The foolish fear of Islamization? – Germany and the PEGIDA movement


By Rebecca Gebauer

#multiculturalism #Islam #Germany #PEGIDA

Watching the recent wave of anti-Islamic demonstrations by a group called PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) in Dresden, Germany, I cannot help but wonder how it can be that up to 17,500 people feel motivated to protest against the ‘Islamization of Europe’. One should think that Germany, being the country with the worst history of fascism, racism and deadly persecution, should know better than that.

PEGIDA is marching on Mondays, abusing a tradition which once had led to the downfall of the Berlin wall. More than 25 years ago, in Dresden and elsewhere in Eastern Germany, people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations shouting “Wir sind das Volk” (‘We are the people’) to demand their right to democracy and freedom. It pains me deeply to see PEGIDA using same approach to advocate an entirely different message. Though PEGIDA on the surface seems to try to communicate a positive message of reforming immigration laws rather than objecting to immigration as a whole, it does not distance itself radically from extremist right wing groups. Neo-Nazis are marching with them alongside bourgeois citizens.

As a German living in Scotland I observe this worrying development from distance. I tried to talk with my family and with friends about the protests in Dresden and their response was rather shocking. They said that ‘those people are some narrow minded extremists with whom we have nothing in common’ but closely followed this with ‘those guys actually have a point’. Do they?

Another reaction of a German co-worker was: “What if those guys [Muslims] found a party!” I pointed out that there are actually only 3.8 to 4 million Muslims living in Germany, which makes up just 3% of the total population. Given the fact that there is a 5% threshold to enter the parliament, the threat of Muslims taking over German politics seems to be rather marginal. Many Muslims living in Germany do not have German citizenship and therefore no right to vote in national elections, or they are too young to vote. This argument was met by another German co-worker with: “Are you sure that there are only that few Muslims in Germany? I am sure there are more.”

According to a research conducted by the Advisory Council of German Foundations for Integration and Migration, 70% of the participants greatly overestimated the number of Muslims living in Germany at 10+ million. Only about 10% of the interviewed were able to correctly guess the Muslim population; most of these interviewees coming from an ethnic minority background themselves. An online survey by the German newspaper Die Zeit found, every second German actually sympathises with PEGIDA out of a growing concern about Islamist extremism.

An anti-PEGIDA demonstration on 22 December in Munich was able to gather an impressive crowd of 22,000 protesters, however the organisers were not able to repeat the success. A second protest a week later mobilized less than 300 demonstrators. Upon the onset of winter bringing the first snow to wide areas in Germany, Twitter users started mocking PEGIDA using the hashtag #schneegida by drawing a comparison between the German attitude towards snow (Schnee) and PEGIDA’s attitude towards immigrants. Tweets like “I am not against snow as long as it integrates to our climate and is rain” or “In the beginning there are few flakes and that is quite all right. But in the end you do not recognize your own country” quickly created a trend on social media and were soon picked up by the wider media.

In her annual New Year’s address to the nation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel found clear words of criticism for PEGIDA, saying its leaders have ‘prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts’. Ms. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany herself and has a lively memory of the Monday demonstrations 25 years ago, went on to say that those shouting “Wir sind das Volk“ today really mean “you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion.”

Public opinion is dominated by a great objection towards PEGIDA and Ms. Merkel also is in line with that. However – what about those many people who are genuinely concerned about Islamization? While the so-called Islamization may be hugely overrated and by far not as deep going as people tend to believe – the concern is nevertheless real.

This makes me think of C Wright Mills and his distinction between private troubles and public issues. He described private troubles as problems which are based in our own attitudes, mind-sets and actions – we can solve them by changing ourselves. Public issues on the other side go far beyond the influence of a single person. Public issues require an organised joint effort to overcome.

