Second PEGIDA protest in Netherlands, 8 November, 2015. Demoted/ Geronimo Matulessy. All rights reserved.Tommy Robinson has just returned from a Pegida demo in the city of Dresden, eastern Germany. There he had spoken on behalf of the Europe-wide demonstrations against “Islamisation” to be held early in 2016. “Thousands were rallying in Dresden, in the pouring rain. And they’re there every Monday and have been for the past year,” Robinson says proudly. The founder and former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) - who quit the far-right street-movement in autumn 2013 - sounds full of hope about the future of Europe’s “anti-Islamisation” campaign. In that very optimism I sense a deeply worrying crisis confronting European societies.
Pegida (the German acronym for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West") was formed in October 2014 in Dresden and has been actively organising against Muslims and refugees arriving from outside of Europe. The street-movement experienced a brief downturn earlier this year, but has resurged as a result of the refugee crisis since September. Capitalising on people’s fear of the unknown, especially in a climate of austerity, has brought it dividends.
Pegida has always been associated with violence, with some of its activists and supporters involved in attacks on migrants and ethnic-minority communities. A Munich-based journalist told me that they hear of such attacks on migrant shelters every single week. Most people are appalled by such attacks and feel ashamed that Germany could be associated with xenophobia, racial hatred and neo-fascism. People’s opposition to acts of violent racism was one of the reasons why hundreds of Munich residents, including that journalist, went to the railway station in September to greet Syrian refugees. That spirit of welcome persists.
In October, German police uncovered a plot to launch atacks using explosives against two migrant shelters in the Bavarian town of Bamberg. The thirteen suspects were members of a small local far-right party, called simply "The Right", and a Bavarian offshoot of Pegida, called “Nügida”. To date, the authorities have recorded 505 attacks on migrant shelters in Germany in 2015 alone. The violence and hatred of the far right carries on.
Nevertheless, Robinson believes Pegida is a “decent movement” and wants to make connections between it and the like-minded in Britain. He brought an associate with him this time, Tim Scott, a British man who was in the military for ten years and has just come back from fighting ISIS in Syria for three months. Scott is about to set up a Pegida UK that links with the German counterpart. The new organisation, different from the tiny group with the same name that emerged earlier this year, aims to join forces with the rest of the European far right to fight “Islamisation”.
A far-right threat
In the context of the "war on terror", those on the far right are feeling very mainstream at the moment. It is a sentiment likely to feed off the British parliament's vote on 3 December to bomb targets in Syria. These far-right activists reproduce official discourse on radicalisation and terrorism, and racialise Islam and its believers. “German Pegida activists are very mainstream, because the ideas against Islam and Islamic immigration are mainstream,” says Tommy Robinson. “The majority of people in Europe are concerned with that immigration.”
“Tim Scott, who’ll be leading Pegida UK, wanted to see for himself what the German group is about, Robinson continues. "He went with me to Dresden to meet the leaders ...He wants to hold demos with no alcohol, no violence, just discipline…Not a day out drinking but proper demos. I’ve been talking to him about organising in the UK… I know how it went wrong with street protests of the EDL. I gave him my support. His Pegida UK will be working with the German Pegida, with their support. It is going to take over the street protest movement in Britain…It’s going to a different kind of street movement.”
Prior to this, Robinson has been active for months in Europe, giving support to far-right groups. He told me that he had sent a friend to do “research” on Pegida and found that they are “just ordinary people who are very concerned about the future of their country”. Since then, Robinson has joined forces with them, although he denied that he has “returned to the streets”.
“When I met with the German Pegida organisers, I found that their concerns are real – refugees are taking over, 90% of them young males. I agree with them that there’re no genuine refugees. They’re all economic migrants.”
With that conviction, Robinson travelled to the Netherlands in October to address a Dutch Pegida rally in Utrecht. There, he called for a day of protest across Europe. Last week, Robinson travelled to Prague and gave a speech at a rally organised by the far-right group Bloc Against Islam. The rally had the support not only of other European far-right groups but also of the Czech president Milos Zeman, who addressed the crowd using populist language that barely masked racism against Muslims and refugees alike.
With the help of mainstream politicians, far-right groups have found it easy to influence the public mind by linking their anti-Muslim agenda and anti-refugee position. When Robinson said that “the refugee crisis has made everything worse”, he was talking about Muslim refugees. “I didn’t cause the bloodshed in Paris. They let the refugees in. When the Syrian war ends, do you think these refugees will return home? Not a chance. And they will not be integrated. This will cause chaos in Europe. It’s equivalent to suicide.”
Anti-Muslim, anti-refugee racism is now prevalent in mainstream politics across Europe. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán is completely opposed to receiving Syrian and other refugees, and forged a direct link between European Union refugee quotas and the spread of terrorism. His claim that “Islam is the threat to western civilisation” mirrors far-right ideologies in Europe. It was echoed by Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico’s overtly racist statement that the “freedom of Europe’s Muslims must be restricted.”
In October, the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party won nearly 30% of the vote in federal elections. In the mayoral election in Vienna in the same month, Austria's Freedom Party, which has campaigned on an anti-immigration and "anti-Islamisation" platform for many years, won over 30% of the vote. In France, the National Front is set to win two regions in the regional elections on 6 December.
A grim outlook
All these developments fuel a growing confidence amongst the European far right. Tommy Robinson is now facilitating future gatherings, such as the cross-Europe “anti-Islamisation” demonstrations scheduled for 6 February 2016. Far-right groups in France, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and England will all take part in organising their own demos on that day, under the slogan: “save our culture, save our country, save our future".
Phrases like “save our culture”, “fight Islamisation”, usually seen on placards on EDL demos on the streets of Britain, are now being seen and talked about across Europe. Islamophobia is not only practiced by a small minority in society: it has become the most widely accepted form of racism.
Darren, a former EDL member who turned against far-right politics tells me that the politics of Europe look grim as far-right ideologies became increasingly more acceptable. “Look at the anti-Muslim protesters in Prague…The organiser Martin Konvicka [of Bloc Against Islam] was talking about gas chambers on social media [Konvicka said “concentration camps for Muslims should be used if the worst scenario came true.” This statement draw support from 146,000 people on Facebook.]… Czech racists want to restrict the rights of Muslims in their country, who are simply Czech citizens with a non-Christian religion.”
“People of Europe must unite and stand up to the influence of these groups…In Britain, when Pegida UK and other far-right organisations are organising, we must go and fight them on the streets.”