Pegida, a populist anti-Islam movement – in Germany. It only held its first march against the “Islamisation of the West” in the German city of Dresden last October; now, it seems, it is ready to spread its message internationally. Branches have been set up in several other countries, including France and Spain, and the Newcastle demonstration next Saturday will be its first in Britain. If it is successful, more marches are planned, for Birmingham and London, as well as Bathgate in Scotland.
It is a remarkably ambitious expansion plan for a group that has proved so shambolic at home. Its spokesmen initially insisted that it had no links to the far-Right, a position that was rather undermined when a picture emerged of its leader, Lutz Bachmann, sporting a Hitler moustache. Yet, for all the chaos, Pegida has clearly touched a nerve. Its weekly marches in Dresden have been attended by as many as 25,000 Germans, and were particularly well-attended in the aftermath of last month’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo.
Organisers expect only a tiny fraction of that figure at the march in Newcastle. Matthew Pope, its UK spokesman, said he hoped 1,000 supporters would show up. Even so, it will be a crucial test for Pegida, to see if it can tap into local disenchantment to build a broad-based movement in Britain to mirror the mass marches in Germany.
But why Newcastle? The number of Muslims in the city nearly doubled in the decade after 2001, but they still only account for around six percent of the overall population, a much lower concentration than in other northern cities such as Bolton and Manchester. The official line – put about by Pope, a 29-year-old born-again Christian from Cambridgeshire – is that the city was deliberately chosen because it is not a regular haunt of the far-Right, so that Pegida would not be tarnished by association.
However, Newcastle United fans have urged far-right activists to stay away from their city, amid growing tensions over the anti-Islamic movement Pegida’s first rally in Britain. NUFC Fans United supporters group made it clear that far-right protesters were not welcome in Newcastle, saying the city was “famous for its tolerance, integration and warmth of spirit”. In a statement, they warned: “There is a fear that Newcastle United supporters who are of the Islamic faith or origin may be singled out for abuse by this group and we say that the authorities cannot allow any of our community, whatever their race, creed or religious belief to be treated in such a manner in our city on match day or any other day.