The PEGIDA Problem

Racist graffiti. Neukolln, January 2015.

The Nazis are back. So one would be inclined to believe, over the last few weeks, as Islamophobic demonstrations mushroomed across Germany. First catching the international media’s attention with a riot in Cologne, followed by a series of Monday night demonstrations in Dresden, Germany has been forced to acknowledge the growth of widespread sentiment against minorities, specifically Muslims.The prejudice is so common that a poll last week reported that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Muslim march, if it was organized in their home town.

For observers of German politics, the news is not so surprising. In recent years, studies have repeatedly shown that Islamophobia is on the rise in the country, moving from the extreme right to the middle class. Fueled by a combination of neo-Nazi activism,  right-wing tabloids stoking fears of unrestricted immigration, and, more recently, fears of foreign jihadist groups like ISIS, momentum has built towards shifting German popular opinion to the right on questions of diversity. Germany’s leadership bears its own indirect responsibility for exacerbating the crisis, attacking multiculturalism, and promoting anxiety about Muslims.

Few events have confirmed fears more about what this build-up has led to than the establishment of PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident.] A social movement encompassing center-and right-wing extremists, the organization, if one could call it that, accurately reflects the breadth of Islamophobia in today’s Germany. Drawing up to 17,000 protestors at a rally last week in Dresden, despite its Nazi leanings, right-wing politicians are beginning to fight for PEGIDA’s followers, ranging from Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, to the populist Alternative für Deutschland.

Neukölln storefront. Karl-Marx-Straße, December 31st.
Neukölln storefront. Karl-Marx-Straße, December 31st.

Though the Merkel government has come out swinging against PEGIDA , there is a sense that it’s a rearguard action, that will fail to stem Germany’s shift rightwards on matters concerning ethnicity and tolerance. A lot more will have to be done than denouncing racism. New measures, for example, ought to be taken to further criminalize hate speech, for example, towards Muslims, making it equivalent, in terms of legal weight, to laws banning Holocaust denial. If Nazi sentiment is helping direct the racist wave, why not? After all, Islamophobia is anti-Semitic, too.

Neukölln sidewalk. February 2014
Neukölln sidewalk. February 2014.

Germany’s Muslim population isn’t exactly insignificant, either. Not only does it deserve  state protection, but, its size speaks for itself. In 2010, the country’s Islamic community stood at 4,119,000, according to The Guardian. Given the fact that Germany’s population stands at a little over 80 million, according to 2014 census figures, that’s not exactly insignificant. Especially, in moral terms, if one compares the size of the Jewish population in Germany, in 1933 (523,000) relative to the country’s total population of 67 million. The minority is significantly larger and more visible.

A return to the Nazi era is not in the cards. But a new kind of intolerance, which discriminates against a wide swathe of German society is growing in legitimacy. While it’s a fallacy to assume that any country can be certified as racism-free, because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to combat intolerance. What that means, in this context, is learning about the limits of its current laws against discrimination, and building on them, so that the Jewish community is not the only reference point that defines racism.

The first and last photos in this piece are a good example. They were both shot in a largely Turkish area of Berlin, and aimed at local residents, many of whom have lived in the city for over half a century. If time is any measure of citizenship, no one could be more German. Perhaps the racism aimed at them has less to do with their religion, and their immigrant origins, than the economy. Why such discussions never seems to get privileged in public is a big part of the problem. Germany’s political echelon clearly has some soul searching to do.


 Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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