Fear and (in)tolerance in Berlin

18 January 2015

The last few weeks have seen growing protests “against Islam” across Germany, which made me feel surprisingly uncomfortable here in Berlin - until I saw how willing and supportive Berliners were against such discriminatory, fascist behaviour.

The protests started with the founding of the anti-Islam group “Pegida” (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes in German, or the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West in English), in October 2014 in Dresden, the city where there has been by far the largest turnout for the weekly Pegida rallies.

[Text = ‘maps say more than words’ - top map shows attendance at Pegida rallies, bottom map shows attendance at anti-Pegida rallies]

There have been regular Pegida rallies in other cities in Germany too, giving rise to new, local versions of the movement - “Baergida” here in Berlin, or “Legida” in Leipzig. The reaction from the state and other major institutions has been, as far as I can tell, wholly against the rise of these groups - among other intiatives, last week the Cathedral in Cologne turned off their lights to “make Pegida protesters think twice about what they were protesting for”. Alongside these rallies, the counter-movement has also grown, the ‘anti-Pegida’ or ‘anti-baergida’ rallies, showing solidarity with Muslims and marginalised groups. Happily, in almost all cases the number of people attending the solidarity protests have far outnumbered those attending the Pegida demonstrations. (see map above)

There has been a lot written about the protests already in both English and German - (eg. English examples here, here and more recently, here), and generally, (at least among the media sources that I read!), all of them have been against the Pegida marches.

Despite knowing all of this - that state institutions, major politicans, citizens in general here in Germany were strongly against these fascist rallies - the realisation that people were holding Pegida rallies here in Berlin, made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and frankly, unwelcome, and the strength of these feelings shocked me. It’s a privileged position to be in, no doubt, but this is the first time in my life that I’ve felt like a movement in the place where I live is directly against me or what I represent in society. Regardless of my actual beliefs and upbringing, I would guess that for anyone looking to discriminate against Muslims in Europe, I likely tick the necessary boxes. It’s a self-centred view, but one I can’t help but take.

The idea that people were gathering in Berlin, the city I’ve lived in for three and a half years, to protest against my being here - not to mention against a large proportion of people who live in my area, which has a big Turkish and Arab population, made me feel a number of things. Scared, that people with those kinds of views were actually present in my city; worried, that I could bump into any one of them at any time; and finally, angry, that such a small minority of people (400 people turned up to the Baergida march, versus 4,000 to the counter march) could make me feel like this, especially in lovely Berlin. For all my complaints of microaggressions or casual racism in Germany, I’ve never felt physically threatened by anyone, in all my time living here.

It’s one thing knowing that people exist somewhere who have some irrational fear and hatred of a certain section of society - but it’s another, knowing that they are some 20 minutes away from you, that you fit into that section of society, and that this fear is strong enough that it would actually bring them out onto the streets.

The Bertelsmann Foundation did a recent study which found that the higher the proportion of Muslims in a community in Germany, the lower the reservations against Islam. And on average, 61% of non-Muslim Germans have zero contact with Muslims, and in the East, this figure rises to up to 90%.

Germany isn’t the first to display this kind of trend - I was in Switzerland last February when a referendum was held about an initiative to ‘limit’ immigration. There, as here, a trend was noticed that people living in areas with low levels of foreigners among the resident population were more likely to want to limit immigration in the country. Again - fear of the unknown, setting in, as this visualisation by Martin Grand Jean shows.

Switzerland immigration quota

But in Berlin, luckily, there are lots of people who don’t feel this fear and who also feel strongly enough to come out on to the streets to show solidarity, and in crowds that far, far outnumber those attending the Pegida marches. Today I went to a demo in memory of Khaled Idris Bahray, an Eritrean refugee who was murdered in Dresden last week. More people than I had imagined turned up - current estimates are around 1,800 people, and we saw people from all backgrounds. Being among all those people, chanting things like “Say it loud, say it clear - refugees are welcome here!” was incredibly comforting.

Clearly, the people here didn’t fear Muslims, or refugees, or people who didn’t look quite like them. The protest was held in Neukölln - people living in this area have no reason to have a “fear of the unknown” which might convert itself into Islamophobia, because there are high numbers of Turkish and Arab immigrants here. As it turns out, the unknown really isn’t so bad; in the case of Neukölln at least, it’s the presence of the immigrant population that has made it such a lovely neighbourhood to live in.

So what can we do to prevent this fear setting in more widely? We could try to ensure that people here in Germany, no matter whether they live in an area with lots of immigration or not, are exposed to others who don’t look like them. Less of this:

…and more diversity among people in the public eye, whether it be women on magazine covers, newsreaders, conference line ups, or people appearing in advertisements. We could all (myself included) make more of an effort to reach out to marginalised communities where we live, for example through initiatives like Give Something Back to Berlin which runs various collaborations with refugee communities here in Berlin.

We could attend more solidarity marches like the one today, and encourage those around us to do the same. Or, simply, talk to people we know who might not have the same level of exposure to these kinds of topics as us, and try to turn that potential fear into welcome curiousity and willingness to learn more. This isn’t something that any of us should be able to ignore; every single one of us enjoys the benefits that immigration brings.


You might also like: