Anti-Islamic marches, fueled by the backlash against last week's Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, have been gaining traction in Germany, with over 85,000 estimated to have recently taken part in protests and counter-protests across the country in cities including Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Hannover, and Düsseldorf.
The group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) saw their biggest turnout in Dresden on Monday night, when an estimated 25,000 marched in the 12th of the weekly marches — 7,000 more attendees than the last event. Some wore black armbands or had black ribbons pinned to their coats — a tribute to those killed in France. PEGIDA dedicated the march to the victims of the Paris shootings.
Attendees carried banners depicting Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the Prophet Mohammed, or — in one case — a doctored photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a headscarf accompanied by the caption: "Mrs. Merkel, WE are the people." Another sign showing four of the Paris victims was labeled "Victims of the appeasement press."
The march's organizer and figurehead Lutz Bachmann seemed more withdrawn than usual, perhaps aware of how large his audience of both supports and detractors has become. As he read out his new six-point plan and wondered aloud whether it would be "distorted" by the media, attendees began their customary chant of "Lügenpresse" ("the lying press"). But Bachman immediately moved to calm the crowd. "Not today," he said.
Bachmann began his address with a recognition of the events of last week. "Another horrific, religiously-motivated act of terror has shaken the world," he said. "After the terrible act of violence committed by the Christian fundamentalist Anders Breivik that killed 77 people, Paris is yet more proof for the necessity of PEGIDA."
Bachmann said that PEGIDA exists to speak out against any kind of "religious fundamentalism, radicalism, and violence," and invites people with friends from immigrant backgrounds to let them know that they are welcome — as long as they respect German culture and values.
An estimated 25,000 people joined an anti-Islam rally organized by the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamizaton of the Occident (PEGIDA) on Monday, January 12.
The event's other speakers were more confrontational and less concerned with Charlie Hebdo. Before the speeches began, Bachmann asked the demonstrators to keep silent throughout the march and refrain from chanting slogans as a sign of respect. However, when about 30 anti-PEGIDA demonstrators tried to block the procession by sitting in the street and chanting "there is no right to Nazi propaganda," the demonstrators reacted, shouting "we are the people!" at the top of their lungs. Several times, small groups of participants tried to attack anti-demonstrators lining the route, but were contained by the police. There were what looked like 8,000 anti-PEGIDA protesters marching at the same time, and some shouted things like "fascist rabble" or "Germany is shit, you are the proof."
Speaking with attendees, the lack of cohesion among the PEGIDA protesters' views soon became clear. Some told VICE News they were demonstrating against Merkel and her support of the weapons industry, while others speculated that refugees come to Germany with the goal of selling drugs. While disconnected in many ways from each other, all participants expressed discontent in the current system. An anxiety was evident — one that had clearly been exacerbated by the attacks in France.
Peter Glowka, a first-time attendee at the rallies, told VICE News that he doesn't agree with everything PEGIDA says, "especially that they're against all foreigners."
"Seeing the images from Paris shook me profoundly," he added. "I said to myself, I have to do something. Nobody thought this could happen in France, and nobody thinks it's possible here."
Ruminating on the refugee situation in the country — Germany receives more asylum applications than any other industrialized country in the world — Glowka said that he believes the length of the processing system can create anger among applicants, inspiring attacks. "We have a lot of nice things here that are easy to attack," he said.
Reiner Wreedt, from Hof in Bavaria, told VICE News he felt that the protests were important in terms of getting the attention of the German government.
"We know that 80 per cent of Muslims here in Germany are correct people, but the rest cause a lot of trouble," he said.
The PEGIDA marches began in Dresden — a city with a low Muslim minority — but some are attempting to spread the message further afield.
The first DÜGIDA (PEGIDA-Düsseldorf) march attracted about 500 protesters, according to an organizer, but the second, also held on Monday, saw only about 100. This contrasted with the several thousand who turned up to demonstrate against them. Hundreds of police protected the PEGIDA group, and VICE News witnessed the German police tear gas the anti-PEGIDA protesters in an effort to avoid clashes between the groups.
Other political attendees included Pierre Cassen — the French leader of "Riposte Laïque" —and Christine Tasin — French leader of "Resistance Républicaine." These groups that have also spoken out against the "Islamization of French society."
DÜGIDA protesters observed a minute of silence for those killed in France last week. Melanie Dittmer — one of the organizers of the Düsseldorf march and a member of the PRO-NRW political party — also held up cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, including those depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Speaking to BBC Newshour, Dittmer repeated that the marches were an attempt to take a stand against the growing influence of Islam.
"The German politicians are all liars and traitors to their own Volk (people), so we don't believe them anymore, and most of the German society cannot believe them anymore," she said of the condemnation of PEGIDA expressed by Germany's leaders.
When questioned on her use of the word "Volk," a word that — when invoked in a nationalist setting — has an association with the Nazi period in German history, Dittmer replied: "We live in the future and not in the past."
"The word Volk and people were also used before Hitler's time, so we are very proud to be patriotic now, and we don't think it has something to do with the Third Reich," she said.
"Now we have to fight for our rights, and for freedom of speech and for free press, and for democracy," she added. "I think we should not talk about Hitler now because we should talk about PEGIDA. Because for me Hitler is not… I haven't lived in that time so why do you ask me about Hitler?"
A Swiss chapter of PEGIDA has been set up. The group's figurehead Ignaz Bearth has been noted for his social media presence, quickly garnered over 30,000 likes on Facebook, though an analysis of those by VICE Switzerland found that almost half of his Facebook fans live in India.
But Germany's PEGIDA movement has successfully tapped into what some have speculated is a vacuum in German society — a large group of citizens who feel increasingly disconnected from their government. An analysis of the "likes" on the official PEGIDA page shows that more than 101,000 of those who have subscribed to its posts are based in Germany.
On Tuesday afternoon Merkel was due to attend a Muslim rally in Berlin. The event is organized by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, and is scheduled to begin at Berlin's Brandenburg gate.
Merkel also attended Sunday's unity rally in Paris, along with 40 other heads of state and government, and more than a million citizens. Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Merkel said that "Islam belongs to Germany." She has previously dismissed the PEGIDA marches as being organized by people with "hatred in their heart."
The growing move against Islam in Europe may have been aggravated by the Paris attacks, but some are calling on people of all backgrounds to look beyond religion and race.
Malek Merabet, whose Muslim brother Ahmed was one of the policeman killed on the scene on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, urged the world to look beyond the backgrounds of the attackers.
"Devastated by this barbaric act, we associate ourselves with the pain of the families of the victims," he said.
Addressing all the "racists, Islamophobes, and anti-semites," he said: "One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither color or religion."
Meanwhile, some Islamic centers have been publishing guidelines for Muslims who are offended by the publication of the new Charlie Hebdo cover. The set of directives published by the Irish Islamic Educational & Cultural Center noted that "the publishing of cartoons that insult or make fun of the Prophet Muhammad will hurt the sentiments of 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, as well as millions of non-Muslims who respect the great personality of prophet Muhammad."
"As it is clear that the cartoons are to be published again, Muslims will inevitably be hurt, offended, and upset, but our reaction must be a reflection of the teachings of the one we love and are offended for. Enduring patience, tolerance, gentleness and mercy as was the character of our beloved prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is the best and immediate way to respond."
VICE News' Matern Boeselager and Pierre Mareczko also contributed to this report.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd