It began with a prayer, chanted in Arabic, the words floating out over a crowd of more than 10,000 people gathered at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate. It ended with representatives of Germany’s major religious faiths linking arms together with the country’s top political leadership in a defiant show of unity.
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The symbolism was stark, showing Islam is a part of Germany and that efforts to sow division in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris last week will not succeed.
Tuesday night’s vigil in the German capital, organized by Muslim groups and attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is part of a nascent battle to shape public perception in Europe following last week’s violence in France.
At stake is the ultimate legacy of the Paris attacks: Will they end up strengthening right-wing parties who warn of the dangers of Islam and immigration? Or will they help to cement a consensus in favour of tolerance and diversity?
The German government, with Ms. Merkel in the lead, is making a strong bid for the latter outcome. It’s a task complicated by the presence of a new anti-Islam, anti-immigration group, which drew a record number of people to a rally on Monday in Dresden.
Usually known as a cautious, even prevaricating leader, Ms. Merkel has been decisive and unambiguous in her support for German Muslims in the days since Islamist extremists killed a total of 17 people across Paris.
“Xenophobia, racism and extremism have no place in this country,” she said earlier on Tuesday. “We are a country based on democracy, tolerance and openness to the world.”
Joachim Gauck, Germany’s President, took up the message at Tuesday night’s vigil. “The terrorists want to drive us apart, but they have achieved the opposite,” he said, prompting applause.
For many of those in attendance, the event was welcome reassurance. Rebea and Aeisha, two sisters born in Berlin and of Pakistani descent, came to the vigil with their mother and carried a sign bearing the words “not in my name.”
“We thought we should be here to show that we are not the people who made these attacks,” said Rebea, 22, who preferred not to share her last name. She praised Ms. Merkel’s strong statements, which she felt provided a sense of security in the face of a possible backlash against German Muslims. “We were scared and worried, but now we are not.”
The resolve on display on Tuesday was comforting, said Ilan Ben-Shalom, 59, a dentist who has lived in Berlin for more than 40 years. “I’m a Jew, that’s why I’m here,” he said. “It makes me happy to know that in a moment like this people are all united.” But he also wondered whether the feeling of togetherness would last, or whether it would dissipate as the Paris attacks recede into the past.
Others echoed those doubts. Political leaders are “of course saying they’re against divisions, but the question is what will happen going forward,” said Shermin Langhoff, a theatre director who attended the vigil. “It’s the marathon of democracy.”
The vigil featured remarks from leaders of Germany’s Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as speeches by a Catholic archbishop and the mayor of Berlin. “The terrorists have not won and will not win,” said Aiman Mayzek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.
The event took place a day after a record number of people – 25,000 – attended an anti-Islam, anti-immigration rally in Dresden. Such rallies began in October under the banner of a previously unknown group called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA in German.
The group’s protesters swelled in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, but so too did the ranks of counterprotesters across the country. On Monday night, more than 90,000 people across Germany came together to reject PEGIDA and xenophobia.
Ms. Merkel has urged Germans not to attend the PEGIDA rallies, saying the group’s leaders were “full of coldness, prejudice, even hatred.” More recently, she reasserted the country’s multicultural fabric. “Islam is part of Germany,” she said on Monday. “I’m the chancellor of all Germans and this includes all who live here permanently, regardless of where they come from.”
Muslims currently make up about 6 per cent of Germany’s population, with higher percentages in the former West Germany than the former East. Still, surveys show a broad sense of discomfort: 57 per cent of non-Muslim Germans believe that Islam is a threat, and 61 per cent believe that Islam is incompatible with the Western world, according to a recent poll by the Bertelsmann Foundation.
It’s exactly those beliefs that Rebea and Aeisha, the two sisters at Tuesday’s vigil, intended to counter with their presence at the demonstration. “We are a part of Germany, we are a part of society – we are not going to sit at home and do nothing,” said Rebea.
“We want to show that our religion is peaceful,” added Aeisha, gesturing toward the podium. “If our Prophet were here, he would be there first person to stand up on that stage.”