’s “defamation.”

Fact-based or not, there’s obviously fertile soil for these views in Germany—as there is across northern Europe. Studies such as a new Infratest dimap survey show that 22 percent of Germans have sympathy for Pegida, while 72 percent don’t. (A week before the Paris attack the figures were 21 percent and 76 percent, respectively.) A poll conducted by Bertelsmann Stiftung, an independent nonprofit foundation, shows that Germans’ angst about Islam has shot up over the last two years: Today, 57 percent of Germans see Islam as a threat compared to 53 percent in 2010. Forty percent say that the large number of Muslims in Germany makes them feel alien in their own country, while 24 percent say there should be a ban on Muslims immigrating to Germany. (A cruel irony: The lion’s share of refugees coming to Germany today are Muslim Syrians fleeing the radical fundamentalists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.)

One of the reasons that Islamophobia can muster such pull is that it isn’t taboo unlike anti-Semitism, which bears much in common with Islamophobia. Just a day after the Paris attacks Germany’s largest conservative daily, Die Welt, ran a page-long essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalia-born former Dutch politician and fierce critic of Islam, who argued that Islam is inherently violent. “We have to acknowledge that today’s Islamists are motivated by an ideology that’s embedded in the seminal texts of Islam. We can’t pretend anymore that their acts can be separated from the ideas that inspired them,” she wrote. Her arguments aren’t new in Germany where a raft of conservative figures, as well as several high-profile Social Democrats, such as economist Thilo Sarrazin, and the liberal feminist Alice Schwarzer, among others, make similar points. Opinion polls show that they are part of the mainstream.

Beyond anti-Islamism, which is Pegida’s main calling card today, the group is closely linked to a host of other issues that disparate German populists have called their own for decades: joblessness caused by immigration, foreigner-committed crimes, abuse of the social welfare state, national pride, the media bias, and collusion of the mainstream parties.

A number of German intellectuals, among them political scientist Gesine Schwan, argue that the common denominator among the likes of Pegida sympathizers, who are disproportionately men, is the threat of the loss of their current social status, which is usually middle class or lower middle class. The discrepancy between the rich and poor has never been greater in postwar Germany, Schwan points out, and eastern Germans still earn less than their western counterparts. In eastern Germany, the disappointment of many citizens with their own fortunes in the unified Germany has turned them away from the ballot box. Moreover, many of the new jobs in eastern Germany, including those in and around Dresden, don’t offer the same long-term security as well-established firms in the west and, indeed, could be shed if the economy slumps.

Since Pegida is not a political party—and doesn’t aspire to become one—the looming question in Germany is how this new force will play out in electoral politics. Germany’s polite populists, embodied by the AfD party, added anti-Islamism to their arsenal last year after discovering that an anti-euro plank wouldn’t win enough votes (five percent of the total) to secure a place in the legislatures. The AfD’s representatives, such as Gauland, want to capitalize on the Paris attacks, as well as the Pegida phenomenon, in order to capture seats in regional legislatures in western Germany (Hamburg and Bremen vote this spring) as they already have in eastern Germany.

But it’s too early to tell if this is a winning strategy. Pegida’s rapid ascent has rattled many in Germany, and triggered a much larger counter Pegida movement (in some places called “No-gida”). In Dresden, an anti-Pegida rally attracted more than 35,000 people and in Leipzig, 30,000. Church leaders have spoken out against Pegida and even shut off the lights of the Cologne cathedral during a demonstration by one of the Cologne branches of Pegida. Furthermore, an outpouring of supplies and other assistance for Syrian refugees in Germany is more than aid workers can handle.

In the current climate, Germany’s political elite, its Muslim community, and civil society must take control of the narrative. In recent weeks, Germany’s broad democratic forces, led by Merkel herself, show every sign of doing just that. The chancellor and all of the political parties (with the exception of the AfD and a few individual anomalies in the conservative camp) have not only condemned Pegida but—so far—have refused to consider their demands, such as a restrictive immigration policy like the one in Switzerland. Merkel has reiterated the statements of others in her party that Islam is part of Germany and will remain so.

Although the majority in Germany is in safe hands, the thoughts and actions of a minority do have consequences. The AfD, if it remains cohesive, will almost surely enter legislatures in the western part of the country and alter Germany’s electoral arithmetic, probably to the disadvantage of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Pegida itself is a spanner in the works of democracy and its radical fringe is a threat to the security of refugees and immigrants. In the past, Muslims’ homes, mosques, and refugee centers have been burned at the hands of Germany’s right-wing extremists. Nothing plays better into the strategies of the Islamists whose goal is to sow discord between Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany and across Europe. These seeds could grow a new generation of disaffected, alienated, angry young Muslims who could take up their torch. 

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