How anti-Islamic Pegida spreads across Western Europe

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Manès Weisskircher and Lars Erik Berntzen

Manès Weisskircher and Lars Erik Berntzen

Lars Erik Berntzen and Manès Weisskircher are currently studying the diffusion of Pegida with a particular aim of explaining why there has been such a large variation in mobilization.

Pegida groups have now been set up in many Western European countries in what looks to be the quickest spread of far right and anti-Islamic activism on record. Following wide media coverage, online groups first started to crop up beyond Germany in December and continued to spread in the wake of the jihadist terror attacks in Paris. Some Pegida activists tried to latch onto the broader wave of sympathy demonstrations under the monicker “Je Suis Charlie” by co-opting this message.

Established in Dresden in October 2014, Pegida stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident. They portray themselves as a “humanist protest movement against Muslim immigration and the influence of Islam”. Their mobilization has resulted in one of the largest waves of demonstrations in Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall, explicitly referring to the protests against the GDR in 1989 by staging their demonstrations on Mondays using the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”).

Because of their ability to draw massive crowds in Dresden, they have been viewed as a predominantly local phenomenon. Although the local basis is important to understand why they were able to draw crowds of up to 20,000, this take misses the bigger picture. In fact, the efforts by the various Pegida groups represent the largest transnational mobilization among anti-Islamic and far right groups in Western Europe during the last decade. There are now over 150 online groups carrying the Pegida label, ranging from transnational groups to local ones.

Pegida is the latest transnational incarnation of anti-Islamic activism in Europe.  One of the first instances was the rise of the Stop Islamization groups following the first Muhammed Cartoon crisis in 2006. This was followed by the gradual diffusion of ‘Defence League’ groups starting with the English Defence League in Luton in 2009. Another important case was the Identitaire groups originating in France.

As with the older anti-Islamic groups, Pegida has been much more successful at drawing people online than on the streets, where there has been a much larger variation in mobilization capability. This underscores the need to view online and street mobilization as partially distinct phenomena. Even in their most successful attempts outside of Germany, Pegida organizations could never gather more than a few hundred supporters for their “walks”.

Wherever they have sprung up, Pegida has consistently been outnumbered by counter-demonstrations of the autonomous left, anti-racist groups as well as organizations connected to mainstream political players and religious organizations. This even holds for places where Pegida so far has failed utterly in the streets, such as in Switzerland and Sweden. The huge gap in mobilization speaks to the high cost and stigma associated with marching in the streets under the banner of a group labelled by many as extreme.

The places where they have been able to muster any sizeable crowds are also those places where the older anti-Islamic activist groups have a presence, such as Austria, Denmark and Norway. Interestingly, these countries all have electorally successful far right parties as well. This breaks with key findings on mobilization during the last decades, when a strong far right presence in parliament has curtailed street mobilization by their sympathizers.

Pegida is not an isolated or solely German creature. It should be seen as the latest iteration of anti-Islamic mobilization that has been gradually growing in momentum over the last decade. Even if they should fade away within a short time period, their quick diffusion has probably strengthened the future mobilization potential of the wider movement.