“Wir sind das Volk” vs. “Je suis Charlie”

Opposing or Interlocking Viewpoints towards Islam in Contemporary Europe?

By Giorgos Monogioudis

Giorgos Monogioudis is currently working on a project of civic education at Haus am Maiberg in Heppenheim as part of a programme funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany (BpB) and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. He is also a Project Developer in INTER ALIA Civic Action Meeting Point.

Long time before the massive demonstrations in Paris against religious extremism as a consequence of the recent deadly attack on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” on the 7th of January 2015, thousands of people have been gathering on Mondays in the streets of Dresden to protest against the Islamisation of the West under the auspices of the so called Pegida movement (acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”). Not unexpectedly, post-attack public debates seek causal explanations; is Islamic radicalisation in the Western world a repercussion of unequal rights and opportunities or unconditional freedom and tolerance in the context of failing multiculturalism?

The French case differs from the German one to the extent that the aforementioned demonstrations in Paris have been reactive to the mediatised bloodshed in the premises of Charlie Hebdo. On the contrary, the Pegida demonstrations started being held rather spontaneously last October in Dresden by a small and heterogeneous group of people, consisting of sympathisers with the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), hooligans and ordinary citizens. The movement grew soon in popularity and proliferated across the country. Moreover, the selection of Mondays as days of protest and the widespread usage of the old slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”) are highly symbolic as they recalled memories from the peaceful Monday demonstrations in East Germany in 1989/1990 that signified the democratic transition of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). While the aforementioned slogan expressed back then the slowly emerging but conscious reaction of people towards authoritarian rule, this time it is exploited by the Pegida movement in order, not to unify people committed to shared democratic principles, but to distinguish between the “real” people and the discriminated “others”.

This type of criticism towards Islam that embodies elements of cultural racism is not a new phenomenon in Germany and Europe in general as it is arguably associated, among others, with the rising anti-Muslim sentiment following the al-Qaeda attacks in New York City on the 11th of September 2001 as well as the controversial public debates on headscarf ban and restrictions regarding the erection of new mosques in various European countries (e.g. France, Switzerland). Cultural racism is understood in this context as an ideology that subordinates Islam to Christianity, Orient to Occident and “foreign” migrants to “autochthonous” citizens. Thus, the Pegida movement echoes such ideas by opposing institutions associated with Islam (e.g. Sharia courts), defending Germany’s Christian culture and calling for stricter asylum and immigration policies across Europe.

However, to which extent do these viewpoints express only marginal, right-wing social groups in contemporary Europe? The Bertelsmann Foundation conducted a survey among 937 non-Muslim Germans last November showing that 57% of the sampled population considers Islam as a threat, 40% feels “foreign in their own land” while 24% would opt for a ban of Muslim immigration (2015, “Die Wahrnehmung des Islams in Deutschland”). Similarly, the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” published on the 15th of December 2014 a YouGov-survey confirming the above findings; 49% of the participants justify fully or partly the relevance of the Pegida demonstrations, 73% argues that radical Islam is increasingly becoming a threat for Germany while more than 50% of the sampled population (61% among those between 25 and 34 years old with increasing tendency in older age groups) believes that the country receives too many refugees (“Jeder zweite sympathisiert mit Pegida”). This alarming picture drives Bertelsmann Foundation to argue that anti-Muslim sentiment in contemporary Europe resembles rising anti-Semitism in the 19th century.

Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the pro-tolerance demonstrations in Paris and the xenophobic Pegida movement in Dresden, a striking similarity of both cases is the verbal condemnation of religious radicalism. By doing so, demonstrators from both sides attempt to disassociate themselves from extremist positions. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the Pegida movement would potentially equate Christian terrorist attacks with similar acts held by Muslims, even though it is allegedly opposed to any kind of fundamentalism regardless of religion. Having said that, the massacre organised by Anders Breivik on the 22nd of July 2011 in Norway in the name of Christian European identity reinforces the argument that radicalisation flows nowadays through communicating vessels. Breivik justified his acts by arguing that he attempted to save Europe from the exogenous threat of Islam and the endogenous of cultural degradation (i.e. multiculturalism, secularisation, left-wing ideologies) same as brothers Kouachi did last week by killing several cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo on grounds of defending the faith of Islam from atheist satire. Not only do acts of this kind share the same target, i.e. the very essence of the liberal-democratic western system of beliefs (e.g. equality, freedom of speech, secularism), but they also interlock in a systemic fashion within a wider context of political, financial, social and cultural crisis. This argument has been reinforced last week in practice by the Pegida demonstrators in Dresden who interpreted the deadly attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris as a ghastly justification of their mobilisation.

In an increasingly mediatised public sphere, Pegida demonstrators replace also their profile picture on Facebook with the slogan “Je suis Charlie”! Regardless of deeply-rooted beliefs towards consistently discriminated “others”, it is socially acceptable to denounce radicalism in public. Thus, liberal-democratic views end up being measured by the number of likes received on social media. Similarly, several political leaders such as Avigdor Lieberman from Israel, Viktor Orbánfrom Hungary or Ahmet Davutoğlu from Turkey have been harshly criticised for participating in the post-attack peaceful demonstrations in Paris as they arguably exploited the international sympathy towards the Charlie Hebdo victims without acknowledging their share of responsibility when it comes to systematic violations of human rights in their home countries. Notwithstanding the aforementioned deliberate distortion of meanings, slogans like “Wir sind das Volk” and “Je suis Charlie” are in essence increasingly relevant to contemporary risk society.