Dutch politician Geert Wilders addressed a rally of the German grassroots anti-Islamization movement known as PEGIDA in the eastern city of Dresden on April 13.
PEGIDA organizers were hoping that Wilders's appearance would inject new life into the group after a recent leadership split cast doubt on its future.
Despite excellent weather, however, only 10,000 people showed up for the event, far fewer than the 30,000 attendees that PEGIDA had been expecting.
Wilders told the crowd gathered in Dresden that there is "nothing wrong with being proud German patriots. There is nothing wrong with wanting Germany to remain free and democratic. There is nothing wrong with preserving our own Judeo-Christian civilization. That is our duty." He added:
"Most of the politicians, media, churches and academics are looking away from the threat of Islamization. They are afraid. But you are not.
"We hate no one. We fight for our freedom and hence we object to totalitarian Islam, but we do not hate Muslims. Neither do we hate our political opponents who are protesting here in Dresden against us. I am happy that we in Germany and the Netherlands are allowed to demonstrate against each other. Without violence. Without hatred."
Geert Wilders addresses a rally of PEGIDA supporters in Dresden, Germany, on April 13. (Image source: RT video screenshot)
The rest of Wilders's speech was directed far more at German politicians than at the anti-Islamization activists. He said:
"I say to the Prime Minister of Saxony, who felt he needed to warn against me: We are, indeed, those who are fighting against discrimination and hatred.
"Look at all the countries where Islam is dominant. Look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan. Non-Muslims, Christians, Jews, women, gays and apostates are treated there as inferior. They are being humiliated, persecuted, and even murdered. That is exactly what we are fighting against.
"And it is a disgrace, Mr Prime Minister, that we do not find you on our side. It is a disgrace, Mr Prime Minister, that you do not warn against that.
"We have enough of the political correctness. We have enough of the Islamization of our societies. We stand for freedom, for the truth. Because we think that without freedom, life is not worth living. Freedom and human rights -- that is what we stand for.
"Frau Merkel says Islam belongs to Germany. I ask you: Is she right? She is not right! Frau Merkel, the majority of your people say that Islam does not belong to Germany!
"Frau Merkel, the Netherlands, Germany, the other nations in the West, are not Islamic countries. We do not want a Monokultur, but we want our own Judeo-Christian culture to remain the Leitkultur [guiding culture] in our land. We want to remain what we are. We want to remain who we are!
"While most politicians sing the praise of Islam, we worry about the future of our country. We worry because we have read the Koran. In verse 9:29 it states that it is okay to fight Jews and Christians. In verse 4:89 it instructs Muslims to kill anyone who leaves Islam.
"We worry because recent academic research revealed that 45% of the Muslims in Germany believe Islamic religious rules are more important than secular German laws. We worry because 73% of the Muslims in my country say that Dutch Muslims who fight in Syria are heroes. 73%!
"We worry because in the past months, we have seen thousands of homegrown youths leave our countries to join the Islamic State. We worry because we have seen how many of these jihadists have returned to Europe, and most of them have not been imprisoned. They currently roam our streets like ticking time bombs.
"We cannot afford to do nothing. We have to do something...
"Every day, we hear the same mantra that Islam is a religion of peace. After every atrocity committed in the name of Islam, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and my own Prime Minister rush to the television cameras to declare that these acts have noting to do with Islam. How stupid do they think we are?
"Most of our politicians look away. But we will not be silent. Because we are the people -- the people that refuse to be enslaved!
"Dear friends, German patriots, look at Israel, learn from Israel. Israel is an island in a sea of Islamic barbarism. Israel is a beacon of freedom and prosperity in a region of Islamic darkness. Israel refuses to be overrun by the jihadists. So should we."
PEGIDA organizers had promised that Wilders would be followed to the podium by an "international lineup" of anti-Islamization experts, but that promise was left unfulfilled.
PEGIDA -- named after the German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West" -- has been organizing "evening strolls" (Abendspaziergang) through downtown Dresden on Monday evenings since October 2014 to protest against runaway immigration and the Islamization of Germany.
