When I was four years old, I clearly remember members of the National Front and Combat 18 attacking my parents' place of business in North London. It wasn't the first time the men had attacked us, so this time my family had an idea of what to expect. My aunt hid me in the backroom under the table. "Don't come out," she said, leaving me there alone in the dark, until the police finally arrived after what seemed like an eternity. While waiting, I could hear the attack. Raised voices, jumping over counters and the banging and clanging of falling items. I remember what they wore, what they always wore, blue jeans, black t-shirts with skulls on them, and green bomber jackets. Forever more, I always feel a pang of anxiety whenever I see a white man wearing a green bomber jacket.
I felt similar pangs of anxiety upon hearing that Pegida, a virulently anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and xenophobic movement, who originated in Dresden Germany, were planning to march here in Great Britain, in Newcastle. Pegida is a German acronym for "patriotic Europeans against the Islamicisation of the Occident." Late last year thousands of Germans joined their protests in Dresden, causing outrage by calling for "the preservation of Judeo-Christian Western culture" against what they claimed to be "radicalism," but which was actually a barely disguised euphemism for Muslims and asylum seekers. They also called for the immediate deportation of asylum seekers with criminal convictions.
The rise of Pegida has shaken much of Germany, but it has been heartwarming to see the reaction it has prompted from German chancellor Angela Merkel, who stated that Pegida have "hatred in their hearts" and that "Islam is part of Germany." She also undertook to march in a protest organised by Muslim groups in Berlin in January. Other leading German politicians have condemned Pegida's leaders as "Nazis in pinstripes." However, since January the Pegida movement has attempted to its expand its overtly xenophobic messages across Europe, with significantly smaller demonstrations in Norway, Spain and Belgium, to name a few.
It is clear that Pegida supporters are bigoted, and that their chief interest is in spreading hatred towards immigrants and asylum seekers, especially those who are Muslim. And they painfully remind me of the thugs of Combat 18 and the National Front, who attacked my parents' business just because of the colour of their skin. Only now, the racism has evolved from targeting groups of people on the basis of the colour of their skin, to also targeting communities on the basis of their faith and heritage.
This Saturday will see the first Pegida march in the UK, and I am not the only who feels apprehension at the arrival of the such a movement. I spoke to a dentist and parent, from Newcastle, who shares my anxiety. She told me:
"I'm genuinely upset at the prospect of a Pegida march in my current home city. But apart from that I was also hurt and disappointed to think that such an organisation could think they'd get enough support to hold a march in Newcastle. I don't like to admit it, but it makes me feel threatened and anxious. On the flip side, I'm incredibly appreciative of the efforts being made by Newcastle Unites - that's the Geordie spirit I know and have grown to love."
Thankfully, it seems on Saturday there will be more counter-demonstrators organised by 'Newcastle Unites', than actual Pegida supporters. However, according to Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate, the small numbers of Pegida protestors will contain mostly thugs.
"The march is going to attract a rag tag bunch of racists, nazis and Islamophobes, including the thugs from the Infidels and South East Alliance - splinter groups from the EDL - and far right politicians, such as BNP leader Adam Walker and former BNP leader Nick Griffin," he told me. "The racists and fascists are latching on to this march to stir up hatred and spread division."
So why is it important to speak up against Pegida and their bigotry? Is it not better, perhaps, to ignore them? I put this question to Councillor David Stockdale, Newcastle City Council's Labour ward member for Blakelaw, and he said:
"Newcastle is a friendly, tolerant and inclusive city of sanctuary. We thrive on the diversity of our communities which make our city one of the truly great cities of the world. We have a proud history of standing up to intolerance and hate and to groups like Pegida who seek to do harm to our Muslim sisters and brothers. Pegida paint a brutal misrepresentation of Islam. It's important to stand up to that and for me as a non-Muslim it's important to speak out against Pegida's twisted prejudice. The Newcastle Unites counter-demonstration will show Newcastle at its best. Islamophobia targets Muslims but it hurts us all and I'm so proud of how our wonderful city has come together to march in peace and solidarity against Pegida and everything they stand for."
As a child, I experienced directly the violent consequences of prejudice and hatred, and understand all too well the serious effects of keeping silent in the face of bigotry. So I stand united with the people of Newcastle who are coming together positively to show that there is no place for Pegida on the streets of Great Britain.