Every Monday evening since last October, thousands of citizens have marched through the city of Dresden as well as other German cities to protest the Islamization of their country. They belong to an organization, established only three months ago, called Pegida, the German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West."
PEGIDA on a Monday "evening walk" in Dresden, November 10, 2014. (Image source: Filmproduktionen video screenshot)
Pegida is a democratic grassroots organization, without origins in the far-left, far-right or links to any political parties, domestic or foreign. The French Front National [FN] of Marine Le Pen even made it clear that it wants nothing to do with "spontaneous initiatives" such as Pegida. According to the FN, "something like Pegida cannot be a substitute for a party."
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party [PVV] is more positive. He sees Pegida as a sign of the growing discontent of ordinary people with the political elite now governing them. "A revolution is on its way," he says. Ironically, Wilders's PVV, currently by far the largest party in the Dutch polls, is itself more of a spontaneous movement, driven by the energy and charisma of one single man with a mission to liberate his country from Islamic extremism, rather than an established and structured political party.
That Pegida is a spontaneous and diffuse organization of citizens expressing their discontent, seems to be worrying the German political establishment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows how powerful these movements can become. In 1989, when thousands of people shouting, "Wir sind das Volk" ["We are the people"] took to the streets in cities such as Dresden, the Communist regime in East Germany was toppled.
Apart from slogans such as: "Against Religious Fanaticism," and: "For the Future of our Children," the anti-Islamization protesters of Pegida are using exactly the same slogan -- "Wir sind das Volk" --- of the anti-Communist demonstrators a quarter of a century ago, as they march against the open-door policies of the German government.
The use of the 1989 liberation slogan has infuriated Merkel, who reproaches Pegida for using it. In her New Year's speech, Merkel attacked the Pegida demonstrators. "Their hearts are cold, full of prejudice and hatred," she said, while defending her government's policies of welcoming asylum seekers and immigrants. She pointed out that Germany had taken in more than 200,000 asylum seekers in 2014, making it the country that is accepting the largest number of refugees in the world.
Merkel has been backed by church leaders, who are slamming Pegida and calling for solidarity with migrants. The Confederation of German Employers has been blaming Pegida for damaging Germany's international reputation. Meanwhile, so-called anti-fascist demonstrators, shouting "Wir sind die Mauer. Das Volk muss weg!" ["We are the Wall. The people must go!"], last week blocked a Pegida march in Berlin.
On January 10, fearing that the recent Islamic terror attacks in France might lead to even more public support for Pegida, Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian-Democratic CDU Party, co-sponsored in her town a so-called "Lovestorm" event. The aim was to conquer the "xenophobia" of Pegida through "open mindedness and humanity." Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, another leading CDU politician, claimed that the terror attacks in France had "nothing to do with Islam" and warned against "political pyromaniacs" such as Pegida who suggest otherwise.
Pegida's worries about the Islamization of Germany concern the seeming intolerance and religious fanaticism that have grown hand in hand with the arrival of Muslim populations unwilling to adapt to Western values.
But by decrying Pegida's views as "xenophobic," "narrow minded" and even "inhuman," Germany's ruling establishment shows how deeply out of touch it is with the worries of a large segment of the population.
A recent poll, dating from before the terror attacks in France, found that one in three Germans support the Pegida anti-Islamization marches. Further, a new study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that German attitudes toward Islam are hardening, with 61% saying in 2014 that Islam is "not suited to the Western world" -- up from 52% in 2012. Also, up to 57% of the Germans see Islam as a threat, 40% feel that they are becoming foreigners in their own country because of the Muslim presence, and 24% want to ban Muslim immigration.
Looking at the numbers of demonstrators that join the Pegida demonstrations every Monday in various German cities, Pegida is clearly an overwhelmingly East German phenomenon. Indeed, in the provinces formerly belonging to the Communist German Democratic Republic [GDR], many thousands of people are drawn to the demonstrations, while in the West the numbers are far lower. Political analysts admit to being puzzled by this, given that the number of immigrants, including Muslims, is far lower in the East than in the West. Some blame the higher unemployment figures in the East; the "backwardness," the lack of "civil society," the lack of "liberal open mindedness," and that "people in the East feel that they are losers."
There might, however, be two other explanations that make more sense. Perhaps the people in the East just want to avoid the situation that the Western part of the country is in, as a result of the large Islamic presence. While the West might already be lost as a result of Islamization, the East is still capable of avoiding the West's fate. Moreover, having gone through decades of Communist dictatorship, perhaps the Easterners are less inclined to trust that their political leaders have the people's best interests in mind with their policies.
Perhaps they feel that, rather than trust that Frau Merkel knows what is best for the German people -- as she welcomes in record numbers these new Islamic immigrants -- the German people need to show her clearly that they think she is wrong.