Controversy builds ahead of anti-Islamisation Pegida protest in Newcastle

Pegida has spread across Europe, although the counter-protests have attracted even greater numbers.Reuters

An anti-Islamisation 'Pegida' march due to be held in Newcastle later this month has attracted protests and counter-protests as controversial MP George Galloway has said he will join the demonstration against Pegida.

Pegida (which in German stands for 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West') began regular protests in Dresden, East Germany in October. The peaceful marches grew from a few hundred people to tens of thousands within a matter of weeks.

They claim to want to protect the country's Judeo-Christian heritage, though numerous Christian groups have condemned Pegida, and counter-demonstrations with a pro-immigration message have attracted even larger numbers across Germany. This week's Pegida march in Dresden only attracted about 2,000 people, suggesting that enthusiasm is waning.

Galloway, the Respect Party MP for Bradford West, last week called on the Home Secretary to ban the Newcastle march scheduled for February 28, and said that he would attend a counter-demonstration if it went ahead.

"Freedom of speech has its limits," Galloway told the Newcastle Chronicle. "I can't shout 'fire' in a crowded cinema, no one can racially abuse or threaten another person without legal consequences. So I don't accept that Pegida, an openly racist party from abroad, has the right to spew hatred on our streets.

"I know that the police have only limited powers to stop these marches but the Home Secretary has the power to nip this in the bud by banning these knuckle-dragging thugs from the streets of Newcastle and elsewhere in the country," Galloway said.

The counter demonstration has been organised by Newcastle Unites, a multicultural group that has also protested against the far-right English Defence League.

But some are protesting the Bradford MP's involvement in the anti-Pegida demonstration. Two students wrote an open letter saying that they were concerned about how Galloway's controversial political views, such as his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, would reflect on the counter-demonstration.

The MP has described the open letter as 'defamatory'. "I'm extremely disappointed that two individuals with their own agenda, in a highly-defamatory letter over which I am taking action, are effectively undermining the opposition to Pegida," Galloway told the Newcastle Chronicle.

Newcastle Unites posted a comment on its Facebook page about Galloway's attendance, saying: "Some may not agree with his politics, or some of his views, however we can't deny that he's been a leading voice against fascism for many years, and in recent years against the rise of Islamophobia.

"He is highly respected by many including many Muslims, so therefore we are proud to announce that George Galloway MP has confirmed that he'll stand united with Newcastle Unites Against Pegida on 28th February."

Pegida has spread to a number of European countries in the past few months, although marches held outside Germany have not received anywhere near as much support. The first protest in Malmö, Sweden on 9 February only attracted around 30 people, with an estimated crowd of 3,000 gathering to protest against Pegida.

More than 15,000 people have 'liked' the Pegida UK Facebook page, and so far 653 people have said they plan to attend the Newcastle rally.