Germany’s Nationalist Movement Rides on a Wave of Islamophobia
Germany’s Nationalist Movement Rides on a Wave of Islamophobia
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.
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.
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.
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.