Right now the worries of probably half of the German population regarding Islamization are treated like a private trouble. They are mocked, rejected and not taken seriously. The public consensus is that those who sympathize with or even support PEGIDA actually just need to get their head right and then the whole movement would come to an end easily. But can we seriously react like this when half of the 67 million adults in Germany express a concern about Islam? Can we simply assume that there are 17.500 idiots marching the streets every Monday in Dresden? Foolish or not – condemning these fears and worries about Islam seems very counterproductive to me. We all know the feeling when we are not taken seriously; many of us tend to get even stronger about our position when we are challenged that way.

While Ms. Merkel found clear words to condemn PEGIDA she also shared her experience of talking to a Kurdish refugee who by now has gained German citizenship, who described the greatest value of living in Germany as being that he can bring up his children without fear. Ms. Merkel pointed out that it is one of the greatest achievements of the reunited Germany: that no child has to grow up in terror and fear, and that it is a matter of course that Germany does not deny this to people who flee to Germany escaping grave danger.

The fears about Islamization creeping into German society have no real ground. They are possibly the result of a media focused on reporting atrocities such as the crimes of IS rather than reminding people about the wealth we live in, wealth not only expressed in material values but also in the peace and justice which rule our society. Ms. Merkel has been criticised for her new year’s address by leading right wing politicians for ‘talking to people she does not even know from far above’. The irony is that PEGIDA and their followers do exactly that – they judge people for their skin colour, their origin and their religion without even asking what their background stories are, without even knowing a single refugee in person.

Germany and other Western democracies are strong and have achieved great security and peace for their citizens. Unfortunately today we take these values so much for granted that we do not cherish them, but rather are easily impacted and scared by any potential danger from outside. We can only overcome these fears if politicians and ordinary citizens follow Ms. Merkel’s example to remind us, and anyone who seeks to live in the West, of the blessings we live in. Blessings so rich we should not be afraid to promote and share them.

Rebecca Portrait 3 (2)


Rebecca Gebauer is the Director of Diplomatic Affairs of Global Minorities Alliance. She tweets at @RebeccaGebauer

2 thoughts on “The foolish fear of Islamization? – Germany and the PEGIDA movement

  1. Thank you very much for your analysis.

    I understand why you’re advocating that it is our responsibility as citizens and political leaders to not panick in the face of adversity and to instead withstand it by reaffirming the fundamentally virtuous values of the West.

    This may well work however I believe that this approach has limits. Indeed the approach is very similar to what parents tell kids who have a fear of dark I.e. don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Of course the main limitation is that we’re not dealing with children here but with other adult citizens. The other limitation of this approach, which by the way is used by all mainstream parties to bat back any foray by nationalist or extremist parties is to disenfranchise those adults rather than try to confront and address their fears. It is basically a tranche of the population absolutely convinced they are righ telling another tranche of the population who also believes they are right that they’re wrong! And it may well be the case but I really think that you can’t treat adults the same way as children.

    What I am getting at is that in addition to cherishing western values and constantly reaffirming why they’re so great, work needs to be done to engage with those scared by the dark and try and understand what they’re afraid of. Only then you can reassure them that their fears are unfounded. For example, I tried to research on the Internet what it is that the PEGIDA supporters are afraid of and I couldn’t find anything articulating it. At least kids are able to say: I’m afraid of the dark because monsters might do this or that to me. We need to get PEGIDA supporters to articulate what they fear might happen if islamisation increases in Europe. How would this concretely impact them and society?

    I personally fear that if we don’t reach out, listen to them and convince them to spell out what they’re afraid of, then we’re just patronising them. Once we’ve made that first effort then we need to make a second effort to be clear in our heads as to why in practice those western values are great I.e. what their tangible benefits are. Finally we need to make a third effort to sell how those western values mitigate their fears.

    I know that often perception becomes reality. It is precisely in moments like those we’re living in Europe at present when western values are being challenged by nationalistic fears all over that those who believe in such western values must work twice as hard to listen, understand and explain with clarity, simplicity and facts.

  2. Pingback: Human rights: the top ten blog posts so far | Human Rights Blog

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