Counteracting Intolerance and Xenophobia: lessons from Germany

Recent developments in Germany are illustrating lessons in counteracting xenophobia and intolerance which the rest of Europe, Britain included, could learn a lot from.

In recent posts, I have written about the increase in anti-immigration and anti-EU / Euro sentiment in Britain and Germany. I have also posted about the significant gap in perception and reality between people´s estimates of foreign-born immigrants as opposed to the much smaller numbers in actual fact. This is even more extreme in the case of the Muslim community than in the case of foreigners in general.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the anti-Muslim signs are increasing. In the case of Germany, this has been surprisingly swift. Very few people had even heard of Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) movement based in Dresden. Since October 2014 Pegida has been actively protesting against what it considers to be the Islamization of Europe. Initially it drew few supporters to its demonstrations but has since grown dramatically, achieving an 18,000 turnout on 05 January 2015 in Dresden even though Muslims make-up only 0.1% of its population.

Its rapid rise (43,000 Facebook followers), despite the rather colourful background of its founder, Lutz Bachmann, is attributed to the same broad trends also evident in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, not least a general dissatisfaction with economic developments, immigration and asylum policies, combined with a degree of alienation from the mainstream political parties and elites.

In a separate post I have argued that the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and its anti-immigrant and anti-EU message has become increasingly powerful, to the point where apparently the “Ukip tail is wagging the bulldog”.  The main political parties are increasingly attuned to the apparent receptiveness of the electorate simplistically alluring populist messages; they appear to be almost falling over themselves to out-Ukip Ukip. This hits the wrong target; the ills of society and the economy are largely due the decades of mismanagement of the part of the insiders (not outsiders) and magnified by the varying degrees of austerity in Europe. It is also a dangerous trend in a democratic society which may become even worse in the months leading to the General Election in May 2015.

Very few media and politicians are willing to step up to the plate and counteract these messages in the UK. Since initially branding the kippers as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly.” David Cameron has been busy backpedaling to the point where, in addition to offering a straight in-out referendum on whether to remain in the EU in 2017 or not, he is no longer able or willing to rule out a possible coalition government with Ukip after the May 2015 General Election.

Whilst acknowledging that Ukip´s key targets are immigrants generally and the EU specifically rather than Muslims per se, it is interesting to note that the reaction of the German public, media and politicians has been quite different to that of the UK. Rather than perfecting giving the impression of being powerless to counteract these sorts or trends and then simply caving in to them, the President and the Chancellor have been preaching tolerance in relation to immigrants, Muslims and asylum seekers, all of which Germany have had a good deal more than Britain in recent years.

In her New Year´s address, Angela Merkel stressed that: “So I say to all who go to such [Pegida] demonstrations: do not follow those that call for it! Often there are too many prejudices, there is cold, and yes, even hatred in their hearts.”

The public is demonstrating a degree of attraction, especially to the more mainstream Alternative for Germany (AfD), but have largely not gone anti-immigrant apart from the Pegida demonstrations, which are targeted at the Muslim community. If 18,000 turned-up to the demonstration in Dresden, even more citizens are attending counter-demonstrations, with around 30,000 taking a stand against Pegida in marches in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Munster, Stuttgart, etc. Church authorities in Cologne turned off the lights of its cathedral, one of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions, to present Pegida from using it as a backdrop. Other top attractions followed suit, such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Dresden opera house and other museums and public buildings.

There is also an anti-Pegida on-line petition for a “Colourful Germany”, which started on the 23 December 2014 and has collected 330,000 signatures with a target of one million. The numbers are impressive and, at this rate, the target will be reached.

One of the most impressive developments is that rather than certain parts of the media simply tapping into the anti-immigrant sentiment, as might be argued is largely the case in Britain, they have acted to counteract it. A lesson for the UK to learn was evident today. The Bild newspaper, by far the most popular German newspaper, went public on 06 January 2015 with their “No to Pegida” campaign, including 80 prominent Germans from all walks of life including politicians, entrepreneurs, artists, sports people, scientists, etc.

Can you envision The Sun doing the same and motivating 80 prominent Britons to oppose the increasing degree of anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK? Such a process might contribute to moderating society´s views in relation to immigration and the Muslim community.

I firmly believe that there are some lessons from the German anti-Pegida movement for British politicians, media and citizens. Whether these lessons are noted or acted upon remains to be seen.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.anglodeutsch.eu


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