Last Saturday saw the first march by an organisation called Pegida on British soil here in Newcastle.
Pegida started as a German movement, whose name may be translated as ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’. Its leaders deny that they are far-right or anti-Islamic.
In Germany, marches have involved 10,000 people and more, and numbers have also marched in the Czech Republic, Denmark and Norway.
Related groups have formed in European countries such as Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and now the UK.
It is hardly surprising that such a movement has surfaced. A 2011 Ipsos poll over nine European countries showed that over half of most populations expressed anxiety over the consequences of Muslim immigration.
A Pew poll in the same year found that over 50% in four European countries felt that relations between Muslims and Westerners are poor. The rise of Islamic terrorism in France, Denmark, Britain and other European countries has only intensified feelings of unease.
In other words, whatever else we may think of Pegida, we cannot deny that they express legitimate political concerns and a sense that governments are not doing enough to control a situation which is getting out of hand.
But Pegida runs a risk of providing a platform for far-right racists, as happened with the English Defence League (EDL), whose rank and file came from football hooligans, the BNF, and assorted racist extremists. Its own leader, Tommy Robinson, left the group out of fears of far-right involvement. Pegida will have a long way to go before they can establish their credentials as a moderate political movement.
Against the 400 or so Pegida marchers on Saturday stood a second march made up of between 1,000 to 2,000 opponents of the German-inspired movement. Judging by some of the speakers at this event, it would seem that opposition to Pegida was inspired by far-left activists.
Where do honest Geordies go to sort out the best direction to follow in all this?
We don’t want hard right racists and Islamophobes in our city, but no more do we want anti-Semites and supporters of Islamic terrorist groups.
Might Newcastle not become some sort of centre for wise, informed, and open debate about Muslim integration and public understanding?
We have two universities, might they not cooperate to create a centre for intelligent dialogue on issues that concern politicians, churches, Muslim communities, and members of the public who feel worried by the current state of play?
A balanced debate would recognise that Islam must be open to criticism as much as any other religion, ideology, or expression of secular values.
Not all Muslims are extremists, but the Qur’an, the Traditions, and books of shari’a law all contain injunctions to violence.
Progressive and reformist Muslims want to put all that behind them, and we non-Muslims must help them instead of bowing to their conservative opponents.
I have known and studied Islam for 50 years, I have lived in two Muslim countries (Iran and Morocco), I speak Persian and Arabic, and I have a deep admiration for Islamic culture.
Most people know next to nothing about Islam, and it is from such ignorance that movements like the EDL and Pegida emerge.
But most politicians and church leaders are equally ignorant of Islam and out of that ignorance comes a knee-jerk defence of Islam and a refusal to admit that it can be open to criticism or that some Muslims refuse to integrate, or call for the application of shari’a law in the UK, or support terrorist groups through some Islamic charities (something now being revealed).
Between these extremes we need to find a middle path that rejects right-wing hatred for Muslims and left-wing attempts to blame Islamic extremism on our police, security services and government bodies. Newcastle is well-placed to carry out that role. Who will step up to the challenge? Our civic leaders or a grass-roots initiative?