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Are Germany's anti-Islam marches really about Islam?

Dresden has seen tens of thousands of Germans join weekly marches in protest of the 'Islamification' of Europe. But underlying that complaint is a host of concerns about immigration, security, and Europe that has long gone unspoken in Germany.

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    Demonstrators bear flags of several European countries during a rally of the group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, in Dresden, Germany, on Jan. 12.
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This stunning, baroque city, bombed to bits in World War II and lovingly rebuilt in the decades since, has always been one of paradox.

As the “Florence of the Elbe,” it has long drawn cultural exchanges at the highest level. But it’s also a meeting point for neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans. And now, it is ground zero for Germany’s anti-Islamization movement, a movement that is blossoming into one of the most worrisome developments across Europe.

Interest has surged in Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris. A Facebook group that drew just 300 citizens at its first gathering this past fall, its weekly Monday night protests have attracted growing numbers of marchers, and it drew a record 25,000 last week. Pegida cancelled its planned march for Monday after threats against one of its leaders, however, with Dresden police issuing a "general ban" on public gatherings tomorrow.

But at its core, Pegida is it not about radical Islam. Rather, that is a repository for a larger disaffection – with immigration, economics, and even Europe. And though much of the Continent has been grappling with such concerns in the form of rising populist parties, Dresden is forcing Germany to confront its domestic malaise for the first time, leading to rhetoric that has long been unexpressed in Germany and fears that, with a backlash against Muslims post-Paris, a more virulent strain of anti-immigration sentiment could strengthen.

“The fear of Islam does not play a main role, it’s just a label,” says Frank Richter, the director of Saxony’s state office for political education. “It’s like an imaginary enemy. Pegida is more of a feeling.”

What drives Pegida?

That feeling began to take shape in October, with a Facebook page and concerns about refugees landing in Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital. Germany has played a new and leading role in Europe in welcoming refugees and foreigners – what leaders say is inevitable for an aging, and economically viable, leading country of Europe.

And Dresden has been playing only a modest part in taking in foreigners. Less than one percent of this state is Muslim. Of the 200,000 asylum seekers that Germany let in last year, many from war-torn Syria, just a few thousand were placed here.

Nonetheless, the city has reacted strongly against Berlin's narrative. Many say they fear that refugees – and newcomers who they say are posing as refugees – will generate crime and drugs problems, tax the public system, and practice radical Islam that collides with European values. What’s worse, they are angered that they were not consulted by political elites about the process of asylum policy. 

Rolf Zimmer, an older man from Dresden at his first Pegida march last Monday night, says it's not true that they are racists. “I fear the slow Islamization of Germany, but it’s not true that we don’t like foreigners,” he says.  “We are for sensible politics of Germany.”

Yet like most all others, he quickly moves from Islamization to a litany of broader concerns, which range from disgust of the politics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to resentment for the perceived price Germany has paid for eurozone bailouts. In other words, Pegida is a feeling of protest.

The marches during the record turnout last Monday night are largely male, and while they are of all ages, there are many young men. There are neo-Nazis in the crowd and a contingent of local soccer hooligans. Many of them come from outside Dresden, holding up signs from the local towns where they hail, where a sense of exclusion is more acute. Their politics run from the center to the far-right, with many apolitical protesters among them.

The vast majority, says Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at Dresden’s Technical University, are just regular, angry citizens who want to protest their frustration. And in Pegida, they’ve finally found a voice to say things that have long been taboo in post-war Germany. As one job seeker, a Pegida supporter, put it at an unemployment center in central Dresden, "How long do we have to apologize for the acts of World War II?"

In most of Europe, there are politically viable outlets for voicing anti-immigrant sentiment, like France's National Front or Britain's UK Independence Party. But in Germany, Pegida is the first real channel for a long unexpressed sentiment. “It is an outing of what’s already been there,” Professor Patzelt says. He compares what has happened in Dresden to the confluence of events that started revolution in Tunisia. It simply sparked.

Federal officials in Berlin have sought to dismiss this as a geographical phenomenon. And there is much evidence that, to a certain degree, that is true. Pegida has enjoyed nowhere near the same support in the capital of Berlin, or Cologne, or Munich. The day after Pegida marched, Chancellor Merkel took to the streets of the capital with the Muslim community in a unity march to mourn the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris.

Why Dresden?

