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Dresden Anti-Immigration Protests Cause Tension In Muslim Community


And I'm joined now by my colleague Audie Cornish, who's been reporting this week on Muslims in Western Europe. Audie, hi.


Hey there, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you started this week in London. You went on to Paris and Berlin. You're ending the week in the eastern German city of Dresden. Why there?

CORNISH: Well, Dresden is a good example of a place where Muslims were being talked about but not actually heard from. And throughout the week, we've tried to visit with communities that found themselves at the center of national debate, say, the poor communities in the suburbs of France or the tech-savvy youth in London.

Now, in Germany, it's not the threat of terror attacks that's driven talk about Muslims, but immigration and asylum seekers. In October, a movement began in the eastern German city of Dresden called PEGIDA, a group opposed to Muslim immigration. And by December, upwards of 25,000 people were marching in these protests against the so-called Islamization of Europe, even though Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the population of Dresden.

BLOCK: Yeah. And we heard a number of reports on those demonstrations on the program. We heard German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking out against the marches. And also, we heard about counter-demonstrations. Has this all died down?

CORNISH: Yes, you're right. I mean, the response from the German chancellor was blunt, you know, saying that the protesters have hatred in their hearts. And the PEGIDA leadership has basically imploded. These were such large counter-protests that many Germans say, you know, this was not reflective of the country as a whole. But at the height of those protests, you know, there were thousands of people marching around Dresden with anti-Muslim signs that said things like the Quran equals hate and violence or deport Alibaba and the 40 thieves.

For Muslims who live there, they were really shaken by it. So today I'm going to take you to the Marwa El-Sherbini Mosque. It's not far from the city center of Dresden. And unlike the East London Mosque we visited at the start of the week, which serves thousands of people, this is a small, makeshift, like, concrete block of a building.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Could you find the place easily?

CORNISH: And it's where I meet some of the Muslims who worship there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So I'm sorry to take off the shoes, but it is everywhere like that.

CORNISH: Dresden has a tiny Muslim community. Quite a few were drawn to study at one of the city's leading science universities. This mosque is kind of a home for them.


CORNISH: I spoke to Alaa Shahin. She's Palestinian and a 26-year-old engineering student. She wears a headscarf. Today, it's patterned with bright pink flowers. She told me Dresden's Muslim community was on edge as the PEGIDA protesters began their weekly marches.

ALAA SHAHIN: I was feeling afraid to stay outside the house more than 5 o'clock because the sun set at that time. So if I want to be late, I put a winter hat and I covered my hijab, so by this way, I can walk in the street as invisible person (laughter) because really I feel that OK, I'm free now.

CORNISH: When you wear a winter hat you feel free.

SHAHIN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

CORNISH: Sitting next to Ala is Magdy Khaleel. He's 46 and Egyptian. He teaches architecture at the Technical University of Dresden. He says the fear of the protesters was very real.

MAGDY KHALEEL: We have families here and some people have been attacked, so we are a little bit worried. When you are sitting, you don't know who is with you in the metro or in the tram. You don't know he's with PEGIDA or against PEGIDA, so this has increased the feeling among people - so I should be careful, maybe he stab me. This is not comfortable life, you know? But we found some solidarity from different communities here in Dresden as well.

CORNISH: Let's talk about that more because there were counter-demonstrations. You had the chancellor speaking out. But on a personal level for you, talk about that solidarity. What form did that take? What happened?

KHALEEL: Yeah, once these PEGIDA started their demonstration every week, our colleagues say we are sorry. Please don't think that all people who live in Dresden like this. We are different. We're really happy that you are here. And one day, I found one guy - he came to me. He doesn't even know me. And he hugged me and say please, I'm really sorry. I don't know him...

CORNISH: Wait, so a stranger...

KHALEEL: Yes, yes...

CORNISH: ...Hugged you and apologized...

KHALEEL: Yes, exactly.

CORNISH: ...Even though he...

KHALEEL: Doesn't know me. He doesn't know me, but he's German. He said I'm German and really I'm sorry for this and please don't be angry. And I said it's OK, man. This is enough for me.


CORNISH: Back in the center of town where the bells of the old churches of Dresden ring out every hour, I meet Khaldun al-Saadi. He's 24, a student of Arabic studies and is kind of a professional Muslim. He's part of a government-funded group called The Young Islam Council. He speaks at conferences and gives interviews. His father is from Yemen. His mother is German. Al-Saadi says it's frustrating that German Muslims like him have to atone for ISIS and al-Qaida. But then I ask him if extremism is a problem that Muslims do have to confront.

KHALDUN AL-SAADI: Definitely. I'm from - you know, my father's from Yemen, so what we see there is horrible. You have al-Qaida terrorists, you have a corrupt regime. I mean, we are absolutely talking about this because this is our actual reality. Our family is there in this place and they are afraid and they are frightened. And then we have to defend ourselves while we are not supporting al-Qaida terrorisms.

CORNISH: You have to defend yourself - you mean here in Germany you have to...

AL-SAADI: Yeah. Here in Germany you have to defend yourself why - I mean, even my brother, who's 15, he had to tell people why he's not a terrorist in school. I mean, what's that?

CORNISH: You obviously are spending a good amount of your life committed to this issue and having these discussions about your community. But I mean, what do you see as your future here in Germany? I mean, do you ever question it when things get difficult?

AL-SAADI: I personally believe that as a Muslim, you definitely can be German, of course. And what I hope is that a lot of Muslims don't have to get involved in all those discourses and debates that I have. I really hope for my siblings that they can be doctors, engineers, whatever and be normal citizens. If not, maybe I have to leave. I don't want this because this is - this is my home.

CORNISH: That was 24-year-old student Khaldun al-Saadi of Dresden.

BLOCK: And Audie, that notion that he just raised of maybe having to leave his home in Germany - that echoes something that we've been hearing throughout your stories this week.

CORNISH: Right. People are talking a lot about this idea of belonging. And the more that Muslims are being talked about as having fundamentally different values from the European countries in which they live or asked about their loyalties, the more they question do I belong? Should I stay? And that's not what the governments of these countries want, right?

They fear the radicalization of Muslim youth. They're already worried about young people being recruited online by radical Islamists to be foreign fighters or brides for ISIS. What these governments want is a generation of French, of British, of German Muslims who have reconciled their faith with the norms and ideals of these secular countries. And you can't do that if these people are driven away.

BLOCK: That's my co-host Audie Cornish wrapping up her week of reporting on Muslims in Western Europe. Audie, thanks so much and look forward to seeing you back here next week.

CORNISH: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Audie's series on Muslims in Western Europe was produced by Craig Dickson and Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.