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Close eye

Samira Shackle, LondonJanuary 6, 2015

Rallies in Germany by the anti-Islamization movement PEGIDA have made the headlines in Britain. There's also been widespread reaction in the UK to the counter-demonstrations, writes Samira Shackle from London.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kay Nietfeld

The UK does not currently have an exact equivalent to PEGIDA. It has an anti-Islamization street movement in the English Defence League (EDL), but this group is not as avowedly anti-violence as PEGIDA and has not drawn the same kind of mass support. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that Britain is currently experiencing its own wave of anti-immigration sentiment, with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) gaining traction and pushing the debate to the right ahead of this year's general election.

UKIP's closest equivalent in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), another Euroskeptic, anti-immigration party, has openly given its backing to PEGIDA. So what, if anything, should the UK learn from the current situation in Germany?

Watching closely

german flag Foto: Peter Endig/dpa
Marching on?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Endig

"We're keeping a close eye on events across the European continent," says Nick Ryan, a spokesperson for Hope Not Hate, one of the UK's largest anti-extremism organizations. "Populism is a potent elixir in times of uncertainty, but its simplistic solutions and casual intolerance brings with it many more problems, too. We can't just 'throw everyone out' or turn back the clock to 1945: many of the problems our communities face are economic not religious or migrant-related. If we stopped all immigration our countries would descend into chaos."

The PEGIDA movement is strongest in Dresden, where the population is estimated to be 0.1 percent Muslim and 2.5 percent migrant. Like other right-wing groups before, it taps into the fear of the unknown. This trend is also seen in the UK, where support for anti-immigration groups tends to be highest in areas with fewer immigrants. "The more immigration an area has experienced, the lower its support for the far right," concluded a 2010 report by the think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Some commentators have argued that PEGIDA's closest equivalent in the UK is the EDL. Both groups claim to oppose Islamic extremism rather than the mere presence of Muslims in western countries. The EDL has its roots in football hooliganism. While PEGIDA has gone out of its way to distinguish itself from neo-Nazism, it draws support from neo-Nazi groups, and from football hooligans' groups.

English Defence League
Walking in PEGIDA's footsteps?Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

Similar tactics?

"PEGIDA relies upon largely peaceful street protests," says Steve Rose of Tell MAMA, a group that monitors 'anti-Muslim hate crime' in the UK. "It's a marked change from more violent far-right movements in Germany and other countries. In countries like the UK, I've seen far-right Facebook pages praise the movement for doing things the 'right' way."

If there is concern that PEGIDA's tactics might be emulated in other countries, is there also the possibility of similarly wide-scale counter-demonstrations? Already, protestors from groups such as Unite Against Fascism frequently outnumber EDL supporters at their rallies up and down the country.

"Hope Not Hate is not a demo-oriented organization, so it's unlikely you'll see us marching," says Ryan. "Other groups may choose to do so, but we rarely find that confrontational style of anti-fascist action productive. In our view it's rare that it persuades anyone to change their view. The last thing we need is mass confrontation or disorder."

Rose points, again, to the differences in tactic between PEGIDA and current right-wing movements in the UK. "Movements like the English Defence League were born from the street-based hooligan world, so the violence associated with their protest often deters individuals. Could a non-violent, anti-Islamisation or anti-asylum seeker movement like PEGIDA exist in the UK? It's possible. After all, some of the anti-Muslim and anti-asylum rhetoric holds mainstream appeal. It just needs the right vehicle for it to succeed. Would counter-protests hold similar numbers? Possibly. We need to look at how these ideas got mainstream credibility in the first place. The anti-migrant/asylum-seeker rhetoric the movement espouses does not exist in a vacuum."

Hope Not Hate's Nick Ryan agrees that the negative tone of mainstream discourse needs to be addressed in order to tackle support for far-right groups and for anti-immigration political parties alike. "UKIP needs to be opposed and exposed where it panders to base racism and prejudice, where it encourages intolerance, and mainstream politicians should be doing more to sort out the inequalities of wealth distribution rather than dancing along with the UKIP bandwagon and being led by tabloid headlines."

UKIP election poster
Like the AfD, UKIP panders to people's fears and prejudicesImage: Reuters