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A spectre is haunting Germany and Europe and the spectre is called PEGIDA. Until recently only few people had heard of PEGIDA, acronym for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”. It started as a small protest movement in the eastern city of Dresden against the influx of immigrants, foreign workers and asylum seekers and , above all , against the “islamisation” of Germany.

Adopting the slogan “We are the people” of the weekly anti-communist demonstrations in 1989 which ultimately led to the overthrow of the German Democratic Republic, PEGIDA’s appeal seems to have grown week after week. The hundreds of demonstrators of the first few Monday evening “walks” in Dresden have swollen to tens of thousands. Besides Dresden there are now similar weekly rallies

A spectre is haunting Germany and Europe and the spectre is called PEGIDA. Until recently only a few people had heard of PEGIDA, acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident." It started as a small protest movement in the eastern city of Dresden against the influx of immigrants, foreign workers and asylum seekers and, above all, against the "Islamisation" of Germany.

Adopting the slogan "We are the people" of the weekly anti-communist demonstrations in 1989 which ultimately led to the overthrow of the German Democratic Republic, PEGIDA's appeal seems to have grown week after week. The hundreds of demonstrators of the first few Monday evening "walks" in Dresden have swollen to tens of thousands. Besides Dresden, there are now similar weekly rallies in other big German cities.

With its history of anti-Semitism and fascism many find it shocking that a considerable number of Germans, particularly in the east of the country, are flocking to a xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic movement. The surge of the anti-Islamisation movement has led to polarisation of the public opinion, many counter demonstrations and a fierce public debate, involving politicians, church leaders and academics. Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly criticised PEGIDA and called on Germans not to attend their rallies.

"Do not follow the people who organise these, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate," Merkel said in her New Year's Eve speech.

Marginalised

Not everybody agrees. Development Minister Gerd Muller of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), warned not to exclude PEGIDA sympathisers.

German anti-Islam rally hits record numbers

"The overwhelming majority of those demonstrators are not racists at all. Many of them are low income Germans and they feel they are being neglected, while refugees are offered help. The refugees, but also other migrants, are perceived by these people as competitors. In spite of our flourishing economy there are millions of poor families in Germany. The poor feel marginalised and not represented."

The CSU, Merkel's CDU's sister party and longtime political ally, has been accused of showing a bit too much understanding for PEGIDA. In fact the CSU's positions on immigration, integration and tougher rules for asylum seekers are quite similar to PEGIDA's.

It may well be that the CSU is distancing itself from Merkel because it is worried about right-wing competitors like the anti-establishment and eurosceptic AfD, Alternative für Deutschland (Germany's Alternative). The AfD may succeed in winning over many of the PEGIDA-sympathisers. AfD-chairman Bernd Lucke has gone out of his way to advocate a dialogue with this "new civil movement" and listen carefully to its arguments.

At the same time Lucke tried carefully not to alienate the more "respectable" right-wing voters and to distance himself from a too xenophobic discourse. Other AfD leaders are less ambiguous and clearly show support of PEGIDA by participating in their marches and inviting PEGIDA organisers to Saxony's regional parliament.

Xenophobic discourse

Some German observers don't doubt the existence of an alliance between AfD and PEGIDA. Analyst Volker Wagener sees the AfD as the "parliamentary voice of the street". He notes that the AfD manages to score with a xenophobic discourse especially in the east of Germany.

If the AfD succeeds in translating PEGIDA's objectives politically and electorally, it may take a role not unsimilar to Marine le Pen's National Front in France and especially Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands. In fact, there is a striking similarity between the anti-Islamisation positions of Geert Wilders and PEGIDA.

Some German experts say the debate shows the need for a redefinition of 'who is a German' and recognition of Germany as an immigration country.

Like Wilders' Freedom Party, PEGIDA does not only condemn jihadists and Islamist terrorists but Islam itself. Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and the islamic religion are all lumped together in a vague, scary, threatening mix. Both the Freedom Party and PEGIDA claim to defend the "conservation of the Judeo-Christian heritage". Both claim not to be radical, but PEGIDA and Wilders' party do in fact appeal to right wing radicals and extremists. Neo-Nazis and violent "hooligans against Salafists" openly support PEGIDA.

Both forces represent a significant portion of the population in Germany and the Netherlands. If there would be parliamentary elections in the Netherlands now, Wilders' Freedom Party would be the first or second political force in the country (depending on which poll to believe). In Germany, around 30 percent of the population thinks PEGIDA's concerns are legitimate.

Some German experts say the debate shows the need for a redefinition of "who is a German" and recognition of Germany as an immigration country. According to a recent study, most Germans see somebody as "German" when he or she speaks German well and has a German passport. Some 38 percent of those polled said that women who wore headscarves could not be German.

To define a new concept of "German-ness" and promote a welcoming culture of tolerance and openness will not be an easy task, and should probably not be left to the politicians.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Source: Al Jazeera