World Bulletin/News Desk
One German in eight would join an anti-Muslim march if a rapidly-growing protest movement organised one in their home towns, according to an opinion poll published on Thursday.
The survey highlighted growing support in Germany, as in other European Union countries including Britain and Sweden, for parties and movements tapping into voter fears that mainstream politicians are too soft on immigration.
Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc worry that they risk losing support to the euro-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has shifted its focus to immigration, and many of whose members back the PEGIDA protest movement -- Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West.
PEGIDA is holding weekly rallies in the eastern city of Dresden, and attracted more than 17,000 people to a Dec. 22 rally. A few small marches have taken place in other towns, and it plans to stage further rallies in other German cities.
In her New Year address, Merkel urged Germans to turn their backs on PEGIDA's leaders, calling them racists full of hatred, and said Europe's biggest economy must welcome people fleeing conflict and war.
The latest poll of 1,006 people by Forsa for Germany's Stern magazine found 13 percent would attend an anti-Muslim march nearby. It also found 29 percent of people believed that Islam was having such an influence on life in Germany that the marches were justified.
While two thirds of those polled believed the idea of an 'Islamisation' of Germany was exaggerated, many Germans are concerned about the numbers of asylum seekers, many from Syria, pouring into the country.
Islamophobia on the rise
Demonstrations of this kind have spread throughout the country this year, to the point that anti-extremist activists at the Berlin Against Nazis organization have created an smartphone app to track them, the so-called “Anti-Nazi app.”
“The people who participate in these demonstrations do not consider themselves extremists, but rather ordinary middle class citizens,” German psychologist Oliver Decker of the University of Leipzig said in an interview on Monday with the German business newspaper Wirtschaftswoche. “They see Islam as a danger and a target, as there is considerable fear of the country’s immigration policies.”
Decker is one of the authors of a study by his university, released in June, that actually shows far right extremist attitudes have declined across the country.
“However, the downside is that certain groups of immigrants and migrants are more clearly discriminated against,” said Decker.
One of these groups is Islamic immigrants.
“In recent years, Islamophobia as a modern form of xenophobia has become increasingly important as a field of action for the right-wing extremist scene," the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution said in a statement on its website. "Right-wing extremists try to arouse the population's fear of foreign domination."
Bachmann himself is a 41-year-old former advertising salesman. He told the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung that he is not against Islam itself, but rather the “Islamization” of his country. Nonetheless, there has been a 20.4 percent increase in attacks on foreigners in 2014, according to the German Interior Ministry’s announcement on June 4.
In recent months, Germany has witnessed verbal and physical violence against immigrants, Muslims and mosques.
According to a recent representative public poll by Infratest-dimap, 42 percent of Germans now view Islam as "aggressive" and 38 percent perceive it as a "threat."
Meanwhile, ethnic Turkish immigrants in Germany are warning against attempts to legitimize a new far-right populist movement which has drawn large crowds onto the streets in recent months.
German Turkish groups have also announced that they will join counter-protests against a planned anti-Islam demonstration in Cologne next week.
“PEGIDA started its demonstrations with anti-Islam rhetoric and it is fuelling racism and xenophobia. These rallies are against European values,” says Suleyman Celik, leader of the Union of European Turkish Democrats – one of the most influential organizations among Germany’s three million Turks.
PEGIDA has inspired several copycat groups in other major cities, like KOEGIDA in Cologne and HAGIDA in Hamburg.
“Not all of these protestors are [by] racists or fascists. Most of them are citizens with prejudices against Muslims and immigrants and they have been manipulated by the far-right,” says Safter Cinar, the chairman of the organization Turkish Community in Germany, TGD.
Cinar said that while thousands gathered for anti-Islam rallies in Dresden for what they perceive as the threat of Islamization of Germany, the Muslim population in the city is less than one percent.
Cinar criticizes calls by several mainstream German politicians who suggested initiating dialogue with PEGIDA or to show understanding to their concerns.
He says that such a move would mean justifying and encouraging the far-right group.
UETD’s Celik agrees, saying that the recent anti-Islam rallies have encouraged right-wing extremists.
“We think that the growing number of attacks against mosques will continue,” he said.
Celik stressed that mainstream political parties and media in Germany have a special responsibility to better inform public opinion and differentiate between extremist and pious Muslims.
“PEGIDA has used the media and created a support base for itself,” Celik said.
Critics argue that German government and media have blown the threat of terrorism out of proportion, creating a false and negative image of Muslims and immigrants in Germany.
Germany’s leading Muslim organizations say the source of the radicalization of some young immigrants is not Islam itself, but sociological problems they face, such as discrimination, unemployment or a lack of future prospects.
Germany has approximately four million Muslims; around three million of them are of Turkish origin.
Around 20 percent of Germany’s 80.5 million residents have a migrant background, according to latest figures from the Federal Statistics Office.
About 9.7 million of them have become German citizens, while 6.8 million immigrants have kept their former nationalities.
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