Anti-Immigration Rallies in Germany Defy Calls to Desist

Alison Smale, New York Times, January 6, 2015

Defying appeals from an array of German institutions to stay away from anti-immigration rallies, some 18,000 people took part in a protest here on Monday, parading against what they call the Islamization of Europe and putting pressure on the authorities to defuse social tensions.

The turnout more or less equaled that of late December, before Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans in her New Year’s address to shun the rallies and their organizers, who she said had “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

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Several thousand people turned out in Berlin to counter the several hundred who had formed an anti-immigration rally. A few thousand also countered the equally sparse anti-immigration crowd in Cologne.

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In gestures intended to deny anti-immigration protesters picturesque backdrops for their rallies, the church and city authorities in Cologne and Berlin switched off the illumination at three of the country’s best-known landmarks: the Cologne Cathedral and, in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate and the TV tower at Alexanderplatz.

In Dresden, where about 3,000 people staged a counterdemonstration, the group known as Pegida–the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West–was confined to a park and a march around a nearby stadium. {snip}

Monday night’s rally, held in a cold rain, yielded nothing new in the way of sentiment from the speakers, whose group insists that it wants to help refugees, but is against asylum abusers, foreigners who mooch off Germany and what it sees as a creeping Islamization of society.

But the mention of Ms. Merkel’s name drew boos, and several people interviewed–typically declining to give their names to reporters–said her criticism of Pegida had disqualified her as a leader.

Earlier on Monday, business leaders joined the swelling chorus against Pegida from established political parties, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, social groups and even anonymous jokesters who set up a spoof “Snowgida” page on Facebook.

Ingo Kramer, head of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, said, “Germany’s image as a business location is being damaged by the impression that we are demonstrating against foreigners.”

“We need immigration for our labor market and to allow our social system to function,” he added in a statement.

The fear of foreigners, especially Muslims, threatening or drowning out national and regional identities forged over centuries seems to have a growing pull in Europe, where populists and nationalists scored record gains in elections in May for the European Parliament.

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Across the established political spectrum, debate has raged about whether to engage directly with Pegida, as well as how to confront its clear appeal to a disgruntled segment of the German population. Its supporters include far rightists, neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans, as well as a larger number of average citizens who seem worried about losing status, even if–in Dresden and the surrounding state of Saxony–barely 2 percent of residents are foreigners and even fewer are Muslims.

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Ms. Merkel’s partners in her conservative bloc, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, plan to debate what they call “a fair and balanced asylum policy” at a meeting this week. That policy would involve a swifter processing of asylum requests and deportation of abusers, portraying this as the only way to continue guaranteeing a welcome for hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees, particularly from Syria and Iraq.

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