Anti-Islam Sentiments Escalating in Europe
On New Year’s Day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered her yearly New Year’s Address to the nation. Beyond addressing concerns regarding Germany’s stagnant GDP, the Christian Democratic Union politician also used this very public platform to speak out against a growing injustice in her country: the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment. This sentiment has been best captured by the mushrooming “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” movement, known colloquially in English as Pegida. Chancellor Merkel, who grew up in East Germany during the Cold War, pointedly criticized Pegida’s xenophobic use of the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”), a rallying cry that eventually brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Formed in October 2014 by self-styled activist and advertising agency owner Lutz Bachmann, Pegida is touted as a movement against the wide swaths of immigrants entering Germany every year (Germany is estimated to process applications for over 200,000 asylum-seekers annually), in an effort to protect Germany’s Judeo-Christian values. Pegida counts neo-Nazis and members of Germanys’ lower and middle class among its supporters, and claims that the German media is deliberately maiming their image. Some Pegida supporters have criticized the mainstream German political parties for not doing enough to stem the increasing tide of immigration. In fact, leading conservative politician Hans-Peter Friedrich has concluded that since Ms. Merkel ignores conservative issues, Pegida — along with the populist, equally xenophobic Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — has formed to fill a vacuum in right-leaning politics. As a result, what started as a small Facebook page in October has grown into thousands of people participating in “street marchers” and small-scale protests. However, in December, larger assemblies of civil disobedience took place. Over 18,000 people took to the streets of Dresden on Monday, replete with signs saying “No to Islamisation of Europe!” and “worried for my country.”
Fortunately, this antagonistic, racist behavior has not gone unnoticed. Beyond Chancellor Merkel’s pleading German citizens not to engage in these racist protests and reminding her constituents of their moral role to take in refugees, thousands of anti-racist protestors countered Pegida supporters in Dresden. In the city of Cologne, authorities switched off the lights inside of the city cathedral as a mark of protest against extremism. The scene of large German flags waving in the sky, battling life-size crosses painted in German colors, represents the serious crossroads that Europe’s most stable economy is facing.
Sadly, Germany’s current struggles with nativism are far from unique on the European continent. After the emergence of ideologically driven parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the United Kingdom and the National Front in France, anti-immigrant sentiment has been inflamed in even the most tolerant of Europe’s corners. Anti-Islamic sentiments have also been gaining strong footholds in Denmark and Sweden, the latter of which has been called “Europe’s Open Door” for its friendly immigration policy. Burning mosques and harassed hijabi (Islamic headscarf worn by Muslim women)-wearers are becoming increasingly common throughout the continent. This steady flow of Muslim immigrants into Europe will swell as the civil conflict in Syria and violence in parts of Africa — areas with high Muslim populations — continues unabated.
The United States is no stranger to anti-immigrant movements (in the late 19th century, there was a political party, the Know Nothings, devoted solely to the cause), as evidenced not only by the lack of comprehensive immigration reform addressing the status of undocumented immigrants, but also by the polarization of the two political parties on how to address the issue. Especially after 9/11, anti-Islamic — in fact, anti-South Asian — acts of racism are, sadly, not unheard of. Given the recent unrest over the deaths of young black men by white police officers (and the subsequent murders of two New York City police officers), it is evident to both domestic and international audiences that the United States continues to experience deep racial divides that have sown mistrust in its criminal justice and law enforcement systems. However, the United States has yet to see the emergence of charismatic, well-tailored political stars like Jimmie Åkesson of Sweden and Marine Le Pen of France, who have not only made their anti-immigrant voices heard, but have been able to achieve significant political victories at the polls. Only time will tell if a 21st century version of the Know Nothings will emerge to take advantage of the situation.
- Anjana Sreedhar