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Dennis Stute / cdDecember 7, 2014

A recent anti-Islamization demonstration in Dresden that made a point of avoiding right-wing symbols drew thousands. Now, the PEGIDA movement is spreading to other cities, fueled by worries of Islamic radicalism.

Pegida Demonstration in Dresden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hiekel

Posters with slogans like "Foreigners out!" are absent at the weekly demonstrations by the group "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West." Instead, the group known in Germany by its acronym PEGIDA is trying to paint a more friendly picture by drawing on the German flag, slogans like "We are the people" and Monday marches intended to recall the Monday demonstrations that preceded the fall of the East German government 25 years ago.

PEGIDA's professionally designed banners are vague: "For the preservation of our culture" - "Against religious fanaticism" - "Against religious wars on German soil." The organizers distance themselves from right-wing extremism, speak of "Judeo-Christian Western culture" and differentiate between Islam and Islamism, between "war refugees" and "economic refugees," the latter a reference to perceived "benefits shopping" by Eastern European immigrants.

And yet, it's possible to read between the lines. For at least some participants, "Islamist" likely means Muslim, and "economic refugee" is conflated with refugees in general.

The group's approach has been successful. Though the Dresden-based organization's first march in October drew just a few hundred, last Monday's (01.12.2014) brought 7,500.

Thousands of right-wing extremists at a night-time rally on the Elbe river in Dresden.
Thousands take part in a PEGIDA demonstration in DresdenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Kerstin Köditz, a politician from the Left Party, the successors to the East German communists, sounded the alarm, claiming Nazis, hooligans and punks were among the demonstrators. But most are less politically extreme citizens, who are fearful of "Islamic State" terror or new refugee homes popping up near their own residences.

"So, it's a conglomeration of carriers of racist ideologies and concerned citizens, who are radicalized in the process," said Köditz, the Left's spokeswoman on "anti-fascist politics" in Saxony's state parliament.

Other cities, meanwhile, are trying to copy the concept - with mixed results. An anti-Islamization demonstration in Chemnitz attracted about 400 people in late November, but an equal number of counter-demonstrators also turned up. In Kassel last Monday, 80 demonstrators were stopped in their tracks by 500 counter-demonstrators. Kassel now has its own "KAGIDA" Facebook page, as do Bonn, Darmstadt and numerous other cities. While it's easy to set up a Facebook page, it's not yet clear whether the Dresden concept can be mobilized in other cities.

Dresden's case is unique: No known neo-Nazi bodies preceded PEGIDA. Its organizers were previously not politically active, says Danilo Starosta of Saxony's cultural affairs office, which monitors the right-wing scene in Dresden. He says those they mobilized were simply in the immediate vicinity.

"These are small business owners and people living hand-to-mouth - the little man and the little woman, if you will," he told DW. Only in the weeks following the initial demonstrations, he says, did PEGIDA's protests also draw some better-organized neo-Nazis.

Andreas Zick, who directs a conflict and violence research institute in the western German city of Bielefeld, says he believes it's no coincidence that the new movement was formed in Dresden, where neo-Nazi marches once took place on the anniversary of the city's bombing toward the close of the Second World War.

"They've been fought back successfully," Zick told DW. "Now, a populist, right-wing movement has formed that's far more difficult to protest against, since they're less vulnerable to extremist labels. Though a counter-demonstration last Monday succeeded in stopping Dresden's PEGIDA demonstration, counter-demonstrators were the minority, numbering just a thousand."

Right-wing extremists at a demonstration
'Hooligans against Salafists' demonstrate in Hanover in November, outnumbered by counter-demonstratorsImage: Getty Images/A. Koerner

Many institutions and organizations affiliated with PEGIDA hope to change that. Next Monday, they're planning a large protest march through Dresden.

Each year, Zick's institute conducts a large study on how common hostility is toward various minorities.

"While it's clear that right-wing extremists are retreating," he says, "At the same time, there are quite stable groups - this is the well-to-do middle class - who strongly oppose immigration and whose default setting is chauvinistic."

The PEGIDA movement, according to Zick, has the potential to spread nationwide, since the group's fodder already exists: About one in four in Germany are susceptible to populist ideas, he says.

A test in Düsseldorf

A PEGIDA demonstration will also take place on Monday in Düsseldorf, the capital of Germany's most populous state. More than a thousand have registered to participate on its Facebook page, DÜGIDA. How many will actually attend cannot be reliably estimated, particularly since mobilization occurs beyond the city limits. Meanwhile, a counter-demonstration calling for a wide-ranging alliance is in the works.

Unlike Dresden, the protest in Düsseldorf is drawing organized forces from the start. German media reports indicate that the force behind it is a lawyer who's also a member of the conservative Alternative for Germany party. The man also attended a recent "Hooligans against Salafists" (HoGeSa) demonstration in Hanover.

"This demonstration is particularly attractive to those on the fringe right," says Düsseldorf researcher Alexander Häusler, who focuses on right-wing extremism. "Parties like the Republicans or openly neo-Nazi groups like the splinter party 'The Right' mobilize their followers there."

However, that's exactly what might deter many potential participants. "A movement that wants to be broadly effective with the demonization of Islam cannot be openly associated with the radical right," Häusler says." It has to have the have the appearance of the middle class, of the serious, on the outside."