PEGIDA: The Rise of Islamophobia in Europe
The Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West’s (PEGIDA) announcement of their disbandment on January 29 has brought an abrupt end to the group’s exponential growth in membership and visibility since its inception in October. What started out as one man’s Facebook page created to vent frustrations over what he perceived to be an encroaching Arab-Muslim population in his neighborhood quickly festooned into weekly protests against Germany’s immigration policies, an influx of refugees from the Middle East, fading European culture, and government neglect and exclusiveness. Although PEGIDA’s membership can’t be characterized by one ideology or defined by a specific goal, the increasing Arab refugee population has quickly become a widely agreed upon scapegoat for the country’s troubles. PEGIDA’s end may bring a close to an identifiable name for such sentiment, but the frustration and islamophobia the movement has exposed are by no means dead. In fact, this sentiment poses just as much of a threat to Europe as national jihadists.
Dresden resident Lutz Bachmann founded PEGIDA in October 2014. Upon cursory glance, Dresden, a river-side city in the former East Germany, seems like a somewhat unlikely place for an anti-Islamic and anti-Arab movement to start, considering only 0.4% of its population is Muslim compared to a 9% Muslim population in Berlin and 12% in Frankfurt. But to Werner Patzelt, a politics professor at Dresden Technical University, Dresden makes perfect sense. Patzelt points out that as a former part of East Germany, cultural change in Dresden has been incessant since the fall of the Berlin Wall, first with the integration into western society, and now with the influx of foreigners into an otherwise homogenous population. As Patzelt put it, to many in Dresden, the incoming refugees from Syria and Iraq constitute “a whole new change” that “no one asked us” about regarding its viability or acceptability. The slight but noticeable change to Dresden’s cultural makeup was unfamiliar to say the least, and as Erik Hattke of the anti-PEGIDA group Dresden for All explains, “what you don’t know or aren’t familiar with is easier to fear.” And fear they have. PEGIDA followers have accused German Muslims of everything from shoving out Judeo-Christian values with Sharia law to draining German fiscal resources to endangering German streets. The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in early January of this year by radical jihadists have only served to strengthen PEGIDA’s resolve and to bolster support for what they believe to be an Islamic incursion on Europe.
Although PEGIDA claims it is opposed to “radicalism, whether religiously or politically motivated,” and is not racist or Islamophobic, its leaders have characterized refugees as both “animals and scumbags,” and denounced Islam as an “odious ideology.” Clearly, the group doesn’t practice the distinctions it preaches – making its spread all that much more troubling. PEGIDA has inspired satellite and copycat groups in nearly every industrialized western country. While counter-PEGIDA demonstrations consistently outnumber those held by the group itself, previously apolitical individuals frustrated with their government’s immigration policies and unresponsiveness to domestic problems continue to join PEGIDA’s ranks as “simple hanger-on” who don’t fully recognize the hateful origins of the group.
PEGIDA’s troublingly exponential growth in numbers and fervor has also attracted the worry of the German Central Council of Jews. PEGIDA hasn’t expressed any openly anti-Semitic views to date, but it’s decidedly racist, hate-motivated rhetoric has been perceived by many Jewish leaders as “immensely dangerous.” PEGIDA’s eerie similarities to the Nazis are hard to ignore since both groups blamed a minority for government inadequacies and cultural deterioration. Although PEGIDA has yet to violently act on the hatred they express like the Nazis eventually did, PEGIDA’s shared traits with Nazism make the group all the more troubling.
Ultimately, PEGIDA’s rise to infamy is concerning for another reason: its role in the cycle of homegrown terrorism in Europe. We must, however, recognize that blame for this goes both ways--radical jihadist aggression and anti-Islamic groups both have played a part in perpetuating this. Although many PEGIDA members have been drawn to the group to show their opposition to the homegrown terrorism that caused the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, PEGIDA existed before the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked. Contemporaries of the perpetrators in that crime often site islamophobia like that expressed by PEGIDA as one of their driving motivations in carrying out terrorist attacks in the west. Such attacks are infallible, but PEGIDA must realize it can’t right hatred and radicalization with more hatred and radicalization. Only mutual acceptance and compromise can break the cycle.