Thousands of German citizens have been taking to the streets to protest the growing "Islamization" of their country.
The protests are part of a burgeoning grassroots movement made up of ordinary citizens who are calling for an end to runaway immigration and the spread of Islamic Sharia law in Germany.
The guardians of German multiculturalism are fighting back: they are seeking to delegitimize the protesters by branding them as "neo-Nazis" and by claiming that the Islamization of Germany is a myth contrived by misinformed citizens.
But there is a mounting public backlash over what many perceive as the government's indifference to the growing influence of Islam in German society. This backlash represents a potentially significant turning point—one that implies that the days of unrestrained German multiculturalism may be coming to an end.
The latest protest took place in the eastern German city of Dresden on December 8, when more than 10,000 people defied freezing temperatures to express their displeasure with Germany's lenient asylum policies.
Germany—which is facing an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, including many from Muslim countries—is now the second most popular destination in the world for migrants, after the United States.
The Dresden protest was organized by a new citizens initiative, "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West," better known by its German abbreviation, PEGIDA, short for "Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes."
PEGIDA, which has been organizing so-called "evening walks" (Abendspaziergang) through downtown Dresden every Monday evening since October, has seen the number of protesters increase exponentially from week to week.
Similar anti-Islamization protests have been held in the western German cities of Hannover, Kassel and Düsseldorf, where 400 people showed up on December 8 for demonstration organized by a PEGIDA offshoot, named DÜGIDA.
These protests are similar to, but separate from, other mass demonstrations organized in Cologne and other German cities by a group called Hooligans against Salafists, or HoGeSa.
PEGIDA was launched by Lutz Bachmann, a 41-year-old Dresden native with no background in politics, after government officials in the eastern German state of Saxony announced that they would be opening more than a dozen new shelters to house some 2,000 refugees.
Bachmann says that he is not opposed to legitimate asylum seekers, but that he is against so-called economic refugees who are taking advantage of Germany's generous asylum laws in order to benefit from the country's cradle-to-grave social welfare system. According to Bachmann, most of the asylum seekers in Saxony are males who have left their families behind in war-torn Muslim countries.
Despite efforts by German politicians and the media to portray PEGIDA as neo-Nazi, the group has taken great pains to distance itself from Germany's extreme right. PEGIDA's motto is "We are the people!" (Wir sind das Volk!), the same slogan used by East Germans to bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. The group says that it is "apolitical" and that its main objective is to preserve what is left of Germany's Judeo-Christian culture and values.
Ahead of the march on December 8, PEGIDA posted the following call to action:
"Dear friends, dear fellow citizens, dear patriots! Monday is PEGIDA Day and today too we want to show that we are peaceful. Bring your friends and neighbors and let us show the counter-demonstrators that we are not xenophobic."
Placards displayed by protesters in Dresden included slogans such as "Against Religious Fanaticism," "United against a Holy War on German Soil," "Homeland Security Rather than Islamization," and "For the Future of our Children." There was no visible sign of neo-Nazi propaganda at the event.
On December 10, PEGIDA published a "Position Paper" outlining what the group is "for" and "against" in 19 bullet points. These include:
- "1. PEGIDA is FOR the acceptance of asylum seekers from war zones, or those who are subject to political and religious persecution. This is a human duty!"
- "2. PEGIDA is FOR amending the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany to include a list of the right and the responsibility for immigrants to integrate."
- "9. PEGIDA is FOR a zero-tolerance policy vis-à-vis asylum seekers and migrants who commit crimes in Germany."
- "13. PEGIDA is FOR maintaining and protecting our Judeo-Christian Western culture."
- "16. PEGIDA is AGAINST the establishment of parallel societies/parallel legal systems in our midst, such as Sharia Law, Sharia Police, and Sharia Courts, etc."
- "18. PEGIDA is AGAINST religious radicalism, regardless of whether it is religiously or politically motivated."
- "19. PEGIDA is AGAINST hate preachers, regardless of religious affiliation."
