This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Not so long ago I stood on the steps of Cologne Cathedral in Germany and experienced the poignancy of being somewhere that had in recent history endured dreadful human suffering. The city was bombed to bits during the Second World War. It is now well known that the enormous Cathedral only survived Allied bombing because it served as a navigation beacon for pilots. But, when the cathedral switched off its lights earlier this week, it was intended to question a different set of bearings and offer a different moral compass.
Cologne is one of the cities to have seen growing protests against what is called the “Islamisation of the West”. What began as a small demonstration by a couple of hundred from the east German right wing has grown into marches of up to 18,000 people. And the majority of these people can’t be brushed off as wild neo-Nazis, although such people are deeply involved in shaping and leading the protests. Known as Pegida, this movement has provoked counter-demonstrations and serious critical comment by leading political and public figures, including Angela Merkel in her New Year address.
What is challenging about this phenomenon is how irrational some of the comment by protesters has been. According to some, all Muslims are to be seen as a threat to the blonde daughters of civilised Germans. In language that will sound familiar on this side of the Channel, Germany is being swamped by Muslims – despite clear evidence in some of these places that the numbers of Muslims is very low.
Why is it that in such matters perception is so much more powerful than reality? And why is it that the fires of fear are so easy to stoke when people generally begin to feel a bit insecure economically – or that we often feel the need to turn inward and focus our fear or resentment on the ‘outsider’?
This is not to question the power of perception or the need for proper (and informed) debates about immigration and culture – at every level and from political leaders. But, it is to dig beneath the presenting rationalization for such protests and ask if all is what it seems to be – or what we would like it to be. Genuine motivation is not always immediately obvious, especially where fear or discomfort are concerned.
And these aren’t exactly new questions either, are they? Read the Bible and you find ethnic cleansing, dreadful brutality and fear of those who are different. Yet, read the same Bible and you get injunctions to welcome the outsider, give hospitality to the asylum-seeker, feed the hungry, love the enemy as well as the neighbour, and drop the fear. And the message is clear: we have a choice how to behave: be driven by fear and insecurity into suspicion and hatred of the other, or take the risk of dancing to a different tune.