Countering the Radical Right: Analysis

Transatlantic Islamophobia: PEGIDA before and during the pandemic

How the far-Right group in Germany went to Canada and took advantage of COVID-19 to further its anti-Islam, anti-immigrant message

Bàrbara Molas Sabine Volk
3 June 2021, 12.01am
Police are called to a march of the far-Right group PEGIDA in Cologne, Germany
Guido Schiefer / Alamy Stock Photo
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The acronym PEGIDA has been associated with grassroots anti-Islam protest for some years. In fact, the group – full name ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the (Christian) West’ – is one of the largest examples of sustained far-Right protest in western Europe in recent decades. What is less known is that local PEGIDA chapters have emerged outside Europe – in Canada, for example.

The anti-immigrant and anti-elitist organisation originated in Dresden, in former East Germany, in 2014. It soon became known all over Europe: at first, due to the public outcry caused by the mobilisation of the far Right in Germany, a country where airing far-Right views in public was still largely taboo; and then because the label PEGIDA spread across western and northern Europe throughout 2015, where it was adopted by local activists in countries such as Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

Most PEGIDA offshoots were not as successful in drawing support as the original group in Dresden, partly because they were often outnumbered by leftist counterdemonstrators. Nevertheless, its rapid spread suggested that PEGIDA “came to stay”, as its founders like to say.

Since 2014, PEGIDA Dresden has been performing highly standardised and symbolically charged demonstrations in the historic city centre every two weeks or so. In February 2020, just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, PEGIDA celebrated a major success, attracting up to 3,000 protesters.

Contrary to the expectations of most political and media commentators, PEGIDA’s capacity to mobilise sympathisers during the pandemic and associated lockdowns, when the right to public assembly was severely restricted or forbidden, was barely disrupted. Since May 2020, in particular, PEGIDA has returned to active street protests against multiculturalism and “liberal elites” in Germany.

Canadian offshoot

Founded in January 2015 by Ontario resident Janice Bultje (aka Jenny Hill), PEGIDA Canada has not been very successful.

In 2015, it tried to organise demonstrations, first in Montreal and then in Toronto. In both cases, the demonstrations were cancelled because PEGIDA was quickly outnumbered by hundreds of counterprotesters. In 2017, another anti-Islam protest of 30-40 PEGIDA Canada members resulted in a clash with a larger group of counterprotesters.

In 2018, about 60 PEGIDA protesters (joined by the Canadian Proud Boys, the Northern Guard and Sons of Odin, all far-Right groups) rallied in Toronto to “warn against encroaching Islam”, but were overwhelmed by counterprotesters. In 2019, a smaller protest in Toronto was yet again “drowned out” by 200 anti-racist activists.

Before it was banned from Facebook this year, PEGIDA Canada had 30,000 followers on the platform. At present, it only has around 3,000 followers through the totality of its different regional Facebook accounts (Profile Canada, Pegida Canada Alberta, Pegida Canada Manitoba, and Pegida Canada New Brunswick). Despite leader Jenny Hill arguing that the group is “changing people’s minds”, it is probably because of its lack of success that this Canadian offshoot has been largely ignored.

As a result, we have not examined this transatlantic element when studying PEGIDA and radical-Right anti-Muslim mobilisation. After more than a year of the pandemic, when the radical Right seems to be expanding globally at pace and creating more coordinated networks of radicalisation online, it seems it is time to take this seriously.

PEGIDA's discourse switched from a cultural framework to civil rights and health-related conspiracy theories

We conducted an in-depth qualitative study of the rhetoric employed by PEGIDA chapters on both sides of the Atlantic between autumn 2019 and spring 2020, in public protests as well as on online platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Telegram. We wanted to find out whether PEGIDA exemplifies a new type of transnational far-Right movement in the context of COVID-19.

We took the beginning of the pandemic as a potential turning point, one that would strengthen transnational narratives on the state, globalisation and the need for radicalisation. What we found is that, in transitioning to a pandemic-informed discourse, there are similarities in all these areas between PEGIDA Dresden and PEGIDA Canada. This suggests that we can talk about a consistent transatlantic far-Right ideology, which is principally characterised by anti-Muslim hatred that builds upon anti-Islam conspiracy theories.

PEGIDA before and during COVID-19

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, PEGIDA in both Germany and Canada was defined by a discourse about the threat that Muslim communities allegedly pose to the cultural, political and economic character of “the [Christian] West”.

It construed Islam and Muslim minorities as fundamentally “different” (the ‘other’), and thus incompatible with a certain reading of both Europe and North America as “Judeo-Christian” places. Muslim communities were also perceived as incompatible with the values and principles of democratic governance and the rule of law, because they represented pejorative notions such as authoritarianism, backwardness and lawless forms of government.

Finally, and as expected from its name, PEGIDA spoke of an allegedly increasing “Islamisation” of the West, with PEGIDA Canada in particular arguing that Islam was infiltrating the legal, governmental and educational systems through erroneous liberal policies of religious equality and multiculturalism.

Once the pandemic hit, PEGIDA’s discourse switched from a predominantly cultural framework (that is – PEGIDA’s supposed protection of the cultural and Judeo-Christian values of the West) to a discourse based on civil rights and health-related conspiracy theories.

