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Germany’s Nationalist Movement Rides on a Wave of Islamophobia

Nationalists in Germany are making Islamophobia a scapegoat for troubles, with protests in Dresden and support spreading throughout the country. Political, business and cultural leaders are determined to block parties with xenophobic rhetoric, explains Frank Griffel, professor of religious studies at Yale University. Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925, exposing his ideology and anti-Semitism; in 1933, he was the German chancellor. “German culture prides itself on having stepped out of the shadow of Nazi Germany,” writes Griffel. “Germans today, both in the former West and the East, despise all too blatant manifestations of nationalism and patriotism and, 70 years after the Nazis’ fall, remain wary that a new kind of Nazism might creep into its political culture.” He analyzes the movement known by its acronym PEGIDA, which means “Patriotic Europeans who protest Islamization of the West” and points to the dilemmas for leaders who must address the resentment of immigrants masked as security concerns along with the changing culture and slowing conomic growth. Elsewhere in Europe, right-wing parties with xenophobic views have made gains in recent elections. – YaleGlobal

Germany’s Nationalist Movement Rides on a Wave of Islamophobia

Muslims have become easy scapegoat for economic worries in Germany – and elsewhere in Europe
Frank Griffel
YaleGlobal, 29 January 2015
Hate for immigrants masked in Islamophobia: Anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA holds rally in Dresden; new immigrants sing German national anthem

NEW HAVEN: German is a language famous for expressing complex notions with a simple word: zeitgeist for “spirit of the age” or schadenfreude for “the pleasure at other people’s misfortune.” Yet even those who studied German probably have not heard of Abendland. Germans rarely encountered the word, though together with its implicit counterpart, Morgenland, it’s become the latest buzzword of a popular political movement in Germany.

Since autumn, there have been regular demonstrations in Dresden, a German city of half million, close to the border with the Czech Republic. The movement calls itself PEGIDA, an acronym for “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes” and a name that reveals numerous elements of contemporary German political culture.

The protesters gathering before the city’s historic opera building refer to themselves as “patriotic Europeans.” They protest against the “Islamization” not of Dresden, not of Germany, but of the Abendland. Taken from the political vocabulary of the 19th century, the Abendland, literarily “the country of the evening,” is the place where the sun sets – “the West.” The German word Abendland, however, is distinguished from the English concept of the West in its implicit opposition to the counterpart, Morgenland –“the land of the morning,” the East, or more specifically the lands of Islam. PEGIDA protests the “Islamization of the Occident” – or all that is not “the Orient.” 

The simple use of Abendland evokes German notions of justice, order, prosperity and political stability. “Islamization” means becoming like the Morgenland, “the Orient,” perceived as a domain of unjust sharia legislation, political despotism, poverty, chaos and civil war.

The PEGIDA demonstrations began in mid-October with just a few hundred. Aided by Facebook, the numbers swelled to 10,000 by December. Dresden is widely known as a target of a highly destructive US bombing raid during the last weeks of the Second World War and was also the third-largest city of the communist German Democratic Republic, or GDR. Like the rest of that country, reunification 25 years ago meant that it was abruptly overwhelmed by the political system and culture of former West Germany.

Protests began in October with a few hundred in Dresden, swelling to 10,000 by December.

German culture prides itself on having stepped out of the shadow of Nazi Germany. Germans today, both in the former West and the East, despise all too blatant manifestations of nationalism and patriotism and, 70 years after the Nazis’ fall, remain wary that a new kind of Nazism might creep into its political culture. Unlike most other central European countries, no party with a xenophobic rhetoric is represented in the German Bundestag. In elections for the European Parliament in May, routinely an occasion for nationalist right-wing parties to gain higher percentages than in national or local elections, Britain’s UK Independence Party scored almost 27 percent, France’s Front National won 25 percent and Italy’s two right-wing parties together achieved 28 percent. Germany lacks a xenophobic right-wing party of comparable size. When last year a new party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, got 7 percent in the European elections, the country’s political establishment was highly alarmed. Yet most central and southern European countries with the exception of Belgium and Luxembourg have right-wing parties with xenophobic tendencies that score higher than 7 percent.

