A plebiscite on every day

Now we must avert the danger of a downward spiral between Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans

A PEGIDA rally in Dresden, Germany, held on Jan. 12 (Beta/AP)
A PEGIDA rally in Dresden, Germany, held on Jan. 12 (Beta/AP)

No, no, surely not. On top of everything else, not that. Three days before a young Eritrean was murdered in Dresden, a swastika was daubed on the door of his flat. On the evening he was stabbed to death, last Monday, the xenophobic movement already known around the world as 'Pegida' had held its largest demonstration so far in that lovely city on the River Elbe. And it's not just Germany. As a foiled Islamist terrorist plot in Belgium follows hard on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, politicians on the xenophobic, anti-immigration far right are looking to pick up votes across Europe. There is a real and present danger of a downward spiral in which radicalised minorities, Muslim and anti-Muslim, will drag anxious majorities, non-Muslim and Muslim, in the wrong direction. Only a conscious everyday effort by each one of us will prevent it.

The Dresden case is, fortunately, thus far not typical of Germany as a whole. Dresden sits at the scenic heart of a quite unusual corner of the former East Germany. Unlike most big West German cities, it has a low level of immigration, and little experience of living with cultural difference. In communist times, this corner was known as the 'valley of the clueless', because its inhabitants could not receive West German television broadcasts. Reports suggest that, so far, most of the participants in the Pegida demos have been middle-aged, and therefore shaped by a sheltered is life in the old East Germany. Since unification, Saxony has seen an unusually high vote for far-right parties, including a shocking 9.2% for the NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) in state parliament elections in 2004. Some have even suggested that the Anglo-American bombing of Dresden near the end of the Second World War contributed to this phenomenon, since it nourished a narrative of 'Victim Dresden'.

The protesters have taken the 1989 velvet revolutionary chant of 'Wir sind das Volk' and given it quite different meaning: not 'we are the people', aspiring to democratic self-determination, but 'we are the Volk', ethnically defined, as in the mouth of Adolf Hitler. The very title of the movement breathes a certain anachronism. Pegida stands for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, usually translated as Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West. But the word Abendland is a strikingly old-fashioned one, meaning literally 'evening land' (i.e. where the sun sets), and used by Oswald Spengler in his monumental post-World War I tract of German cultural pessimism, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, only weakly translated as The Decline of the West. 'Patriotic Europeans' also has an odd mix of cultural coyness and assertiveness. God help us, you feel they almost want to say Christians. Oh yes, and white. White with brown edges.

And who, may we ask, are the Unpatriotic Europeans? One of Pegida's organisers, Thomas Tallacker, posted on Facebook in 2013 'what should we do with the 90% uneducated hordes that milk welfare here and bleed our social state dry?' And, following a local knife-attack: 'surely it was again a deranged or half-starved Ramadan Turk'. Charming fellow, this Tallacker. For years, he was a member of the city council in the famous porcelain-manufacturing town of Meissen, representing Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Jean-Marie le Pen tweets, in English, 'Keep Calm and vote Le Pen'. The fact that the quiet, polite Muslim guy delivering a pizza (as one of the Kouachi brothers did) turns out to be an Islamist assassin is simply bound to increase suspicion of Muslims among so-called ordinary people. British mosques and Islamic centres have reported a sharp increase in threatening messages. According to a study commissioned by the Bertelsmann foundation, a shocking 57 percent of non-Muslim Germans now see Islam as a threat. And there are plenty of politicians, journalists and rabble-rousers around to stir that suspicion. UKIP's Nigel Farage has even talked of a 'fifth column' amidst his English folk. (Or is that Volk?)

This in turn will produce more anxiety among European Muslims and, if we are not very careful, more radicalisation among a small minority of them. Ironically enough, Monday's Pegida demonstration was called off due to what appears to be a jihadist threat to one of its leaders. The symptoms of radicalisation include an increase in anti-Semitic attacks, which now seem to come more from extreme Muslims than from old-fashioned 'patriotic European' swastika-daubing anti-Semites. It is horrifying to hear French Jews, members of one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in Europe, saying that they no longer feel safe in France. Such anti-Semitic attacks feed into more suspicion and fear of Muslims, which in turn…

How do we stop the vicious downward spiral? Traditionally, European parties of the centre-right, such as the CDU and the Conservatives, have tacked to the right in order to win back such voters and keep them from forming an independent political force. Up to a point, that is legitimate. But beyond that point you have to do what Chancellor Merkel has now done and say: enough. Thus far and no further.

The messages delivered by politicians are important. So are those we hear from religious leaders, and the way these stories are covered by the media. But in the end, it's down to us, the citizens. The great French historian Ernest Renan wrote that a nation is a 'plebiscite on every day'. On the Sunday after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, more than three million people on the streets of France gave a magnificent example of how a great European nation – indeed, let me say as an Englishman, the quintessential great European nation – responds to such a challenge. Muslim Frenchmen and Frenchwomen handed out white roses to their fellow Jewish, Christian and atheist fellow citoyens and citoyennes. Then they stood together to sing the Marseillaise, the world's most stirring national anthem.

Magnifique. But that was just one Sunday. It is on all the other days, the workdays and grey days, that the struggle to make a Europe of civic, inclusive nations will be won or lost. When he came back from the Paris unity demonstration, David Cameron singled out a placard he had seen. It read 'Je suis Charlie, Je suis flic, Je suis Juif' (I am Charlie, I am a copper, I am a Jew). There is one line missing from that list: Je suis Ahmed. For one of the policemen murdered in cold blood by the Kouachi brothers was a Muslim Frenchman called Ahmed. '#Je suis Ahmed' emerged as a hashtag on Twitter to complement, not to rival, '#Je suis Charlie', and I immediately started using it as well.

While never compromising on the essentials of an open society, including free speech, we non-Muslim Europeans must keep sending these small signals to our Muslim fellow Europeans, both online and in our everyday personal interactions. The best signal of all is the one that indicates no explicit signal is necessary. This is what happens most of the time in a city like London: you just take it as given that Muslim British are as much Brits as anyone else – that in truth there is no 'they', just a larger, gloriously mixed and muddled 'us'. That is how we will win the plebiscite on every day. And that is how we will see off a vampire called Pegida.

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he currently leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name