The immigration of Pegida

The German anti-Islam movement Pegida arrived in Denmark in January, signalling a revival and rebranding of the populist far right

“A terrorist attack will happen in Denmark, it’s just a question of when,” says a man holding a torch. His name is Christian and he’s in his 30s, but he, like most of the people I’ve spoken to, don’t want to give me their last name. Their reasons for wanting to remain anonymous are vague, but common to them all is that they are here to support Pegida Denmark, albeit solely on a first name basis only.

Just after sunset on a cold and dark evening, the demonstrators gather outside the National Gallery. Some hold signs and others, like Christian, hold torches that flicker light in their faces.

There seem to be more media and police than demonstrators, and the average age of the demonstrators is positively over forty.

“I was inspired by the people that are standing up,” says Ulrich, a well-dressed man in his fifties. “When I hear about things like what happened in Paris, I don’t become afraid, I get angry.”

He is standing in the crowd with Signe, a woman his age wearing a fur coat and hat. They, like the other people present, are worried about terrorism and radical Islam.

“Here in Denmark, we have fought for a long time for the right to be free, and that is not going to stop just because somebody feels offended,” Ulrich continues. “We want to be allowed to be Europeans.”

The common thread uniting the demonstrators appears to be a fear of terrorism and of losing one’s culture and value system to radical foreign elements. In the days before the march, on the Facebook page for the event, people expressed fears over bringing their children along for the demonstration, due to violent reprisals from the far left and pro-Islam groups.

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The Pegida phenomenon
Founded last October in the east German town of Dresden, Pegida is a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West. The organisation has since held a weekly demonstration each Monday, in reference to the Montagsdemonstrationen that were held during the final years of the GDR. Last month, the Dresden demonstration had grown from 350 to over 25,000 participants, fuelled by anger following the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The size and scope of the demonstrations drew threats of violence, leading organisers to cancel the demonstration planned for 19 January due to security concerns.

The group in Germany has well-documented ties to extremist right-wing and racist elements. Last month, German newspaper Morgenpost revealed that Pegida’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, a convicted criminal, had posted racist slander on his private Facebook page, including a picture of a KKK gathering with the caption “Three Ks a day, keep the immigrants away”. He later stepped down after a photograph of him dressed up as Adolf Hitler surfaced.

The 19 January demonstration was the first in Denmark for the Pegida movement. Hoping to avoid association with unfavourable figures, Danish organiser Nicolai Sennels publicly demanded that racist and fascist elements stay away from the event, which was billed as a peaceful gathering for civil rights and freedom of speech. Thus it was a touch ironic that only pre-approved slogans and signs were allowed.

The day after the demonstration, however left-wing research centre Redox posted an article on its website reporting that many prominent members of the Danish Defence League, Denmark’s National Front and other known far-right groups had been among the participants.

Standing in the crowd listening to the speeches there are clues, hoodies and shaved heads that contrast with the well-dressed people like Ulrich and Signe.

As the demonstration makes its way from the National Gallery towards the Little Mermaid, I catch first sight of counter demonstrators. A group of young people have positioned themselves across the street shouting “No racists in our streets”. A bald demonstrator shouts back “Denmark for the Danes”. Immediately, two policewomen walk up to him and order him to be quiet, and as they leave I catch up with him.

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I ask him why he shouted “Denmark for the Danes”, but a friend of his, who is wearing the Danish flag as a cape, cuts in saying “It was just a misunderstanding”. But the man is not discouraged by his friend, and instead tells me “We shouldn’t let these people slip into our country, they should just get out.”

The hostility to Islam and immigration at the demonstration aligns with statements by Sennels in the public sphere in recent years.

“I don’t like Islam and anyone who thinks that Islam should have a place in the world,” Sennels once wrote as a comment to an article on the Jyllands-Posten website. “I also don’t like the negative consequences that Muslim immigration has brought with it. But I don’t hate all Muslims. Obama is one of those that I don’t like, and I think he is among the many that should go back home to where he came from.”

Sennels now distances himself from these types of comments, taking a more diplomatic stance in a telephone interview. He says he doesn’t exactly know what concrete actions can be taken to counter fundamentalist Islam, arguing that he is not “an expert on legal issues”. And regarding demonstrators like those who shouted “Denmark for the Danes”, he says, “These people are a bunch of clowns – clowns that in no way support our cause.”

Nicolai Sennels, Pegida Denmark organiser

Nicolai Sennels, Pegida Denmark organiser

Disfranchised and distant
Sennels says the demonstrations are not directed at all Muslims, but about the fight against fundamentalist Islam, which he wants to “make mainstream”. The efforts of Sennels and many like-minded activists seem to be bearing fruit. Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe has been on the rise over the past decade, with parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and Front National in France reaching voter numbers that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago.

According to Dr Susi Meret, a scholar on populism and radical right wing parties at Aalborg University, Pegida should not solely be viewed as the reflection of a fear of Islam, but rather as a collection of broader social issues.

“I recently spent a couple of months in Jena in Eastern Germany. When talking to people, I encountered great dissatisfaction with politics and with deindustrialisation, as industries previously prominent in the area had relocated,” Meret says. “There is high unemployment and a lot of young people are moving to the west. In addition to Islam, Pegida is also about  globalisation and disillusion with established politics.”

Rising antipathy towards the established political parties and a sense that politicians are out of touch with the common people has sparked protest groups across the world aimed at upsetting politics as usual, such as the Tea Party in the US, which claims to champion anti-elitist, anti-establishment views on how to run society.

Meret says that similar developments are taking place in Denmark.

“Denmark has long been a country with one of the highest levels of trust in its government,” she says. “But this seems to be changing. Danish voters have been characterised by trust, but now many of them don’t feel represented in politics.”

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Why we fight
The distrust towards traditional parties is also evident in polls. Twenty years after it its founding, the populist Danish People’s Party is set to be one of the largest parties in the next parliament. And at the Pegida rally, disaffection with mainstream politics was easy to find.

“I think the politicians are afraid of Islam,” one woman – who later requests to be anonymous – tells me as she proudly holds up a sign bearing one of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad drawings. “They are afraid of doing anything. They do not realise the battle that is happening. In Europe we are free.”

As the march snakes down towards the Little Mermaid, a group of counter demonstrators manages to get close enough to shout the now familiar “No racists in our streets”. A grey haired man shouts back angrily “Fuck Islam”, while another giddily says “These are not your streets”.

Amid shouts of “Fuck Islam” and more cries of “Denmark for the Danes”, the march reaches the Little Mermaid, where a man poses proudly, holding the Danish flag and a sign that reads “No to fundamentalist Islam”. He is wearing sneakers, white washed jeans and an anorak that covers his entire face, save the eyes. The irony seems to escape him.

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What next?
Meret says it’s impossible to know how the Pegida movement will develop, but argues that the decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss it in her New Year’s speech demonstrates that it has rattled her:

“Now we have to ask ourselves, how do we respond? Do we enter into a dialog with these groups, and can that even be done? We have had groups like the Defence Leagues and anti-Islamist movements for a long time, but what is happening with groups like Pegida is a rebranding campaign. In the past, these groups have had reputation problems that have cost them support. Now they are taking the dissatisfied and marginalised to the streets and it is working. The question is, how long can you keep them there?” M

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By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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