Collectively, Germans shun the nation’s own racist and anti-Semitic past. PEGIDA calls itself “patriotic Europeans” to dissociate from German patriotism and chauvinism. A united Europe is considered the recipe to overcome the dangers of a new Nazism. When PEGIDA protesters swelled in December, the country’s political and cultural elite united against it. In her New Year’s speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against the demonstrations, and anti-PEGIDA marches were organized in Dresden and other cities. In January, Germany’s largest newspaper, the conservative Bild, assembled 50 popular politicians, artists, singers and soccer players who spoke out against xenophobia and Islamophobia. Other newspapers and celebrities joined in, following the lead of Germany’s three biggest parties, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and “The Left,” to condemn the PEGIDA organizers without criticizing the ordinary citizens who join the protests.

Germans shun the nation’s racist and anti-Semitic past. PEGIDA calls itself “patriotic Europeans.”

This hypocrisy is shared by the German media which finds it hard to engage with PEGIDA. Not wanting to give xenophobia a voice on their networks and in their papers, journalists report on the marches without engaging with its spokespeople. For a long time, PEGIDA could not find a place to conduct a press conference. A local office for political education that opened its door “to allow for political dialogue” was heavily criticized. The press conference became necessary after vague threats against one of the organizers led Dresden police to cancel a scheduled march – prompting debate about the right of political expression in Germany. Like many European countries, Germany has harsh laws against hate-speech and Holocaust-denial. PEGIDA avoids anti-Semitism, focusing instead on Islam. Also in mid-January, the movement’s initial organizer had to step down after an online newspaper revealed that he had used xenophobic language in the past, which could lead to charges for “incitement of popular hatred.”

Those who demonstrate on Dresden’s streets Monday evenings – the same weekday of the marches that brought down the GDR – are German nationalists who rely on the term “Islamization” as a convenient label directed against all forms of immigration. Reports about alleged Islamic State associates from Germany and the terrorist attacks in Paris have further stirred an already existing Islamophobia.

For PEGIDA in Dresden and sympathizers in other German cities, Islam is a scapegoat for numerous political developments contributing to anxiety. In 2013, 1.2 million immigrants moved to a country of 80 million while ethnic Germans with no recent migrant background had low birthrates, shrinking to 80 percent of the population.

PEGIDA has made Islam a scapegoat for Europe's numerous political and economic problems.

The demonstrations force Germany to have an open debate about its demographic future. Germany is among the European countries reporting decent economic growth with 1.2 percent last year. Business and political leaders realize that a shrinking population means a shrinking economy. Despite efforts to boost the German birthrate, immigration is currently the only way to avoid the demographic trap and a diminishing economy. Many Germans recognize that a country with a fertility rate of 1.4, not budging since 2007, should welcome rather than discourage immigration.

Some Germans struggle with this notion. European Union integration already meant the disappearance of national border controls and the national currency. National specifics in the educational system, for instance, or in mundane regulations such as food labeling have also been standardized. For many Germans, the changes happened in a top-down approach with little public participation. Those who feel uneasy hit the streets to protest what they believe politicians, the media and the wealthy business establishment have done to the country. 

Such protests of resentment are not problematic as long as they lead to an open debate about their underlying causes, including a debate about the role of Islam in Germany. What is problematic is relying on Islamophobia to gain traction for a movement that is largely an expression of German nationalism. If PEGIDA indeed opens the gates for frank discussion about German immigration, it should also lead to debate about popular perceptions of Islam and how non-existent Islamization in Germany has become a symbol for the woes of nationalists.


Frank Griffel is professor of Religious Studies at Yale University and director of the Council on Middle East Studies and Religious Studies.

