Pegida, anti-Pegida and no Space Beyond

During the past weeks, a meme directed against Germany’s Pegida demonstrations has pervaded the Internet. The meme features a quotation from Harald Martenstein, a well-known columnist of Germany’s prestigious, liberal left-wing weekly paper Die Zeit. Martenstein says: “One is about as likely to meet foreigners in Saxony as one is to find a wine bar in Saudi Arabia. One might just as well demonstrate every Monday in Saudi Arabia against the alcoholization of the Orient.” The message is simple: those marching in Dresden against an “Islamization of the Occident” are stupid. Like lunatics, they march against something that hardly even exists in their midst. It is like demonstrating against alcohol in a country in which alcohol is forbidden anyway.


The implicit meaning of this meme is this: if alcoholism was a widespread phenomenon in Saudi Arabia, then it would make sense for Saudi Arabians to protest against alcohol. If Dresden had a substantial foreign population, it would make sense for Dresdeners to protest against this foreign population, too. According to Martenstein, then, the problem with Pegida is that there are simply no foreigners living in Dresden against whom one could reasonably protest. But if Pegida were to demonstrate in Berlin, then what? Would that be OK?

I point out this one specific meme because I think that it paradigmatically symbolizes an ambivalence that is apparent also in other public expressions of anti-Pegida sentiment. A few notes: Pegida’s message is not new. At the latest since September 11th, Germany’s political, cultural and media elite has engaged in a public discourse aimed at a definition of “us” and “what belongs to us” and “what doesn’t belong to us,” with Muslims being represented as “our” core problem. A “Sicherheitskonferenz” (security conference) was institutionalized, born out of a sudden urge to “get into touch” with the others, responding to the imminent “danger” they pose to our security: to our lives, physically and straightforward. Blasting the “security issue” out of every imaginable proportion, the media discovered its interest in speeches and lessons delivered in mosques and Islamic educational institutions – the Muslim “Parallelwelt” was born. Right in our midst, in a language we do not understand, they teach their children to despise us!

These debates were not initiated by oddballs from the former East: they were carried out by leftists and liberals at least as much as by conservative parties, newspapers and institutions. When the Parliament decided about whether or not to criminalize ritual circumcision, it was not the CDU, but Die Linke who voted in large numbers in favour of criminalization. When it comes to cultural racism, then, Germany’s left shakes hands with the new right. United in a common attempt to install “the Enlightenment’s primary values,” they all eagerly free Muslim women from their headscarves, install gender equality through forcing Muslim girls to attend swimming lessons in a bathing-suit, and deconstruct patriarchal authority through abhorring anything that looks like “obedience to tradition.”

So where do all these people demonstrating against Pegida come from? Why does the entire political, religious and media elite condemn Pegida so unequivocally? Is Pegida’s message so totally different from the one which they themselves have perpetually transmitted for the last decade at least? Where have they been when the headscarf was outlawed for Muslim teachers in Germany?

The one huge mistake Pegida committed in the early stages of its formation was a mistake of self-branding: “Against the Islamization of the Occident” sounds weird, pathetic, and out of context. PR-wise, this slogan is a worst-case scenario. Had Pegida entitled its movement “United against religious oppression of women and homosexuals,” or “United against religious indoctrination, fundamentalism and oppression,” they would have encountered far less opposition. Die Linke, which now marches against Pegida, might actually have supported them. To make this “original sin” even worse, the movement soon became associated with “traditional” Nazis – with its stronghold in the former East, that association was an easy one to make – and “traditional” Nazis did join the protests, even though according to research conducted by the Technical University Dresden, the large majority of protesters were middle-class, “normal” people, with a professional or academic education.[1] The Pegida crowd eagerly tried to dissociate itself from “traditional” right-wing extremism, but with no success: the Nazi-tag could not be rubbed away. They were no humanists marching against religious oppression, but stupid Nazi “Ossis” marching against foreigners. As one professor from Berlin’s University commented to me: “This is Saxony, where ‘Reaktion’ resides. Diehard anti-democrats.” A self-evident, sociological “other” to Berlin’s urban, intellectual, arty, lefty population.

