Troubled by an influx of asylum seekers – Germany’s net immigration reached the highest level in two decades, with about 200,000 asylum seekers last year alone – a group calling itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West has held a series of demonstrations since October.
They began small, but shortly before Christmas an estimated 17,500 people took part in a rally in Dresden. The same eastern city saw the group, whose German acronym is Pegida, attract more than 18,000 people on Monday.
The protests have been sharply criticized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, religious leaders and others, and this week also saw large counter-demonstrations held in Dresden and several other cities, including Berlin, and Cologne.
At a briefing in New York, Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the secretary-general had “spoken out repeatedly against what we've seen as a rise of extremism in different parts of the world, not in just Europe, and I think his message is one of tolerance and one of acceptance.”
“We are seeing throughout the world an unprecedented crisis in terms of refugees that are moving very often under perilous conditions throughout the world seeking safety, and I think it’s a responsibility of everyone to ensure that those refugees are welcomed and treated fairly,” he added.
About three-quarters of Germany’s four million Muslims are of Turkish origin, and Erdogan on Tuesday took the opportunity to criticize the E.U., which Turkey has aspired to join for decades. Formal negotiations have been underway since 2005, dogged by European concerns about undemocratic practices in Turkey, among other things.
“It is regrettable that the E.U. is trying teach a lesson to Turkey instead of trying to tackle very serious threats it is facing,” the AFP news agency quoted him as telling a meeting in Ankara of Turkish ambassadors.
“Islamophobia, which we constantly draw attention to and warn of, represents a serious threat in Europe,” he said. “If the issue is not dealt with seriously today, and if populism takes European politicians captive, the E.U. and European values will come into question.”
(Despite recent criticism over a crackdown on journalists, Erdogan also told the gathering of ambassadors that Turkey had the freest press in the world.)
As many of Pegida’s critics in Germany have done, Erdogan characterized the protests as racist. (Banners at some of the anti-Pegida demonstrations have featured images of crossed-out swastikas.)
Pegida hit back at the criticism with a position paper asserting that it is against religiously- or politically-motivated “radicalism,” and that it opposes “preachers of hate,” irrespective of their religion.
The 19-point paper also stated that Pegida supports the admission of refugees fleeing war or political or religious persecution – but that the E.U. should collectively shoulder the burden of accommodating them.
Pegida also said it supports the preservation and protection of “our Judeo-Christian culture,” and opposes attempts to establish “parallel societies,” with shari’a courts and shari’a police.
It called for tolerance for integrated Muslims, but said it opposes “misogynist, violent” ideology.
In a poll by the German newsmagazine Stern last week, 29 percent of respondents said the Pegida rallies were justified because of concerns about the amount of influence Islam was having on life in Germany. One in eight said they would take part in such protests if they were held in their home vicinity.
Meanwhile a French anti-Islamization group called Riposte Laique (Secular Riposte), inspired by developments in Germany, is planning a “first” rally in Paris on January 18, under the slogan, “Islamists out of France.”
“This success [of Pegida] stimulates all the French who dream of such a movement being realized on our soil,” an article on the group’s website says.
This week controversial French author Michel Houellebecq is releasing a novel that is causing a stir – a fictional imagining of the rise to power in 2022 of a president who heads a Muslim Brotherhood party, with far-reaching consequences for French society.
France has the biggest Muslim community in Europe.