Leaders rally Germans to push back against growing anti-Islam protests

Eighty prominent Germans have signed an appeal to their countrymen to say 'no' to xenophobia as anti-foreign protests organized by the grassroots group Pegida grow.

Martin Meissner/AP
Turks with German football shirts demonstrate against a rally called 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (Pegida) in Cologne, Germany, Monday evening, Jan. 5, 2015. The Pegida march through the city was stopped by the counter-demonstration.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to former East Germany Monday to denounce growing nightly anti-Muslim rallies and to link the spirit of hatred behind them to darker trends including anti-immigration and anti-Semitism, the latter being a radioactive postwar symbol and warning. 

In Dresden, 18,000 Germans defied authorities Monday to march around a stadium named for the late rock singer Joe Cocker, according to The New York Times, waving flags that denounced the “Islamization” of Germany and Europe. The rally was the largest since anti-foreigner marches began in Germany in October, organized by a new grassroots group called Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West.

On Monday night, as a counter-protest, the lights were turned off at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and on the TV tower at Alexanderplatz that looms over the capital. Landmarks like the famed Cathedral at Cologne joined in as well to show disregard for new hate groups that Ms. Merkel called “racist” but that operate off a strong populist feeling. 

"We need to ... say that right-wing extremism, hostility towards foreigners and anti-Semitism should not be allowed any place in our society," Merkel said Monday in Neustrelitz. The comments echoed her New Year’s statement that the marches against Turks, refugees, and other “auslanders,” or outsiders, were driven by those with “hatred in their hearts.”

The Telegraph reports that the number of counter-protesters against Pegida in places like Berlin and Cologne far exceeded the number of anti-Muslim marchers. In Berlin 5,000 Germans protested against some 400 Germans sympathetic with the anti-Islamization message. But German analysts note that behavior in the capital is not always characteristic of growing feeling elsewhere, particularly the east. And The New York Times reports that the mention of Merkel's name in Dresden drew audible "boos" from the crowd. 

In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Germany has recorded more anti-foreign sentiment and been known for a variety of revanchist skinhead movements that occasionally attacked groups of tourists from foreign lands. The region is less cosmopolitan and “European” – though what worries German leaders is that groups like Pegida also draw from the middle and working classes. 

The BBC reports that the German newspaper Bild has published an appeal, signed by 80 prominent Germans, to say "'no' to xenophobia and 'yes' to diversity and tolerance."

Pegida "appeals to hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance," wrote former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

"A look at our past and economic sense tells us Germany should not spurn refugees and asylum-seekers," he added.

The "Pegida moment" is bringing out a debate that many have said is long overdue, in which the claims of racism and claims that jobs are taken by immigrants are more closely pitted against each other. 

The New York Times writes that: 

Across the established political spectrum, debate has raged about whether to engage directly with Pegida, as well as how to confront its clear appeal to a disgruntled segment of the German population. Its supporters include far rightists, neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans, as well as a larger number of average citizens who seem worried about losing status, even if — in Dresden and the surrounding state of Saxony — barely 2 percent of residents are foreigners and even fewer are Muslims.

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