The ugly threat to Muslims in Germany

March 9, 2015

Despite its recent setbacks, the successes of the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement have identified fertile ground for the far right, write Axel Fair-Schulz and Laura Fair-Schulz.

THE NOXIOUSLY Islamophobic group PEGIDA is regaining some of its lost momentum in the German city of Dresden after several weeks of relative calm.

On March 2, more than 6,000 people joined a demonstration organized by PEGIDA, the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, in Dresden, a city as famous for its picturesque Baroque and Rococo architecture as now infamous for its far-right undercurrents.

There was no ambiguity to PEGIDA's ethno-nationalist slogans: "Germany for the Germans" and "Clear them out." Later that evening, about 100 PEGIDA marchers made their way to a protest camp occupied by 80 refugee asylum seekers for more than a week in front of the historic Semper Opera House. Some of the PEGIDA marchers attacked the camp before being driven back.

PEGIDA burst onto the scene in Dresden in October 2014, repeatedly mobilizing tens of thousands for weekly protests each Monday against the supposed threat of the "Islamization" of Germany. That surge carried into the beginning of 2015 with a rally of up to 25,000 people in Dresden. Attempts to replicate PEGIDA's protests in other cities have tended to attract only a few hundred, almost always far outnumbered by anti-racists who mobilized against the copycat demonstrations.

PEGIDA's anti-Muslim mobilizations originated in Dresden
PEGIDA's anti-Muslim mobilizations originated in Dresden

One week before March 2, PEGIDA mustered only about 5,000 people on the streets of Dresden. While the decline is welcome, the threat posed by the far right remains. The changing numbers should be understood as cyclical manifestations of constantly stewing anti-immigrant sentiments steeped in global capitalism.

To be sure, there are reasons for hope at the moment: The recent electoral victory of SYRIZA in Greece; the growing strength of Spanish anti-austerity forces; and the occasional lull in PEGIDA activity. Together, these developments demonstrate that the potential exists to mobilize a progressive response to the insecurity stalking Europe's working classes.

But this is no time for complacency. The rise of the openly Islamophobic German PEGIDA movement is one of the most alarming developments in Germany in recent times. And while PEGIDA appears to be tearing itself apart though leadership infighting, the socioeconomic, political and cultural forces that aided its rise are still a fertile breeding ground for xenophobia, racism and right-wing "solutions" to capitalist crises.


PEGIDA IS the product of, and a catalyst for, phobias about the supposed introduction of sharia law and other features of fundamentalist Islam. Yet what really lies behind these irrational fears is not Germany's imminent "Islamization," but anxieties about growing social instability and socioeconomic dislocations caused by the ongoing neoliberal transformation of German society.

Neoliberal "reforms," as they are often described, are supposed to promote the unrestrained functioning of the free market. Hence, privatization, tax cuts for the rich and corporations, and cuts to government spending are used to target labor unions, state-run institutions such as public universities and hospitals, and spending on social programs that benefit the students, the unemployed, the poor and the marginalized.

The anxieties metastasized by such "reforms" have been absorbed and eagerly re-directed by right-wing populist organizations against the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in German society. Whether PEGIDA leaders are conscious or unconscious about it, the agenda of this and similar organizations functions objectively to shield the most powerful segments of German society from any serious scrutiny for their shameless exploitation of the working majority.

As in the U.S. and elsewhere, Germany's superrich are doing better than ever. Meanwhile, Germany's legendary social safety net--the key component of its so-called "social market economy"--has become a pale shadow of what it used to be two decades ago. Increasingly, Germany resembles the openly predatory American model, providing fertile conditions for PEGIDA and similar groups.

Several recent studies of the motivations and composition of PEGIDA supporters--most notably, conducted by the Technical University of Dresden as well as the Institute for the Study of Democracy in Göttingen--found that most are lower-middle class and middle-aged men. The Göttingen Study found that a substantial number have the equivalent of community college and university diplomas (35 percent), but few have more advanced graduate degrees.

Situated between blue-collar workers and middle-class professionals, most PEGIDA sympathizers appear to be paraprofessionals, office workers, small-scale artisans and independent business owners. Only 7.1 percent of PEGIDA followers are blue-collar workers, while 37.3 percent are classified as white-collar clerical employees and 16.2 percent as small business owners and craftspeople. More than three quarters--77 percent--are currently employed.