Yet I do not mean to say that the only difference between the Pegida and anti-Pegida movements is one of political self-identification or PR, or that both are equally hostile to Muslims living here. Pegida and anti-Pegida experience their “Germanness” differently, and define their object – the foreigner – differently. Note, however, that anti-Pegida and Pegida share the discussion’s basic presupposition: that Germans (the “authentic” ones) may define who belongs and who does not. Fifteen years ago, the foreigner it was who condemned Germans to unemployment. Today, the economic question has somewhat lost its urgency, and in its stead stands a debate about identity, values, and culture: Who are we? Who belongs? Who does not?[2]

Pegida dreams about Germany in conservative, folk-nationalist terms. The ideal Germany was in the past, when there was a white, authentically German hegemony, entrenched in Christian culture and values: “Es gibt Rentner, die ihr Leben lang gearbeitet haben und sich an Weihnachten trotzdem kaum ein Stück Stollen leisten können.”[3] (The mention of “Stollen” is not co-incidental here.) The anti-Pegida movement, by contrast, does not delve into the past but is a child of the student revolts of the Sixties, as is most of the traditional European left: the main goal is always to subvert and destroy structures of traditional authority, both religious and political. Institutionalized religion, in particular, is suspicious, as it by definition asks for subjugation and obedience to a (male) patriarchal God. The values of the Enlightenment, secularism and liberty are the redeeming “good news” neutralizing religious difference and positioning each and every individual in a community of equal human beings. And the foreigner, too, may take his or her place in this – but what if he actually does not? What if he is embodied by practice, embedded in a particular culture and/or religion, that defies efforts of liberal neutralization?

I am taking a practical example: Pegida, as it were, demonstrates in favor of “endangered Western values.” One of the most prominent of these values is the notion of freedom and its various manifestations such as freedom of speech. Yet the anti-Pegida movement, too, is deeply entrenched in and bound to those values. Following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, it seemed half the anti-Pegida demonstrators carried “Je suis Charlie” posters. Charlie was perceived by anti-Pegida as one of “us” – as a bunch of old-leftist Frenchmen, whose task was to mock structures of authority. Charlie was no Nazi! Accordingly, anti-Pegida was very upset when Pegida, too, identified with Charlie. They accused Pegida of co-opting Charlie for their cause, claiming that Pegida was “instrumentalizing” the attacks for the purpose of spreading hatred against Muslims.

pegida jamais

But Pegida had a point: the caricaturists’ murderers did not stage their massacre as an “anti-racist” act, but as a religious one. Their violence was not random and arbitrary, but directed and straightforward. To Charlie’s murderers, the drawings’ racist contextual implications were not the problem; it was their blasphemous character that led them to commit the murders. The “encounter” between the Charlie cartoonists and their murderers was not “left-wing versus right-wing”, but “left-wing versus Islam”.

Liberals commonly confront this fact through arguing that the murderers did not represent “true Islam”, or that that not all Muslims define Charlie’s drawings as blasphemous, let alone would massacre the drawings’ creators. It goes without saying that this is true. Yet, Islam (and any other religious authority system, for that matter) indeed does not recognize the existence of anything like “freedom of speech” that would stretch into the desecration of the sacred. Words constitute reality, not only describe it, and are thus restricted as much as other human behaviours. There are some things I may not say, just as there are some acts I may not do. Thus, in as far as “Western values” are at stake, non-liberal religious traditions indeed do not “fit” these values: the sacred (here the Prophet) may not be depicted in a manner even remotely similar to the drawings created by Charlie. Pegida recognized this and protested against it. They did not de-essentialize Muslims through establishing a principal difference between Islam and its carriers, but paradoxically recognized the force of a non-liberal, religious authority system, endowed with its own system of values, generating different historical memories, practices and taboos.

Did anti-Pegida recognize that difference, too, and accept it, against its deepest loyalties? I do not know, since anti-Pegida is a very loose collective, unified solely by its tolerant self-identification. Yet it seems that the very last thing anti-Pegida can ideologically do is demonstrate in favour of Islamization, in the sense of: in favour of a non-liberal, religious, practiced, embodied difference. There were, indeed, no demonstrations when Germany discussed with much verve and in brute, cultural-racist fashion Jewish and Islamic circumcision, or when head-coverings were outlawed for teachers. So, in contrast to Pegida, anti-Pegida seems to have simply more colonial optimism regarding the “likelihood” of Islamization taking over. Hence, as long as non-liberal world views are rare and under control, demonstrating against them is like demonstrating against alcohol in Saudi Arabia.

[1] The study can be read online here:
[2] “[F]or liberals, no less than for the extreme right, the narrative of Europe points to the idea of an unchangeable essence, and the argument between them concerns the kind of ‘toleration’ that that essence calls for” (Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press: 2003, p. 165).

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2 Responses to Pegida, anti-Pegida and no Space Beyond

  1. Hannah, as usual you put it in a nutshell.

  2. Oh you know my name AND I learned a new expression (“to put it in a nutshell”). Thank you!

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