Around 500 people gathered at the first PEGIDA event held on October 20, 2014, to complain about Germany's lenient asylum policies. From that point on, the number of protesters increased exponentially from week to week, with more than 25,000 people attending a rally on January 12, just days after Islamic terrorists murdered 17 people in Paris.
Attendance fell sharply, however, after the German tabloid BILD published a photograph on January 21 of PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann sporting an Adolf Hitler-style haircut and moustache. The newspaper also reported on Facebook posts in which Bachmann referred to asylum seekers as "trash"and "filth."
PEGIDA's detractors in the German media jumped on the revelations, which they said proved that the movement is fundamentally racist.
Bachmann stepped down as PEGIDA leader immediately after the photograph was published. "I am sorry that I have damaged the interests of our movement," he said. "I sincerely apologize to anyone who has felt attacked by my online postings. They were comments made without serious reflection, which I would no longer express today."
Less than one week later, however, PEGIDA effectively imploded when the group's spokeswoman, Kathrin Oertel, and four other leaders announced they also were leaving the group to form their own movement, Direct Democracy for Europe (Direkte Demokratie für Europa). They said that from now on, their focus would be to seek ways to increase voter participation rather than to protest the Islamization of Germany.
Direct Democracy's first rally was held in Dresden on February 8, but only 500 people attended, far fewer than the 5,000 that Oertel had expected; Oertel shuttered her group on March 11.
Meanwhile, in late February it emerged that Bachmann had been reinstated as one of three directors of PEGIDA. Since then, the group has invited well-known Islam critics -- including René Stadtkewitz, a German center-right politician who founded the German Freedom Party (Die Freiheit) -- to speak at PEGIDA rallies. But attendance numbers have not recovered to those seen during the group's pre-scandal heyday.
Only 2,900 people showed up at a Dresden rally held on March 30, while 7,100 attended a rally held on April 6, when PEGIDA announced that it would be fielding Tatjana Festerling, a former politician with the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, as a candidate to run for mayor of Dresden in elections set for June 7.
Festerling was ousted from the AfD after she spoke out in favor of the "Hooligans versus Salafists" protest movement, which saw thousands of German football hooligans gather in the western city of Cologne in October 2014 to protest the spread of radical Islam in the country.
In announcing Festerling's candidacy, Bachmann said that this election was a "historic chance," one that would "set the direction for future elections across Germany and the rest of Europe." Festerling's performance in the mayoral elections for Dresden, which has 400,000 registered voters, will be viewed as an indicator of how large PEGIDA's following really is.
Meanwhile, PEGIDA offshoots have emerged across Germany, including: Bavaria (BAGIDA), Berlin (BAERGIDA), Cologne (KöGIDA), Hamburg (HAGIDA), Kassel (KAGIDA), Leipzig (LEGIDA), Rostock (ROGIDA), Südthüringen (SüGIDA) and Würzburg (WüGIDA).
With varying degrees of success, PEGIDA has also branched out into other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden.
At the same time, a branch of PEGIDA has sprung up in Australia. More than 20,000 people attended "Reclaim Australia" rallies held in 16 different cities across the country on April 4 to protest the spread of Sharia law and Islamic extremism.
Still, the lackluster turnout for Wilders's speech in Dresden represents a significant blow for PEGIDA's efforts to rebuild itself as a meaningful protest movement in Germany.
In a March 30 interview with the Austrian newsmagazine Profil, Wilders said that PEGIDA-founder Lutz Bachmnan's decision to dress up like Adolf Hitler was "very stupid of him." Wilders added: "But, we all make mistakes."
That may be true, but the German academic, political and media establishment has been engaged in a no-holds-barred campaign aimed at portraying PEGIDA as right wing extremist group. Ralf Jäger, the Interior Minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently referred to the leaders of PEGIDA as "neo-Nazis in pinstripes," while Markus Ulbig, the Interior Minister of the German state of Saxony, characterized them as "rat catchers" (Rattenfänger).
It seems clear that ordinary Germans, including those with legitimate concerns about the spread of Islam in their country, are reluctant to identify publicly with PEGIDA, even if they privately support the cause.
While it may be too soon to write PEGIDA off as a failure, the group is unlikely to build the influence necessary to force meaningful change in German policy-making.
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.