PEGIDA Canada focused on freedom of religion and worship, insisting that Islam’s calls to prayer encouraged social meetings and, in doing so, challenged the provincial government’s lockdown policies.

Furthermore, it argued that while such calls claimed to promote unity amid despair, Muslims were in fact continuing the work of Islamising the West, taking advantage of the pandemic to further their own agenda. PEGIDA Canada concluded that the Canadian government must restrict freedom of worship.

So, on the one hand, the anti-Muslim narrative in the context of COVID-19 and civil rights allowed PEGIDA Canada to strengthen its argument that religious liberties should be curtailed. On the other, it enabled it to depict Muslim communities as anti-democratic and against solidarity, a threat to established institutions and their desire to effectively protect their citizens.

PEGIDA Canada concluded that the Canadian government must restrict freedom of worship.

Similarly, PEGIDA Dresden adopted a discursive framework based on the concepts of democracy and constitutionality, infused with anti-Muslim hatred. Even though Germany’s entire population was affected equally by the lockdown, PEGIDA insisted that restrictions to public and private life seemed to only apply to “ethnic Germans”, because the authorities (including the police) supposedly did not impose restrictions on Muslim communities.

In contrast to its Canadian offshoot, however, the Dresden original did not campaign for an overall curtailing of religious liberties. Rather, the group started to mobilise for “marches for democracy, rule of law and civil rights” during lockdown, whereas, before the pandemic, it had advertised its demonstrations as “marches for our country, our culture and values”.

Weaponising health

Even though PEGIDA on both sides of the Atlantic continued its focus on Islam and Muslim minorities as threats, this time such communities did not appear as merely cultural or economic threats, but as health threats and core actors in a global conspiracy.

Indeed, PEGIDA Dresden developed new grammars of exclusion in the context of the crisis. For instance, in a virtual protest event in April 2020, Michael Stürzenberger, a prominent far-Right activist and frequent guest at PEGIDA’s protests, construed Muslims as a health threat writ large to the German and European population.

Depicting Muslims as lawless, Stürzenberger suggested that they would not follow the health and hygiene restrictions of social distancing, especially during religious holidays such as Ramadan, and therefore would help spread coronavirus across Germany.

PEGIDA Dresden also propagated the idea that the German government had simply invented the COVID-19 pandemic in order to distract the population from a so-called refugee and asylum crisis in southern Europe that would soon reach Germany too.

In their virtual protests in spring 2020, PEGIDA activists linked the pandemic to well-established conspiracy theories such as the “Great Replacement” (Umvolkung), which posits that, in order to consolidate their power, Western liberal elites are orchestrating the exchange of “native” Europeans and North Americans for Muslims and/or people of colour.

Similarly, by February 2020, PEGIDA Canada was associating Muslim groups with the threat of contagion, by incorporating details about Muslim minorities in Canada into discourses on the need to restrict immigration or close borders in order to contain the coronavirus: “Shutting borders is wise […] Containing/blocking dangerous individuals is a wise thing. We have in Canada many who have Islamist sentiments.”

PEGIDA Canada linked the expansion of Islam to the spread of the virus: “Rapid spread could have something to do with the physicality of Islam?” And when not directly linking the two, it simply compared the capacity for both elements to rapidly invade or enter the West, and the inability of the West to react in time.

Finally, PEGIDA Canada engaged in context-dependent conspiracy theories, including the idea that Muslims are using COVID-19 to “further their agenda” (of Islamising the West), that the Islamic state is “behind this” (meaning COVID-19) and that Islamic State (ISIS) “seeks to profit” from the pandemic.

The conspiratorial zeitgeist

Our qualitative analysis of PEGIDA’s discourse in Germany and Canada before and during the pandemic reveals that their rhetoric was largely consistent. Specifically, it was consistent in developing ‘othering’ narratives against a vague notion of Islam and Muslim minorities. A coordinated transition continued to depict these groups as threats to the nation, as well as to the imagined Western cultural community more broadly, albeit with a new focus on health and a rapid increase in the use of conspiracy theories.

Since the start of the pandemic, both PEGIDA Dresden and Canada have portrayed Islam as a virus carrier, and Muslims as threats to the democratic mechanisms established to protect their “law-abiding” Judeo-Christian population.

Jenny Hill, the leader of PEGIDA Canada, insisted that what “we want to do here is protect our Canadian democracy”, while PEGIDA Dresden claimed to be the chief protector of both democracy and rule of law in Germany, as well as a precursor of a pan-European movement for civil rights.

During the pandemic, PEGIDA has embraced conspiracy theories in an unprecedented manner on both sides of the Atlantic; such theories have become a key definitional element, or zeitgeist-phenomenon, within the transnational far Right.

It seems that the crisis has provided far-Right actors in western Europe and North America with new opportunities, through which they can effectively adapt or even strengthen anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In fact, they now draw on – and propagate – widespread, globalised conspiracy narratives even more than they did before the crisis.

Rather than putting their struggles on hold during the pandemic, PEGIDA’s mobilisation in Germany and Canada demonstrates that far-Right activists are able and willing to align their ideology and rhetoric despite their very different local contexts.

This suggests that it is precisely ideational and discursive malleability that sustains the far Right – with change and chaos being its medium rather than its enemy. Transatlantic PEGIDA is living proof of this.

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