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The PEGIDA Movement Comes to the UK to Rally Against Islam

An offshoot of the German movement that drew 25,000 to the streets of Dresden, PEGIDA UK is struggling to find support and a unified message. VICE News traveled to Newcastle for its inaugural demonstration.

by Katie Engelhart
Mar 2 2015, 11:30am

Photo by Andy Hayward

A man with a shaved head and black tattoos etched down his forehead and around his eyes stood in the crowd, proudly displaying a large sign: "NO MORE MOSQUES."

Around him, nearly three hundred people were facing a makeshift stage. The vast bulk of the crowd was middle-aged and male — and in possession of a Union Jack or the red and white cross of England's St. George's flag. But there were others: a matronly woman with two English bull dogs; a wide-eyed boy holding an empty soda bottle; a man with a hand-painted helmet featuring a swastika and a pentagram. Two men with Israeli flags told VICE News to "Get out of here… Nazis!"

And of course, there were cops: gaggles of them, dressed in fluorescent yellow and encircling the perimeter — separating the demonstrators from the 2,000 or so counter-demonstrators who were massed just 150 yards away.

And so Saturday's inaugural rally of PEGIDA UK unfolded. The group is a British offshoot of the German street movement PEGIDA, which stands for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West" — and which, at its height, attracted some 25,000 people to anti-Islam-themed marches through Dresden, earning the ire of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said it was "full of prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred."

The PEGIDA movement has waned somewhat, of late. Its numbers have dwindled. Its leader Lutz Bachman was forced to step down after a photo of him dressed as Adolf Hitler was leaked online, though he was reinstated a month later. But in the wake of January's terror assaults in Paris, which saw jihadists kill 17 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and a Jewish supermarket, small copycat groups have popped up across the continent.

PEGIDA's UK chapter met in Newcastle, in northeast England, where chilly winds whipped through tidy streets.

"We are here because nobody else who should be talking about the problems in this country is talking about them," said keynote speaker Paul Weston of the far-right Liberty GB party, who has described immigration as "ethnic cleansing of the English" — though he is married to a Romanian immigrant. On Saturday, Weston warned that Muslims would instigate a "take over" of Britain.

"That is exactly what they will do if we quietly do nothing," he said. "We have to fight back."

The gathering — on Newcastle's Bigg Market street — began quietly enough. There was the odd spontaneous chant. Speakers quoted Winston Churchill, and lead the crowd in a shaky rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory," a patriotic ballad from the turn of the 20th century.

Photo by Andy Hayward

There was much talk of Jihadi John: the notorious Islamic State fighter who appeared in beheading videos of Western hostages — and who, last week, was revealed to be the British citizen Mohammed Emwazi. There were warnings about the rise of sharia law. And appeals against the dictates of "political correctness." And there were many attestations that PEGIDA UK supporters are "not racist" and "have Muslim friends."

Then things took a turn. Two men carrying the swastika-like flag of Golden Dawn — the Greek fascist movement — breached the police perimeter. There was a tussle. The cops moved in, as did a handful of stocky PEGIDA supporters. "You're going to get hurt," growled one demonstrator, shoving aside a VICE News cameraman.

Across the way, the much larger crowd of counter-demonstrators jeered.

A few hours earlier, VICE News had met with PEGIDA UK organizers Emma Scott and Marion Rogers. Seated on a wooden bench near the then-quiet site of the demo, the women described PEGIDA as "an awareness campaign." Rogers, who wore shiny hoop earrings and dark red lipstick, said she'd got involved through social media — because she fears "terrorism and extremism" and worries that Britain may soon succumb to Islamic sharia law.

Does she really believe that?

"Yes!" cried Rogers, citing two incidents that shaped that conviction: the 2013 murder of British soldier Lee Rigby, by two Muslim converts of Christian Nigerian descent, and an incident in which, she claims, a group of Bangladeshi men in East London spat on Rogers' dogs and told her, "They're not welcome here. Muslims don't like dogs."

Rogers envisions a future in which radical Muslims gain ground in Britain giving rise to "child marriage, polygamists… the oppression of women. I mean, would you like to wear a burka?"

Next to her, Scott, who is small and slight, nodded quietly. Asked about the St. George's flag pinned to her lapel, she bristled. "I'm English. That's my flag. It doesn't make me racist because I'm English."

Photo by Andy Hayward

Both women accused the media of painting PEGIDA UK supporters as brutes and racists, and both made a point to say that not all Muslims are bad and that they have Muslim friends.

Such is the standard narrative of many PEGIDA branches across the continent, which are anxious to tout a family-friendly brand of anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment — and to distance themselves from the more brutish, football hooligan-styled street movements of the past. Yet this distinction is often more semantic than substantive.

Leading up to Saturday's rally, PEGIDA UK did not expressly ask extreme right groups like the National Front, British National Party, and English Defense League (EDL), to stay away — insisting only that everyone stay non-violent. 

Some of the more controversial attendees came from the EDL, a street movement formed in 2009 that rallies against the purported threat of Islamism in Britain, and whose members has been blamed for attacks on the Muslim community.

About an hour before the rally kicked off, three EDL members from the League's North East division met VICE News in a churchyard in central Newcastle. The men asked VICE News not to publish their names, nor to describe them as thugs, because the media "does tend to work against us." 

Related:  Hate in Europe: Germany's Anti-Islamic Protests. Watch Here.

Photo by Andy Hayward

One EDL member, in a shirt and tie and dark-colored flat cap, told VICE News that the EDL and PEGIDA UK share some "kindred ground… they're on the same track as us, as far as the Islamification of this country." He spoke of "no-go areas [in Britain]… reinforced under sharia," where "indigenous" British are not welcome.

But the EDL men spoke mostly about what they perceive to be a pedophilia problem within Britain's Muslim communities. "It's very, very unrepresented in the press, because it's politically sensitive… Young girls are being abused, even as we're speaking."

The men cited inflated statistics about the proportion of child sexual abuse carried out by Muslims. But they also spoke fervently about real events: such as the systemic sexual exploitation of some 1,400 children in Rotherham, UK, between 1997-2013, largely at the hands of Muslim men of Pakistani origin — and the failure of local police and government to intervene, in part, British Home Secretary Theresa May later said, because of "institutionalized political correctness."

Later that morning, at the rally, many PEGIDA UK supporters would join in chants of "Pedo! Pedo!" Elements of fact were swirled into broader, fear-driven fictions.

Photo by Andy Hayward

The last few weeks have not been kind to the PEGIDA movement. Spin-off chapters have generally floundered, and failed to gain much attention outside Germany. Several scrawny PEGIDA demos have been eclipsed by meatier counter-demos — and floods of journalists.

PEGIDA UK has also been plagued by institutional issues. Critics claim that its leader, Mathew Pope, has recently resigned, while PEGIDA UK claims that he merely took some time off. Group leadership seems to have changed many times over in recent weeks.

And in retrospect, organizers told VICE News, it was "maybe not the best choice" to host PEGIDA UK's inaugural rally on an early Saturday morning — and in North East England, where only about 2 percent of the population is Muslim, compared to almost 5 percent across England and Wales, and around 12 percent in London.

A day after the rally PEGIDA UK posted a picture on Facebook of London's River Thames under a dark and foreboding sky. A caption promised, "London Rally soon!"

Follow Katie Engelhart @katieengelhart

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