Of the PEGIDA participants in the study, 95 percent said they were new to political activism. Most made it clear that they regard Muslims as "alien" to German society, and their Islamophobia was buttressed by additional grievances.


PEGIDA'S CALLS for a return to "law and order" and "traditional family values" go hand in hand with hostility toward a perceived "political correctness" that is supposedly marginalizing "real" Germans in their own country. German leaders have failed to properly defend Germany's "national interests," the argument goes, and the political elite as well as the mainstream media are responsible for "excessive multiculturalism."

Germany's President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel are especially unpopular among the PEGIDA crowd. Ironically, the fact that both politicians operate in an aggressively pro-business fashion underscores the cognitive dissonance among PEGIDA supporters, whose distrust of the political establishment is matched only by their veneration for business leaders and captains of industry. Also contradictory is the fact that most PEGIDA supporters simultaneously call for greater government involvement--on their behalf--while advocating for greater individual responsibility and initiative within German society.

This peculiar mix of opinions, attitudes and sensibilities illustrates Leon Trotsky's insight from the early 1930s--namely, that right-wing populist and fascist movements tend to base themselves on the petty bourgeoisie (small business owners and shopkeepers), but their usefulness to the political agenda of the capitalist class takes them from the margins to the center of political life.

Economic forces exacerbate the precarious conditions facing the petit bourgeoisie, which feels increasingly insecure and by turns defensive and aggressive out of fear of "losing status." This connects with any real as well as imagined sense of overall social decline. Such fears--some of which have a rational basis, since neoliberalism benefits the big bourgeoisie at the expense of the petit bourgeoisie--make members of this class susceptible to right-wing and fascist ideas.

The legacy of the Second World War has thoroughly discredited the unreconstructed fascism of Hitler's Nazi Party, and brawling skinheads hold little appeal for Germany's petty bourgeoisie. But movements such as PEGIDA and the recently established far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) project a veneer of bourgeois respectability.

By formally rejecting superficial parallels to the old far right, the new far right draws mass support among those who believe themselves to be rejecting "right-wing extremism." Similarly, establishment politicians and journalists engage in no small degree of hypocrisy by condemning "insularity" and "xenophobia" while failing to acknowledge their own part in giving such ideas mainstream respectability.

One pernicious case in point is Thilo Sarrazin, a banker and former political figure in the Social Democratic Party. Sarrazin's disparaging and inflammatory remarks about the poor and unemployed are matched only by his vitriol against Germany's Muslim population. Sarrazin and his co-thinkers have long been welcomed in the mainstream--by the very politicians and journalists suddenly distancing themselves from PEGIDA.


WITH THE European economy still dragged down by debt and stagnation, demagogic hard-right populist movements will most likely spring up with greater frequency and intensity. This is, of course, not only a German problem, as the National Front in France and the Jobbik Movement in Hungary illustrate.

Thus, the challenge for the left in Germany and beyond lies in developing and promoting an alternative to the hate, fear-mongering and ethnic nationalism that the pathologies of capitalism routinely produce. We have to draw more systematically on the powerful socialist legacy of universal human emancipation, including economic justice and egalitarian democracy.

Especially on the German left, many people should still vividly recall how a previous capitalist crisis led important factions of the German ruling class to ally themselves with the Nazi Party, orchestrating Hitler's rise to power in 1933. While most ruling class representatives in Germany today would prefer to keep their distance from PEGIDA, there are alarming and unmistakable ideological affinities and tangible interests that connect PEGIDA to the political establishment.

Of course, 2015 is not 1933, nor is PEGIDA comparable to the Nazi movement, but there is cause for concern. The words of Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht still resonate: "The womb from which [it] crawled is fertile still."

Just as the Nazis' anti-Semitism did not require a numerically significant Jewish presence in German society, PEGIDA's Islamophobia today does not to require an overwhelming presence of Muslims.

At the beginning of the Nazis' rule, Jews made up a mere 0.75 percent of the total population. Similarly, PEGIDA's fears about the "Islamization" of Germany lack a rational foundation. In 2014, for example, more than 180,000 people sought refuge in Germany, but this amounts to 0.4 percent of the planet's current 51.2 million refugees.

