More than a hundred thousand people took to the streets of German cities on Monday night in dueling rallies that offered starkly contrasting visions of the role of Islam in European society.
The protests mark the opening salvo in the battle to shape the response to last week's deadly attacks in Paris, which have swelled the ranks of a grassroots anti-Islam, anti-immigration group here.
The group, which is called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA after its German acronym, drew a record crowd of 25,000 people to its rally Monday night in the eastern city of Dresden. The protesters, many of whom carried German flags, marched mostly in silence to commemorate those killed in Paris.
"The Paris attacks are the latest piece of evidence that justify PEGIDA's existence," said Lutz Bachmann, the group's founder, during a speech at the rally, according to a report from German news agency DPA. A constant feature of PEGIDA marches has been hostility toward the media – the shout of luegenpresse or "lying press" is a staple – but Mr. Bachmann claimed to be a support for journalists. "Our courage and steadfastness enables them to freely express their opinion – this is because we have not allowed sharia law to gain a foothold on German soil!"
PEGIDA's rhetoric is highly inflammatory in Germany, which has spent decades grappling with the legacy of its Nazi past. The counter-reaction has been swift: on Monday, more than 90,000 protesters came out to show their opposition to PEGIDA in demonstrations in cities like Leipzig, Hanover, Munich, Berlin and Stuttgart, shouting slogans against xenophobia and intolerance.
PEGIDA, which has remained focused on Dresden, had aimed to spread its agitation to Leipzig, a nearby city in eastern Germany. Fewer than 5,000 anti-Islam protesters turned out there on Monday, and their march was dwarfed by a crowd of about 30,000 counter-demonstrators.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged citizens not to join PEGIDA rallies and has staunchly defended Germany's multicultural identity. "Islam is a part of Germany," she said on Monday at an appearance with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "I'm the chancellor of all Germans and this includes all who live here permanently, regardless of where they come from."
On Tuesday night, Ms. Merkel plans to attend a vigil organized by leading groups representing Germany's Muslim community to express solidarity with France and mourn the victims of last week's attacks. In a show of unity, the attendees will include nearly the entire German cabinet, hundreds of federal lawmakers, and representatives of the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant communities.
The Paris attacks were a "hostile and inhuman act against our free society" that betrayed Islam, said a statement from the Central Council of Muslims in Germany announcing the vigil. "We must stand together as non-Muslims and Muslims even more than before."
The demonstrations are part of a struggle over how the Paris attacks will influence an ongoing debate over multiculturalism and the threat posed by radical Islamist groups. German justice minister Heiko Mass had urged PEGIDA to call off its Monday rally entirely. "It is simply disgusting how the people behind these protests are trying to exploit the despicable crimes in Paris," he told the German tabloid Bild.
A group of French cartoonists, including a founder of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine targeted in the attacks, agreed. They published a pamphlet earlier this week featuring a drawing of a hyena – labelled "PEGIDA" – sniffing at blood as it seeps out from the magazine's office door.
PEGIDA representatives rejected the criticism. "We have the right to express our condolences to the victims" of the Paris attacks, Kathrin Oertel, one of its leaders, told CNN.
"Muslims are only a tiny fraction of the population, but they're so dominant in pushing for their demands that German culture is being pushed back," she added. Immigrants shouldn't "build up parallel societies."
For now, experts continue to see PEGIDA as a phenomenon rooted in the particular experience of the former East Germany, where disaffection with the political system runs high. The group rails against an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers, despite the fact that they make up a minute proportion of the population in the former East. In Dresden, the centre of the PEGIDA protests, less than 1 per cent of the residents identify as Muslim and only 5 per cent are foreigners, noted Robin Alexander, a journalist for Die Welt newspaper, in a recent op-ed.
While PEGIDA takes aim at the supposed "Islamization" of Germany, it also has broader targets. The group's protests are "anti-political parties, anti-politicians, anti-media," said Nico Lange, an expert on German politics at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank in Berlin. "There's something, I suspect, very anti-democratic about PEGIDA."