To some it’s the very lack of contact with immigration here that has fueled Pegida. While in the US at lot of the strongest anti-Mexican sentiment comes at the border, where residents are faced with the daily reality of migration flows, here the inverse seems to be true. A new study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor project showed that 57 percent of Germany’s non-Muslims perceive Islam as a threat, up from 53 percent in 2012. It was the highest in Saxony, where 70 percent said they felt threatened.

“You fear what’s new,” says Corina Hohenstein, an EMT who lives in a little town outside Dresden. While she doesn’t support the organization of Pegida she does say the vast majority of regular citizens that follow Pegida have genuine concerns. She, for example, supports refugee resettlement in Germany; she does not support the way it’s been done in a concentrated manner. One of the most infamous examples cited across Saxony is the 50 refugees placed in one center in a community of 150. She says she’d be willing to pay more taxes to solve this problem.

And even if there are only some 6,000 asylum seekers here, says Mr. Richter, from a local context, that’s surged from just a few hundred prior to 2013. Many of them are young men, not families, which raises questions – and suspicions – among locals.

Dresden also has some historic specificities that have given Pegida a firmer foothold here, starting with geography. Located in a valley, it couldn’t receive Western radio and television signals like other residents of other cities did illegally while they were part of the former GDR, leaving a heritage of isolation.

While Dresden’s beauty reflects a cosmopolitan edge, it’s all been rebuilt, after one of the most controversial bombings in World War II left an anti-Americanism that still persists, locals says. And the city now sees annual neo-Nazi marches on Feb. 13 – the anniversary of the bombing – which might be one of the major flashpoints of Dresden this year, as the city marks 70 years since the Allies leveled the city. 

Latent racism, now public?

The city has long grappled with a history of racism or weariness of foreigners. One of the biggest contingents of foreigners come from Vietnam, after the GDR brought them in to work. And Linh Tran, who was born in Germany, says she’s never felt German – she’s never been allowed to feel German, she says.

“It started in childhood. I wished I was blond and blue-eyed,” says Ms. Tran, a thoughtful university student studying social work and focusing on the complexities of racism in society.  

Ever since the Pegida marches took off, she’s devoured the news, attended the marches on both sides, and generally agrees she is witnessing an “outing” that is a worrisome foreshadowing – and a sign of how racism has simply been suppressed, not tackled in educational or political systems.

“The things people have been thinking, now they are saying them out loud on the street, and they are proud of it,” she says. “It was there before but it’s a dangerous moment because it could put pressure on politicians.”

In that sense, the mood here is reflective of other parts of Europe, where the far right, from France to the United Kingdom to Germany itself, could get a boost on a message of closed borders. After Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose works were critical of Islam, was killed by an extremist in 2004, Freedom Party founder Geert Wilders rode on the coattails of fear, becoming a major force in Dutch politics. 

Already Alternative for Germany (AfD), the growing, anti-euro populist party in Germany, has flirted with Pegida, especially after the Paris attack. Professer Patzelt says this is where Pegida could end: getting absorbed into a viable political party that sits to the right of Ms. Merkel’s center-right party.

Bridging divisions

In the meantime, city leaders are rushing to close growing divides. Counter-protesters are increasingly taking to the streets against Pegida. Last Monday night as Pegida marched, five men stood against thousands with signs reading, “You should be ashamed.” Along the march, the far left tried unsuccessfully to block their passage, as they do during the annual neo-Nazi marches, forming a human barricade and chanting in English, “Refugees are welcome here, say it loud, say it clear.”

Mr. Richter has publicly offered to negotiate between Pegida and mainstream politicians. His office already held one dialogue for the community at large, both Pegida supporters and their critics, turning many away from the door for lack of space.

Cultural institutions are mobilizing too. Andrea O’Brien, the managing director of the Dresden Literary House and Erich Kästner Museum, who attended the Pegida march Monday night to understand it better, says that some of the Pegida supporters might be “fed up,” but “they are having the worst possible response: using a minority to channel their bad feeling about internal German politics,” she says. She was dismayed by some of the hate messages she saw Monday, such as one sign that read "Multiculturalism Kills."

Yet she says that understanding is lacking in all layers of society, and that the anti-Pegida movement also runs the risk of forming the very prejudices they are fighting against. One small effort her organization is taking is organizing Arabic classes for the community taught by refugees. In the end, she says: “I hope that Dresden starts to talk about what it really means to be a cosmopolitan society."

This story was updated to reflect the cancellation of the Pegida march planned for Monday, Jan. 19.)

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