ROME — Two days before the deadly terrorist attacks on a French satirical newspaper, more than 18,000 people took to the streets in Dresden, Germany to protest Islam. An additional 12,000 took to the streets in other German towns. The marches were organized by the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, known as PEGIDA, a four-month-old group whose leaders coached demonstrators to wave signs with slogans like, “If you go to sleep in a democracy, you wake up in a dictatorship” and “Beware Ali Baba and his 400 drug dealers.”
Before Wednesday’s shooting, the PEGIDA protests, along with a spate of hate crimes including mosque burnings in Sweden starting on Christmas Day, were interpreted largely as anti-immigration rants as Europe struggles with how to integrate the more than 200,000 irregular migrants and Syrian refugees who landed in 2014, of whom the vast majority are Muslim. The call to the streets was met with scorn by moderate European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, who used a television address to call on Germans not to join the group, which she said was “full of prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred.”
After the tragedy in Paris, PEGIDA says it feels vindicated, posting on its Facebook page: “The Islamists, against which PEGIDA has warned for the last 12 weeks, have shown today in France that they are not capable of democracy but rather rely on violence and death as a solution.” And the anti-Islam sentiment that has been bubbling below the surface of many of Europe’s extreme political parties has risen to the surface. (Several Muslim sites in France, including mosques have been attacked or vandalized since the Charlie Hebdo massacre.)
Italy’s right-leaning Libero newspaper ran the now-infamous image of the masked gunman pointing his Kalashnikov at a police officer moments before he shot him in the head, under the headline: “This Is Islam.” It was followed by several told-you-so articles with titles like “Have No Illusion: Islam Is the Enemy.”
Il Giornale, owned by the Silvio Berlusconi dynasty, ran the same photo under the headline “Islamic Butchers” with its own series of anti-Islamic articles, mostly blaming uncontrolled immigration. Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano called for parliament to institute emergency measures that include the right to stop any “suspect” Muslims from leaving the country. He also sought to curtail freedom of speech on the Internet by blocking certain Islamic websites and he insisted that pushing the boundaries of privacy was necessary to allow authorities to investigate anyone who searched for those sites. Italy’s more moderate papers refrained from references to Islam in their titles.
In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party leaders also used the French massacre to back up their anti-Islamic stance, telling their faithful on Facebook that it proved Islam equates to violence. “This bloodbath proves wrong those who laughed or ignored the fears of so many people about a looming danger of Islamism,” Alexander Gauland, a regional AfD leader told reporters according to a report by Reuters. “This gives new clout to PEGIDA demands.”
The Netherlands’ xenophobic PVV party, led by Geert Wilders, retains its popularity even though Wilders is on trial for racial hatred. He has been one of Europe’s most vocal anti-immigration, anti-Islam leaders, whose party was accused of calling for attacks on mosques in Holland just days before the French attacks. On the day of the attacks he insinuated that the attacks meant it was time for discussion with Holland’s ruling class. “Islam is still peace and love?,” he tweeted.
In the wake of the massacre, moderate European leaders called for calm even as the gunmen remained at large, staging protests in most European capital cities in support of the French victims and Europe’s vast Muslim communities. But there is an underlying feeling that the worst is yet to come. “Europe is in the grip of so much tension over the question of Islam and immigration,” Shada Islam, director of policy at the Friends of Europe advisory group in Brussels, told Bloomberg News. “There is the danger in the immediate aftermath that this is going to strengthen the anti-immigration campaigns, but you have to have a longer-term strategy when the emotions subside.”