A series of marches took place across Europe on February 6 under the banner of Pegida – an ‘anti-Islamisation’ street movement. Events took place in Dresden, Dublin, Calais, Amsterdam and Prague.
In a rain-drenched Birmingham a group of a few hundred people travelled in near silence from the main train station to an anonymous industrial estate. The march was billed as an opportunity for people to show their peaceful opposition to the ‘Islamisation’ of Britain.
Respectability was a major theme. At a press launch, Pegida UK’s leaders encouraged protesters to bring their families and promised that there would be no chanting or alcohol and that attendees would not be covering their faces. Before the event a message was sent out urging members of the far-right BNP and National Front to stay away.
This is part of a wider momentum away from the behaviour most readily associated with movements of this kind. The rhetoric and behaviour seen in Birmingham seemed a world away from stereotypical authoritarian fascism. But Pegida doesn’t necessarily represent anything new. Its UK activists claim to be anti-fascist but this is an organisation that sits comfortably on the extreme right. It seems to have drawn significant inspiration from the international counter jihad movement.
The extreme right has attempted to reinvent itself before. It has scrubbed conspiracy theory and biological racism from its literature and focused on the idea of protecting cultures. Groups such as the British National Party and the French Front National, have previously attempted to reposition themselves as champions of human rights, for example the ‘populist nationalism’ of the BNP.
Dropping explicit fascist tropes has given some groups an even greater freedom to carve out new territory. The counter-jihad movement has emerged as a loose international network of activists built around the narrative of Islam being at war with the West.
Key activists include the US-based bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, as well as the Norwegian blogger Fjordman (infamous for his appearance in Anders Breivik’s manifesto) and Danish activist Anders Gravers. All of them share the belief that Islam and the West are at war.
The movement also includes think-tanks, such as the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, and organisations such as Stop Islamisation of Europe, The American Freedom Defence Initiative and the International Civil Liberties Alliance.
For the counter jihad movement, Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian political ideology that is completely incompatible with Western values. Muslim immigration, particularly to Europe, is framed as being part of a plot to impose Sharia law. European leaders are represented as either blind to, or complicit in the attempted take over.
The leadership of Pegida UK marching in Birmingham all have strong ties to this international counter jihad movement. Tommy Robinson, co-ordinator of Pegida UK and former leader of the far-right group the English Defence League, has enjoyed the support of various counter jihad figures and in 2013 invited both Spencer and Geller to address an EDL rally in the UK – although the government blocked them from entering the country.
Deputy leader, Anne Marie Waters attempted to host a cartoon contest similar to one held in Garland, Texas in 2015 May, which had encouraged people to draw the prophet Muhammad. The Texas event was attacked by two American Muslims, who wounded a security guard before they were shot and killed. The London contest was abandoned over security concerns.
Pegida UK claims to have moved on from the disorder that characterised the EDL. That the UK march passed off peacefully seemingly strengthens this claim. It is also important to remember that Pegida UK is a broad church, not a monolith, and that many of those on Saturday’s Pegida UK demonstration were driven by genuine fears over immigration and violent Islamist extremism.
However, despite its claims to moderation, Pegida UK as an organisation is entirely consistent with emerging trends in an extreme right which is seeking to distance itself from explicitly fascist rhetoric.
The Pegida UK leadership is firmly connected to an international movement that believes the West is under existential threat from a homogenised and totalitarian Islam. Pegida UK can claim to be committed to human rights but those rights appear to be selective. They do not extend to Muslims, be they migrants or citizens.