On a rainy Saturday 6th February, Pegida UK launched its inaugural demonstration in Birmingham, with similar rallies happening across Europe. An estimated 200 protesters attended the demonstration, which took place on a barren industrial estate miles from the city centre.
The march was peaceful and went smoothly without incident. No thugs, no fights, no Nazis, no inflammatory speeches. However, the rallies in other European countries did see some trouble with a fight in Dublin and some arrests in Calais.
The new Pegida UK was keen to dispel allegations of racism or of being the EDL 2.0 but without the booze. They placed warnings on pre-protest information, saying Neo Nazis would not be accepted at the demonstration. Likewise, Tommy Robinson in his speech talked about meeting a man with swastika tattoo on his finger on Friday night, and then said (in an obviously frustrated voice): “six years on and I’m still having to tell you: if you’re a Nazi, if you’re a racist, and you’re watching this – you’re not welcome on the streets in the UK with us."
Moreover, the people who attended the demonstration were not a singular, unitary, monolithic bloc. One protester NOTA Network interviewed said he came because he was worried about English identity and culture being threatened by Islam. Another one said he was not against "all immigration" but wanted "limited immigration". And another protester said he was here to "defend free speech". It would be slightly unwise to arrogantly dismiss them all as racists and xenophobes, though that doesn't mean they were liberal democrats either.
There was not anything that struck me as worryingly racist in the interviews we did or at the rally generally. I say this as a black man who was with my friend Sam Sholli, who is of Iranian stock. We did not feel like we were in danger or anyone was racist towards us. They just seem to be people that are fed up with a status quo that is not working for them and their communities.
Their claim to being a multi-racial movement is questionable, because aside from me and Sam Sholli (my NOTA Network colleague) there was only one other non-white person at the rally. So they do still have that obstacle to overcome where ethnic minorities would feel comfortable associating themselves with Pegida UK. I doubt this this will change anytime soon.
Yes, there was no racism (at least in its common understanding). BUT.....
That doesn't quite get them off the hook. There were still illiberal sentiments present at the rally. For example, many protesters held placards featuring Donald Trump's image saying 'Trump is right'. This possibly is an implicit endorsement of the hopeful presidential nominee's call to halt all Muslim immigration into the United States. If this is the case then this is simplistic and objectively bigoted, because it views Muslims as a monolithic bloc who all think in the same way. There were other sorts of unsophisticated propaganda, like other placards saying 'Rape culture is being imported' and 'Islamism = Nazism'.
Beforehand, NOTA Network interviewed the Pegida UK leadership; Tommy Robinson, Anne Marie Waters and Paul Weston. Tommy surprisingly was open to the idea of creating a buffer zone in Syria in order to keep Syrian refugees safe. But he was not in favour of military intervention in Syria against the Assad regime. He also said he wanted British embassies in the Middle East to give women and children fleeing a chance to leave. However, he would not extend this to young men because he feels "they should be fighting".
Weston was asked whether he would stand by previous comments where he suggests Muslims should be banned from public office. He defended his comments. When he was asked if this would even apply to liberal Muslims like Maajid Nawaz, he stood by his comments again even as he admitted it was "discriminatory", because he felt it would be for the "greater good". This is clearly an illiberal, bigoted, anti-democratic belief contradicting the very values Pegida UK is claiming to defend.
Anne Marie Waters was asked for her opinion on Weston's views on Muslims not being allowed to hold public office, something which is not believed to be Tommy's position. Her slippery, cowardly reply was "that's Paul's opinion....I don't agree with it, but I don't passionately disagree with it...I don't have an opinion, I never thought about it, I will now." The fact she couldn't give a clear answer to what was a very fair question is telling.
The above picture shows a speaker who has been ignored by mainstream media outlets, like The Guardian, Telegraph and Huffington Post. This is telling given that he asked the media not to "edit me out" and to "report this fairly". His name is Mohammed Fiaz, an ex Muslim, Christian. He was very keen to defend Tommy Robinson and Pegida UK from accusations of racism, though he weirdly claimed that if you call Tommy or Pegida far-right you are playing into the hands of "the Muslims". He even asked the rain-soaked crowd to raise their hands if they were far-right or anti-Asian. As expected, no one raised their hands. Mohammed then told the tragic story of a friend, a fellow apostate who was hated, had his knee smashed and his kids spat at by a neighboring Muslim family when they found out he was an apostate.
Tommy Robinson claimed that a "seed has been planted" with the inaugural protest that could grow into a worldwide, popular protest movement, mobilising against the 'Islamisation' of Western civilisation. Likewise, Paul Weston felt they would be able to muster "100,000 people" for a future protest. Not going to happen. Despite the tense atmosphere currently engulfing Europe and even if a 9/11 style terrorist attack were to happen again, I really doubt Pegida UK would be able to get 100,000 people to attend a rally of theirs. 10,000 is possible but nowhere near 100,000.
Above all, while Pegida UK are clearly not Neo-Nazis and it's a good thing that they try a peaceful methodology and don't have that hooligan aura that the EDL had. However, the fact that the three leaders cannot agree on something as simple as whether a Muslim can run for public office does weaken their claim to be defending liberal democracy, as Weston's suggestion is plainly anti-democratic and bigoted.
Likewise, the endorsement of Donald Trump's illiberal views and defending of 'Christian culture' also is not going to win them many friends in the mainstream. They don't have an ideology or a positive alternative worldview to present to oppose the status quo. They are just an unguided, incoherent, reaction to the very real problem of Islamism and a residue of Cologne. Despite the fact Tommy Robinson wants to start anew, I believe the already tainted brand of Pegida will be a detriment, not a help to him.