In just four months, the group has racked up nearly 160,000 Facebook likes and have staged a number of protests in Germany, some attended by up to 25,000 people. Offshoots have sprung up in Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and – now – the United Kingdom.
According to reports, the UK branch is expecting somewhere between 500 and 3,000 protesters to attend the rally. This is by no means, a major demonstration. Indeed, Pegida itself as a European movement has suffered serious setbacks since the height of their popularity following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
Founder Lutz Bachmann was forced to resign from the organisation after a photograph of him styled as Adolf Hitler went viral on the 21st of January. German politicians, including Angela Merkel, have criticised the organisation over its use of the Charlie Hebdo incident for political purposes, and counter-protests in Germany have reached the stage where they are drawing more participants than the protests themselves.
This might seem to suggest that Pegida, less than four months after its foundation, is already on the way out. But we cannot afford to be so optimistic. Pegida itself is just one part of a wider campaign across Western Europe which is targeting Muslims as a group. The very concept of ‘anti-Islamisation’ is nonsensical – the Muslim population of the UK is just 4.6%; in Germany, it is 5.4%. There is no ‘Islamisation’; the fastest-growing belief group across Western Europe is, in fact, atheists, not Muslims.
But the narrative has been picked up, not only by radical rightist groups like Pegida and Britain First, but by the media – and from there, it has filtered into general society. A report last October showed that anti-Muslim hate crime rose by 65% over the preceding twelve months; in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, 24 violent incidents against mosques were logged in just six days. The last ten years have seen a seemingly inexorable upward trend in anti-Islamic sentiment across Europe, fuelling the rise of anti-immigration Parties like the French Front National and UKIP, as well as direct action groups.
There is a real danger that the actions of tiny extremist minorities on both sides willincrease the polarisation of society around the issue of Islam. The stage is fast approaching where it is no longer possible to take a balanced view on the subject: one must either be an apologist for Islam in all its forms, or emphatically opposed to it. This is dangerous. Islam, like any religion, has inspired some people to do terrible things in its name, but the vast majority of its adherents are peaceable, friendly citizens of our countries. We must stand in solidarity with them.
The narrative of mutual warfare – crusaders vs. jihadists – is one which Islamist and far-right groups alike benefit from and seek to encourage. Those of us who are moderates – the vast majority – are easily capable of shrugging off the efforts of these bitter fringe elements. So let us not succumb to their poisonous rhetoric, but expound the virtues of tolerance and liberty and the right and ability of the human species to live in harmony despite our differences.
The ‘crusaders’ of the 21st century are no less brutal and self-serving than those of the 11th. We should treat them and their misguided ‘anti-Islamisation’ campaign with the contempt they deserve.
This article is cross-posted with the author’s blog, Cynical Optimist