Germany is tackling a growing grassroots anti-Islam movement head on.
Following Chancellor Angela Merkel's sharp rebuke to the movement's supporters in a televised holiday broadcast, two former chancellors, Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, on Tuesday joined a group of 80 prominent citizens in an unusual public appeal to Germans to reject the anti-immigrant protests.
It’s a clear sign the German political and business establishment are alarmed at the activities of Pegida, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, which have organized weekly demos in Dresden and other cities targeting immigrants.
A growing counter-movement is gathering pace, with thousands of people taking to the streets to oppose xenophobia and call for tolerance and openness.
On Monday night landmarks in two German cities were even plunged into darkness to mark opposition to the Islamophobes.
In her New Year’s message to the country, Ms. Merkel had made an uncharacteristically strong appeal to Germans not to join in the Pegida demonstrations, saying its organizers had “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”
Now, two of her predecessors, Mr. Schröder and Mr. Schmidt, have weighed in.
The two lent their names and words of support to an unusual campaign in the country's biggest circulation newspaper, Bild, which displayed 80 prominent Germans, among them actresses, footballers and politicians, under a lead article entitled “No to Pegida.”
The 96-year-old Mr. Schmidt, who was chancellor from 1974 to 1982, told Bild the Pegida protests appealed to “vague prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance.” That, however, is not Germany, he said. The federal republic cannot abuse refugees and asylum seekers.
“Germany has to remain cosmopolitan and tolerant,” Mr. Schmidt said.
Mr. Schröder appealed for a renewed “uprising of decent people” such as the one he called for in 2000 after an arson attack on a synagogue in Düsseldorf. He also praised the stance of the country’s political parties and churches, which have found a “clear position against Pegida.”
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Pegida not only damaged the country, but also “created a poor image of Germany.” That was why it was important to make clear that “those who shout their slogans on the streets are a small minority with a loud voice.”
Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats, said that “those who play with vague fears or foment xenophobia do not speak for the majority.”
Prominent business figures also voiced their opposition. Ulrich Grillo, president of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), came out in support of migration. “Qualified immigration is really good for Germany,” he told Bild, saying that the country had to take a clear stance against all kinds of racism.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of people who abhor Pegida’s message have been taking to the streets.
In Berlin on Monday night, several hundred people prevented a march by around 300 supporters of “Bärgida,” the local version of the anti-Islam movement, by forming a blockade. At the same time an estimated 5,000 people joined several counter-demonstrations in the city.
In Hamburg 4,000 people protested against Pegida, while the figures for Münster, Munich and Stuttgart were 10,000, 3,000 and 8,000 respectively.
In Cologne, where 5,000 gathered to voice their rejection of the anti-Islam movement, the iconic cathedral dimmed its lights, as did the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, under the motto “Lights Out for Racists.”
Only in the eastern city of Dresden, the nexus of the movement, were there more Pegida supporters than opponents.
On Monday night, 18,000 gathered there, the biggest showing so far, while around 4,000 counter-demonstrators turned up.
Video: Protests and counter-protests in Berlin on January 5.
The protests have gathered pace, fueled by social media, in the city since October when the first relatively small group came together to oppose creeping Islamization despite the fact that only around 0.4 percent of those who live in Dresden are Muslim.
The Pegida marches in Dresden have attracted not just the usual suspects of far-right supporters but also seemingly ordinary citizens, something that is particularly worrying to those who oppose the movement. In contrast many of those who turned up at the demonstrations in other cities were members of well-known extremist groups.
Nevertheless, the movement cannot easily be dismissed as only a vehicle for the far right.
A survey of 1,000 people carried out by newsmagazine Stern found that 13 percent of respondents would attend an "anti-Islamization" march if it were held near their home. Furthermore, 29 percent of those surveyed thought the Pegida marches were justified because of the degree of influence that Islam had in Germany.
There are estimated to be approximately 4 million Muslims in Germany, accounting for around 5 percent of the population.
The original Pegida protests were sparked by plans to build refugee centers in Dresden to accommodate the growing number of asylum seekers flocking to Germany.
In 2014 it is estimated that 200,000 people sought refuge in Germany, compared to 127,000 in 2013. The upswing was caused by the arrival of people fleeing the bloody conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has written on German politics, including the far right for a decade. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.