As the eastern German city of Dresden prepared for yet another installment of protests by an anti-Islamization group on Monday, a group of pro-immigration political scientists gathered in the rainswept capital to voice their concern about what they see as a "serious phenomenon."
The group, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, represents an "ever-deepening rift in Germany's society" between those who welcome migrants and those who demonize them, said Werner Schiffauer, an ethnologist at Viadrina University in Frankfurt (Oder) who heads the Council for Migration (RfM), a network of 79 researchers.
Since the PEGIDA rallies were launched in October, the movement has been holding weekly rallies in Dresden, attracting 17,500 people at the last march on December 22. Smaller marches have also taken place in other German cities, often attracting counter-demonstrations. Protests are also planned in Berlin on Monday.
PEGIDA's manifesto, published in December, affirms the right to asylum for war refugees and those facing political persecution. It calls for "resistance against a misogynistic, violent political ideology but not against integrated Muslims living here," and demands a "zero-tolerance policy against criminal asylum-seekers and migrants."
The political scientists believe PEGIDA is symptomatic of widely held misconceptions about immigration that many Germans hold, Bielefeld University sociologist Andreas Zick said. Around 40 percent of Germans were convinced that those claiming asylum were lying about having suffered persecution at home, he said.
More than half of Germans polled in a recent survey were against the construction of mosque in their neighborhood, social scientist Naika Foroutan from the Humboldt University in Berlin said, while 40 percent believed that only those who had German parents could be considered truly German.
The researchers agreed they faced a "difficult task" in addressing beliefs like these. "There are no quick fixes," Schiffauer said, adding that people who have little or no contact with foreigners and migrants generally tend to hold more extremist views.
'Too little communication'
Schiffauer and his colleagues are calling for a national commission made up of political scientists, members of civil society and politics that would draw up a national guideline to "embrace diversity" and influence school curricula. The researchers said similar guidelines resulted in "positive change" in Canada and the US.
Others agree that communication is key. Gerd Landsberg from the German Association of Towns and Municipalities told journalists in Berlin on Monday that the main way to counter PEGIDA was through an improved communications strategy.
So far, he said, German officials had focused too little on explaining why refugees had come to Germany from war-torn countries like Syria. "If you make it clear that these refugees barely escaped death, no one will have any objections."
In many cases, mayors were only given a few days' warning about asylum-seekers being transferred to their communities. "In that case they don't have enough time to properly communicate with the local people."
He suggested that a centralized communications office could be located within the German interior ministry.
Many Germans agree with PEGIDA
A recent opinion poll found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islamization march if it were organized in their home town. The poll, published last Thursday by Forsa for Germany's Stern magazine, also found 29 percent of those interviewed believed that Islam was having such a strong influence on life in Germany that the marches were justified.
But in her strongly worded New Year address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to turn their backs on PEGIDA, labeling its members "racists full of hatred." Rather, she said, Germany must welcome people fleeing conflict and war.
Some of the members of her coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), may have fewer qualms about PEGIDA. "I am concerned that parts of the CSU may shift to the extreme right, according to the principle there should be no party to our right," Schiffauer said. That, he said, "would be fatal."