Of Germany's current population, 5 percent is Muslim (translating into roughly 4 million people), and of those, 45 percent already have German citizenship. What's more, the overwhelming majority of Germany's Muslims--98 percent--live in what used to be West Germany, while the birthplace and ideological center of PEGIDA is located in the state of Saxony in the former East, which is home to 0.7 percent of Germany's Muslim population.

But it is no accident that PEGIDA arose in Dresden, given the city's role as the center of reactionary politics in the East. Since West Germany's absorption of the formerly Stalinist East Germany in 1990, Dresden has grown into a conservative bulwark. The Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research of Totalitarianism and other educational and political institutions based there are devoted to ideologically cementing the capitalist system--and discrediting any alternatives, especially left-wing ideas like socialism, as inevitably leading to totalitarian dictatorship.

In addition, a subculture of self-righteous victimization has developed in Dresden based on the memory of the Anglo-American air raids that obliterated much of the city and killed between 25,000 and 100,000 German civilians at the end of the Second World War. Dresden's identity as an innocent victim of outside aggression has been nursed since the city's first destruction by the armies of Prussian King Frederick II ("Frederick the Great") in the second half of the 18th century.

In recent years, massive renovations and restorations have returned the city to its Baroque and Rococo glory. Critics say the city has become an anachronistic museum piece, idealizing the past and hostile to the innovations and cultural changes caused by accelerating globalization. These developments have aided the further evolution of a certain mindset that is distrustful of "foreign" influences.


PEGIDA'S RHETORIC about imminent "Islamization" is as uninformed as it is inflammatory. Most serious projections of the growth of Germany's Muslim population estimate it to be relatively modest, expanding from 5 percent of the population to 7 percent by 2050. PEGIDA's scaremongering overtly focuses on Islamic fundamentalism, but this is coded speech that aims to reject and demonize all ethnic minorities and immigrants.

A telling case in point is former leading conservative politician Jürgen Rüttgers, who tried to energize his campaign in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2000 by calling for "Kinder statt Inder!" ("Children not Indians!") to reverse the declining birth rate of ethnic Germans and simultaneously discourage immigration.

Reflecting on his time as City Senator for Financial Affairs in Berlin, Thilo Sarrazin complained in an interview with Lettre International in September 2009 that the city's poor and unemployed were lazy and wasteful. In addition, he addressed Berlin's Muslim population, saying:

I don't have to respect anyone who lives off the state while rejecting the state, does not provide reasonably for his or her children, and constantly produces new little headscarf girls. This holds true for 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population in Germany.

While German officials and business leaders were, at least publicly, ill at ease with Sarrazin's unabashed sentiments, many--some more openly than others--shared his outlook. In a recent Jacobin essay on Germany's new far right, Anthony Fano Fernandez describes how a "modernized" far right is marrying neoliberalism and racism as a poignant articulation of what he calls a neoliberal-culturalist-racist synthesis.

One can only speculate about the ultimate trajectory of PEGIDA. Thus far, attempts to establish PEGIDA satellites in other German cities and other countries have not attracted the same numbers of people as were mobilized in Dresden. PEGIDA might wither and fade, but the pathologies and dislocations of predatory neoliberal capitalism will seek new shapes and outlets.

Already, the ultra-nationalist AfD party has attracted large numbers of people who initially were politicized by PEGIDA. Reciprocating such sentiments, Bernd Lucke, leader of the far right AfD and an economics professor at the University of Hamburg, has openly stated his solidarity with what PEGIDA stands for. Olaf Henkel, a longtime business insider who sat on the boards of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, Daimler-Chrysler Areospace and other powerful companies, is now one of the AfD representatives in the European Parliament and has also expressed his affinities with PEGIDA.

The challenge for German and European left organizations is to develop more effective strategies to harness growing discontent and to direct this anger at the real culprit--capitalism.

Drawing parallels between the ideological moorings of Germany's Nazis and their anti-Semitism and today's anti-Islamic orientation of the far right is not difficult. To PEGIDA, the mere presence of Muslims in Germany has become synonymous with a soon-to-be-realized threat of sharia law being imposed throughout the country. Then there's the supposed parasitic drain of resources and cultural displacement by "foreigners." Such "threats" stoke the imagination, displacing rational discussion and statistical evidence with racist fear.

Today, the left must continue to apply the lessons of the 1930s--that fascists must be opposed and should not be allowed to incubate without facing intense opposition--so that the false threat of Islam may never serve as cover for the real threat of the far right.

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