by Brandon Tensley
“We’re coming back.”
So chant protesters in Dresden, Germany, under the name PEGIDA: Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. And true to their word, they’ve been coming back. Dresden isn’t new to the right-wing scene—each year it finds neo-Nazis squaring off with anti-fascists over misusing the memory of the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. But since October the East German city’s protests have become a hotbed of nationalism, due at least in part to a dearth of debate about immigration between elites and civil society, and to Germany’s ongoing struggle to redefine competing notions of nationhood and belonging.
Ostensibly, these protests aren’t much different from the wave of populism, aimed at foreigners, that’s been taking Europe by storm over the past several decades. For instance, Germany had to face xenophobia in the 1990s when neo-Nazis attacked a home for asylum seekers in Rostock. Today’s protesters are allegedly shining a light on radical Islam and unwieldy foreigner flows, with posters that read “No Sharia law in Europe” and “Protect our homeland.” Protesters are also attempting toappropriate the zeitgeist of the fall of the Berlin Wall by gathering behind the reunification-era cry of “Wir sind das Volk,” or “We are the people.”
But what makes this latest iteration of anti-immigration different (and more dangerous) is the demography of the protesters. Taking evidence from PEGIDA’s disgraced ex-leader, ruling politicians have labeled the protesters “Nazis in pinstripes.” However, many of them aren’t actually neo-Nazis or firebrands. PEGIDA has been able to appeal to a broader base by selling nationalist rhetoric as a brand of patriotism. Because so many middle-class citizens are among PEGIDA’s motley ranks, they can’t be tossed “into the same neo-Nazi pot,” which makes it challenging for the government to parse through participants.
The level of vitriol directed against foreigners is also causing a frenzied conflict between freedom of speech and social integration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned against this trend: “There is freedom of assembly in Germany, but there is no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries. Everyone needs to be careful that they are not taken advantage of by the people who organize such events.”
Dealing effectively with Germany’s own version of a clash of civilizations will require nothing short of delicate diplomacy on the part of the country’s political top brass.
A key first step is bringing thousands of citizens’ concerns into the conversation, while realizing that this isn’t the same thing as supporting xenophobia. When it comes to immigration policies, many Germans, not just Dresden’s protesters, believe that they’re being relegated to the fringes of bigger discussions by elites. This lack of dialogue on immigration is problematic for the country that is the world’s leader in accepting asylum seekers.
More crucially, addressing these concerns must involve making clear the difference between Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand and Islamophobia and xenophobia on the other. PEGIDA claims that its message isn’t born of any prejudice. However, for its supporters, who range from self-identified members of Germany’s right-wing National Democratic Party to ordinary citizens, the border between “who’s in” and “who’s out” is anything but clear-cut, and it underpins deadly xenophobia.
Freedom of expression on public policy issues is essential to any healthy liberal democracy. There must be a red line, however, where this sort of speech is used, whether deliberately or not, to mobilize already fraught social tensions and to invite poisonous hatred against people who are “not like us.”
Confronting the protesters, as well as their fears, won’t be a silver bullet against more entrenched problems or discontent. But it could go a long way toward protecting the vulnerable from the heavy-handed claims of the vocal—and it could keep the protesters from coming back.
About the Author
Brandon Tensley is an M.Phil. candidate in European Politics and Society at the University of Oxford, where his research focuses on minority politics and nationalism in Europe. His work has appeared in Slate, Time, and The Week. Before graduate school Brandon was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany.