Over 25,000 people gathered on Monday to protest against the perceived rising tide of Islamisation in Europe.
PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) supporters marched through Dresden’s centre wearing black armbands as a mark of respect to the 17 victims gunned down in Paris last week.
One sign read “Paris today, Dresden tomorrow” noting that the Islamist militant threat might also reach Dresden if its residents were not politically vigilant. The city has a diverse multicultural population of less than 3% however that did not stop over 25,000 people from turning out last night.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier that day cautioned Pegida from staging a demonstration reiterating her support for Germany’s Muslim population. Yet, in defiance the crowd gathered rapidly waving several flags of different German federal states and other European countries including France.
One demonstrator held a placed with Merkel donning a hijab (face veil) in reference to her comments denouncing the racist nature of Pegida.
The weekly Monday marches, organised mostly through a growing Facebook page, are styled on the peaceful democratic marches in 1989 against the east German government which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rallying cry of “Wir sind das volk” (We are the people) was shouted at these rallies and are now heard loudly in the Pegida marches.
Speakers at the pre-march gathering of thousands at Skatepark emphasised that the rise of Islamism had threatened the Judeo-Christian values of Europeans and that the Charlie Hebdo attack was proof that more bloodshed was imminent.
One city, two protests
More than 2000 police officers, including riot police, were deployed from various German federal states to keep protestors away from counter-Pegida demonstators according to one police officer who spoke to SBS. Anti-Pegida marches gathered about 5000 people in Dresden and over 100,000 nationwide in cities such as Berlin and Leipzig.
“They say we are the people but they are not. They are afraid of losing their identity” said Frank Eckhardt, one of the main organisers of the anti-Pegida gathering yesterday that drew a smaller crowd compared to an earlier one organised on Saturday which had 35,000 attendees.
“Dresden is a conservative city and we had a conservative government for 25 years but this is purely hate against foreigners” he added. Referring to broom wielding protestors, Eckhardt who is director of the Dresden Cultural Forum noted “our task now is to clean the city of racism and mad thinking”.
Throughout the city’s main streets, both protestors (Pegida and anti-Pegida) were holding banners commemorating the deaths in the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
University student Maria, 25, said “this is dangerous, they (Pegida) use it for their purposes. We say we are not Pegida, we are Charlie!”
Muslims caught in cultural conflict
Marwa El Sherbiny cultural centre and mosque is located a few kilometres away from Dresden’s centre. The centre is named an Egyptian woman who was murdered at a Dresden courthouse by a Russian immigrant in 2009.
“Fewer people come to the mosque on Mondays compared to the other days, especially the refugees and asylum seekers, because of what’s currently happening” said Mohamed Hassan, who was leading midday prayers on the day after the protests when SBS spoke to him.
“Those with distinctive features such as dark skin or sporting a beard tend to stay at home to be on the safe side”.
Moroccan asylum seeker Abdel Fattah Al Nasseri, who had only been living in Dresden for seven months, shared the same feeling.
“We can’t come to perform our evening prayers on Mondays” he told SBS. “The situation is frightening because these protests are targeting Islam”.
Indonesian student Ramadan Islam, who had moved to Dresden from Hamburg recently, espoused a different view instead questioning Pegida’s fragmented political asks and messages
“I don’t feel afraid…They were here on the street on Monday night close to the mosque but it’s a little bit uncomfortable because I do not know what they are doing”
“I saw a video of Pegida protestors circulating on the internet saying first they don’t like Islam, then refugees, then foreigners. I do not know what they are doing”
Pegida has already announced the details of the next demonstration and has vowed to continue with its demands even though they are still confusing to many including Ramadan.