A German group that has made headlines – and drawn criticism – worldwide by organizing mass marches against the supposed "Islamisation of Europe" has now spawned a chapter in the United Kingdom, one that wants to hold demonstrations in two English cities in the coming weeks.
Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West, better known by its German acronym Pegida, is the mobilizing force behind a series of weekly demonstrations held every Monday in the eastern German city of Dresden. The marches have pulled up to 25,000 people at a time into the streets to protest against what they see as the spread of Muslim culture inside historically Christian parts of Europe.
Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, equally large numbers of people have taken to the streets across Germany to protest against what they see as Pegida's dangerous xenophobia. The group's image problem worsened on Wednesday, when Pegida co-founder Lutz Bachmann resigned following the publication of a photograph of him posing as Adolf Hitler.
More than 10,000 people have clicked "like" for Pegida UK's manifesto since the group launched on Facebook on Jan. 4. Two founders of the British chapter – who spoke to The Globe and Mail on the condition their family names not be used – say the movement is now planning to test whether those who support it online are willing to take to the streets.
The appearance of Pegida UK comes at a time of high intercommunal tensions in the country. British police were placed on their highest level of terror alert following the attacks by Islamist gunmen on a satirical newspaper and a kosher grocery market in Paris earlier this month.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government drew criticism from prominent Muslims this week after it sent a letter to 1,000 mosques and community leaders saying they needed to help in "explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity."
Khalil Charles, a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, said the appearance of Pegida UK was "very unfortunate," but not surprising given that the radical UK Independence Party was now running a strong third in polls ahead of a general election in May. "We're living in an atmosphere at the moment where so-called mainstream politicians are stirring people up into racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment," Mr. Charles said.
Pegida UK has chosen the northern English cities of Manchester and Newcastle – seen as friendlier centres than multicultural London or Birmingham, the city with Britain's largest population of Muslims – for its initial marches and is waiting for permission from those cities to hold the demonstrations. Dates have not yet been set, though the group's founder said he expects they will happen with "a couple of weeks."
"This is going to be huge," said the 33-year-old Swiss national who manages Pegida UK's Facebook page and e-mail account. In a telephone interview, he said his name was David and that he lives and works in Britain. He said he had been inspired to launch Pegida UK after attending several of the marches in Dresden, and that the movement had gained many new followers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris.
He said his group was supporters by "people in the middle who are just concerned about the security of Europe, about the terrorist attacks and the number of people going to Syria to fight and then coming back. They're concerned about the Islamisation of the country – more and more halal food, less and less Christianity."
But Pegida UK is already running into the some of the same troubles that have plagued the Dresden branch. Another organizer – a 34-year-old man who gave his name as Mike and said he had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as a British army paratrooper – said one reason the group was delaying its first march was to ensure the protest wasn't overrun by members of Britain's notorious and often violent far right.
Several of those who were quickest to join Pegida UK on Facebook – and to urge that it take to the streets – are past and present members of the English Defence League, a widely scorned group associated with racist violence. Islamophobic rants are common on their social-media accounts, including calls for Pegida UK supporters to boycott all Muslim-owned businesses, as well as Muslim doctors, dentists and civil servants.
"It's hard to avoid the far right, but I believe [Pegida UK] is not a racist movement. This is not about racism, but all my friends are fed up with paying their taxes and paying for people who have been in this country for five minutes," said Mike, the former paratrooper.
Shedding the racist label will be even more difficult for Pegida and its offshoots following the publication of the image of Mr. Bachmann posing as Hitler. The photograph appears to have been taken from his Facebook page, where Mr. Bachmann also posted a photograph of a Klu Klux Klan member with the caption: "three Ks a day keeps minorities away."
German police opened an investigation Wednesday into Mr. Bachmann for inciting hatred.
This week's march in Dresden was cancelled Monday when police instituted a 24-hour ban on all public gatherings following what police said was a threat to kill Mr. Bachmann. In the nearby city of Leipzig on Wednesday, a rally by a sister group of Pegida's had a smaller than expected turnout and was outnumbered by counterprotests.
Groups claiming to be either inspired by or affiliated with Pegida have held rallies in several other German cities in recent weeks, as well as in Denmark, Austria, Spain, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The gatherings ranged in size from several hundred to several thousand.