Mass anti-racist marches confront Islamophobic drive in Germany

Recent events here in Germany remind me of a playground seesaw, with constant ups and downs of one side and the other.

All autumn, we watched the upward swing of “Patriotic Europeans against Islamization of the West” (PEGIDA) most rapidly, but not only, in Saxony’s capital Dresden [in southeastern Germany]. Its main features were a fast-talking, shady leader with some eerie charisma, plus foggy dissatisfaction with just about everyone and everything: most politicians, the media, but especially poor job, rent and pension situations and fears for the future, plus, most dangerously, the channeling of such fears and worries into a dull hatred of anything and anyone “foreign,” especially the often arbitrary placement of newly arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees into their hitherto closed communities. PEGIDA’s Monday “walks,” although ambling and nonviolent, disturbingly recalled the murderous stamp of booted, brown-shirted marchers of a previous generation. And some gimlet-eyed neo-Nazis reinforced such recollections.

But soon, all over Germany, the other end of the seesaw swung upward. More and more thousands demonstrated against the hatred crowd, welcoming asylum seekers and reassuring peaceful Muslim families long resident in Germany. They greatly outnumbered and at times blocked the path of the PEGIDA people — everywhere but in Dresden. In Leipzig, Dresden’s rival in Saxony and with a very different heritage, never a royal court but open to trade fairs since 1165 and book fairs since the 17th century, PEGIDA rallied 4,800 marchers in early January — but its opponents were 30,000.

Then came the “Charlie Hebdo” murders. Would narrow, blind distrust of “those Muslims,” dormant but present among about half the population, witness a new, upward PEGIDA thrust? It did — but, happily, only in Dresden. Five days after the murders in the Rue Nicolas-Appert, 25,000 people marched in Dresden, the city on the Elbe river, but everywhere else they were a small minority. At the far-off mouth of the Elbe, in Hamburg, only opponents of racism demonstrated. Leaders from almost all parties joined at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate with organizations of Turks in Germany to oppose both bloody violence and murder but also Islamophobia. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke up, stating surprisingly that “Islam belongs to Germany” — almost a heresy only a few years ago.

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