Rights:Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale University

Comments on this Article

2 February 2015
Thank you, for this profound outsider view on Pegida. The Pegida rallies of Pegida in Dresden have been dominating the political debate in Germany for weeks. According to many left politicians like the Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas, Pegida is a far-right, nazi-like movement or simply “disgrace for Germany”. In her New Year’s address even Chancellor Angela Merkel described Pegida as protests driven by hatred and called on German citizens not to follow Pegida. However, Pegida is much more complex. Pegida attracts more and more supporters (according to a survey 29 percent of the Germans are sympathizing with Pegida). The major part of Pegida supporters are not nazis but middle-class citizens who simply express their fears and point to failures in immigration policy and multiculturalism in Germany. Although Pegida has to be strongly critizised for their simplistic views, one has to admit that the rallies take place peacefully and some of their claims – like consistent implementation of existing rules – are even legitimate. Therefore, the protesters rightfully invoke their constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly.
Pegida is not only about immigration and islamization but shows that many people feel misunderstood in the German political system, the “system Merkel”. This system is characterized by the lack of political discussions and parliamentary dispute. Controversial debates are nipped in the bud, a real dialogue which allows contradiction does not take place. How the political class deals with Pegida tells much about free speech in Germany. Discourse in Germany is mainly characterized by political correctness communicated by public media. Everybody who opposes mainstream opinion is immediately banned as an “intellectual incendiary”.
German society is split on the Pegida issue. With her polarizing comments and her call not to join Pegida Chancellor Merkel rather adds fuel to the fire than bridges the gaps. Her strategy of blaming Pegida supporters bears several risks: The right Euro-critical party AfD (Alternative for Germany) gains new voters. Furthermore, Merkel’s strategy might provoke a radicalisation of the Pegida movement which possibly leads to xenophobic extremism.
In this context, I want to point at the discussion on a controversial quote (by the former Federal President Christian Wulff) which has been repeated by Chancellor Merkel after the Charie Hebdo attacks: “Islam belongs to Germany.” The sentence is quite ambiguous. While the sentence is definitely wrong when it is interpreted in a cultural-historical way, the statement is true from an empiric point of view. In view of four million Muslims living in Germany, the sentence reflects social reality in Germany. The controversial question is how Islam should contribute to German society in the future. This requires that Islam complies with the fundamental values of our liberal-secular democracy. Does such an enlightened Islam already exist? I think this question affects many concerns expressed by the Pegida protesters.
More on this issue in our blog:
-Cogito! , Pegida
31 January 2015
God save us from insouciant academics!
The author is following the politically correct meme that Islam is a religion of peace, and that those who protest are Islamophobic. He completely dismisses any notion that there might be more to these protests than mere phobia against immigrants.
Germany has a multitude of immigrants from all over the world, and yet there are no protests against Polish, Russian, Brazilian or Mexican immigrants. I personally know of a Pegida supporter who is dating a young Mexican woman. Fear of immigrants? I think not. People are perfectly cognizant of the fact that not all immigrants are malicious criminals or radicals. Likewise the death of Tugce, an heroic young Turkish woman who tried to save two young German women from harassment, has highlighted the fact that many of Turkish origin strive to be good Germans.
I would submit that the Charlei Hebdo murders, the barbarity of ISIS, the British Muslim rape gangs, the rapes of Swedish women, the smashing of Christian symbols, honour killings, child brides, female sexual mutilation, etc., etc., etc... are the real reasons for the rise of Pegida. Likewise the establishment of the Sharia Police in the German city of Wuppertal has alarmed Germans and other Europeans.
This is a real fear. People here do not want to live under any form of Sharia. We do not want to participate in public stonings or executions. We do not want our gay bretheren thrown off roof tops. We do not want to be put to death should we decide to leave the Islamic faith which was or will be imposed upon us by force. Germans are rightly proud of the democratic traditions and freedoms which have flourished since the fall of Nazism. They fear the intolerance and barbarity which is on open display in many Muslim countries. In effect, the creeping Islamization of Europe is seen as the equivalent of the re-Nazification and the imposition of a religious-political totalitarian dictatorship on a free society. Politicians are ignoring peoples well grounded fears in the name of “tolerance” and this is what is most alarming for all.
At the very least, Islam has an image problem, and to denigrate a populace's real fears with the slander of "Islamophia" is to deny the obvious. People do not want to hasten the destruction of Western civilization under the guise of tolerance, which was imposed on a society by oblivious academics and politicians.
-Expat Canuck , Islamophobia?
30 January 2015
Nothing phobic about being afraid of the Islam that gets into the newspapers
-martin , islamophobia?