In a classic case of shooting the messenger rather than heeding the message, German politicians have dismissed PEGIDA protesters as ignorant and racist.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière characterized PEGIDA as "shameless," adding: "We have no danger of Islamization, certainly not in Saxony or Dresden with 2.2% immigrant population."
In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said:
"There are limits to the political battle of ideas. All political parties should clearly distance themselves from these protests. We cannot be silent if a xenophobic atmosphere is being built on the backs of people who have lost everything and come to us for help: We have to be clear that the demonstrators are not the majority."
A politician with the ruling Christian Democratic Union [CDU], Wolfgang Bosbach, warned that the protests represented the "anchoring of radical views in the heart of society."
But Bachmann says the protests will continue until there are changes to Germany's asylum policies. "We do not want to launch a political party or start a revolution," he said. "But we need to talk openly about the asylum issue."
Meanwhile, the Christian Social Union [CSU], the Bavarian partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, has watered down a demand that migrants settling in Germany on a permanent basis should speak German at home.
The "politically incorrect" proposal appeared in a draft policy paper on December 7. Following an outcry, the proposal was quickly amended to read that migrants who want to live in Germany permanently should be "motivated," rather than "obliged," to speak German "in daily life," rather than "in public and within the family."
In October, it emerged that so many asylum seekers were converging on Bavaria that they needed to be housed in tents normally used for the annual Oktoberfest.
In September, the governor of Bavaria and leader of the CSU party, Horst Seehofer, called for the return of border controls with Austria to stem the tide of refugees seeking asylum in Germany.
The Schengen Agreement, which entered into effect in 1995, abolished internal borders within the European Union, enabling passport-free movement between most countries within the bloc.
Although international law holds that migrants are supposed to claim asylum in the first country they reach, many are taking advantage of Europe's open borders to claim asylum in Germany after first passing through Italy and Austria.
Seehofer also lashed out at Italian authorities, who he said are not doing enough to stop the flow of migrants entering the EU through Italy, after crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. In an interview, he said:
"Italy is in clear violation of the Schengen accords. If this does not stop, Germany has seriously to consider stopping this violation via border controls. We must set quotas for refugees in Europe. And we have to deal with the fact that refugees need to be shared out among EU members fairly."
Bavarian officials estimate that at least 33,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the state during 2014, twice the number of arrivals registered in 2013.
In an effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers, the CSU has demanded that the central government begin cracking down on so-called welfare tourism. The CSU is concerned that the problem of runaway immigration is prompting traditional supporters of the party to defect to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an upstart political party formed in 2013.
The AfD—which wants Germany to leave the euro single currency and promotes a tough line on immigration—received 4.7% of the vote in the September 2013 federal election, narrowly failing to reach the 5% threshold needed for representation in Germany's national parliament.
Since then, support for the AfD has surged. The party has extended its gains in regional elections, and also won nine seats in European Parliament elections in May 2014. A poll published in September 2014 found that one in ten German voters now support the AfD.
Germany's political establishment has worked hard to discredit the AfD. But if the party continues to siphon voters away from the mainstream parties, the AfD will be in a position to influence the debate over the future of German multiculturalism.
The AfD has already come out in support of the PEGIDA protests in Dresden. AfD spokesman Konrad Adam said the party has a "fundamental sympathy for the PEGIDA movement."
AfD leader Bernd Lucke, a professor of macroeconomics at Hamburg University, summed it up this way:
"Many people in Germany have legitimate concerns about the spread of radical Islamic ideology, which promotes violence against non-Muslims, robs women and girls of their natural rights, and seeks to require the application of Sharia law. That citizens are expressing these concerns in nonviolent demonstrations is good and right. It is a sign that these people do not feel that their concerns are being taken seriously by politicians. It is an incentive for all politicians to act more decisively at a time when political Islam is challenging and calling into question our rule of law.
"That PEGIDA protesters have advertised their goals in an exclusively peaceful manner is to be welcomed. Because the rule of law, tolerance and freedom of religion are fundamental Western values, the PEGIDA movement must leave no doubt that it is precisely these values that it seeks to defend."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.