Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

German Muslims speak in face of anti-immigrant movement

The intensifying anti-Islamic rallies in Germany has the Muslim community wondering what it takes to be a ‘real’ German

DRESDEN, Germany — With no signs or religious symbols on its façade, the four-story building on the outskirts of Dresden appears to be just another residential apartment. But it’s not. A short walk through a narrow alley leads to the building’s backyard, where a door is revealed and a sign reads, in German and Arabic, "Islamic Center Dresden."

"We know that for some people this sign is provocative, and we don't want to provoke them. This is why we put it in the back," said Ahmed Aslaoui, the deputy chairman of Islamic Center Dresden, a nonprofit organization whose facility serves as a mosque and meeting place for the city’s Muslim community.

"If the sign would be out front, I think some bad feelings might come up. We don't want the situation to get worse," he said.

The situation to which he referred is the growing popularity of a Dresden-based grass-roots movement, Patriotische Europäer Gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West), or PEGIDA.

In the past few weeks, PEGIDA’s Monday evening demonstrations have drawn thousands of Germans, some of whom arrived in Dresden from across the country to protest against the dangers of Islamic ideology and for "the right to preserve and protect our Christian-Jewish dominated West culture," among other goals, according to the group. While its mission statement opposes preaching hate and radicalism, no matter the religion, the name the movement chose and the slogans that have appeared in its protests target one religion only.

For the 4.3 million people of Muslim background living in Germany — 5 percent of the population — the rise of PEGIDA is a worrying development. Aslaoui said PEGIDA is growing like a snowball going downhill, and he fears what it might lead to.

‘I have spent more time here than in my home country. Of course I feel German. I came young, and I became old here.’

Boualem Maiza

Algerian émigré who moved to Germany 27 years ago

Aslaoui went to Dresden from Algeria in 1992 as a university student, graduated and married a German-born woman. He speaks fluent German, and during the key showdown between the two countries at soccer's 2014 World Cup, Aslaoui's two teenage kids rooted for the German team, not Algeria’s.

His biggest concern is that anti-Muslim sentiments will eventually turn violent, as has happened recently in France. There were 17 assaults of Muslim targets in the days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, according to Tell Mama, a U.K.-based group tracking anti-Muslim attacks.

Dresden's Muslims have not faced violence, but racism and xenophobia are as palpable as ever, according to Aslaoui. At least one anonymous threat was phoned into the Islamic Center after the Paris killings, and the principal at Aslaoui’s 11-year-old daughter's school asked immigrant parents to escort their children home from school on Mondays. 

Not a ‘real’ German

Armeghan Taheri says Germany’s “subtle racism” prompts the question of “who can claim German identity and who cannot.”
Yermi Brenner

The tension is not confined to Dresden and did not begin with PEGIDA.

One-third of Germans have an unfavorable view of Muslims in Germany, according to a Pew Research Center survey from May 2014. A more recent survey by opinion polling firm Forsa for Germany's Stern magazine found that 13 percent of Germans said they would join an anti-Muslim march if one took place nearby.

"A lot of people are seeing Islam as responsible for the actions in Syria or in Iraq or in other parts of the world," said Sadiqu al-Mousllie of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, an umbrella group for nonprofit organizations working with Muslim communities. "In the last year, more than before, we always have to defend Islam as a religion."

Mousllie, 43, was born in Syria, was raised in Kuwait and has been living in Germany for a quarter of a century. His home is in the city of Braunchweig, roughly 200 miles northwest of Dresden. He said he went to Germany at a young age and has learned to love the country and feel like one of the German people.

"As a doctor, for example, when I receive my patients, we are not thinking about being German or being Muslim or whatever,” said Mousllie, who has his own clinic. “We are just talking very professionally. Nationality and religion are not playing any role."

However, he believes that when he interacts with people outside his clinic, most Germans view him as a Muslim rather than German.

Even worse, he recalled how his 9-year-old son returned from school shocked one day because classmates said he was not a "real" German because of his heritage. In the past few weeks, Mousllie has talked with his two eldest children about PEGIDA to make it easier for them to have answers for classmates’ ongoing questions about Islam.

‘Subtle racism’

Ignorance about Islam is familiar to Armeghan Taheri, 25, a Berlin resident who grew up in the much less cosmopolitan city of Aachen, near Germany’s border with Belgium.

Her family fled Afghanistan when she was a child and sought refuge in Germany, and she feels that other Germans often classify her as a Muslim or a migrant rather than an equal member of society.

"There is a big problem in Germany with subtle racism, and a lot of it has to do who can claim German identity and who cannot," said Taheri, who recently completed a law degree.

"It starts with little things, like people still asking me, 'Where are you from?' They hear my perfect German — German is obviously my second mother tongue, so I speak it perfectly. I went to school here. I graduated here. But people still ask me, 'Where are you from?'"

She emphasized that there are many Germans who are welcoming and do not alienate migrants. Her partner is German as are many of her close friends and the people she collaborates with in Berlin’s human rights community.

But a significant portion of her fellow citizens, she said, have not come to terms with the fact that migrants are here to stay and need to be considered part of the society and the national identity.

Like many Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany, Taheri took part in demonstrations against PEGIDA. She went because she is afraid that Muslims and migrants in general are being turned into scapegoats in German society.

Response to migrant boom

Qamar Hussain, originally from Pakistan, applied for asylum in Germany in June and is living in a refugee accommodation in Berlin while his request is being reviewed.
Yermi Brenner

Germany is experiencing an influx of more migrants than at any other time since the 1990s. In the first 10 months of 2014, 158,080 people applied for asylum in Germany — a 56.6 percent increase compared with the same period in 2013.

It has taken in more asylum seekers than any other European country, including many refugees from war-torn predominantly Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. An additional 30,000 Syrians have been resettled in Germany through humanitarian admission programs.

Seeing mass anti-Muslim marches on Germany’s streets has come as a shock for some of these newcomers. "I see these kind of protests, and of course I am afraid," said Qamar Hussain, a refugee from Pakistan who is Shia and fled "because of the hate and attacks against minorities."

"I really don't want to have these things here,” he said.

Hussain considers himself a religious person and has so far felt comfortable being a Muslim in Germany. He said he is very impressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's response to the PEGIDA protests. She has urged Germans to shun the anti-Muslim protesters, saying their hearts are full of hatred.

Germans have responded to PEGIDA on a grass-roots level as well. Demonstrations against PEGIDA drew thousands of people in cities throughout the country. 

"Ninety percent of the Germans are very good," said Boualem Maiza, who emigrated from Algeria 27 years ago. He lives in Meissen, a small town just outside Dresden, is married to a German woman and feels integrated in society. "I have spent more time here than in my home country. Of course I feel German. I came young and I became old here."

But he is worried about the future of Muslims in the country, especially after the events in France. On the first Monday after the Paris attacks, the PEGIDA protest drew record crowds of some 40,000 Germans.

Maiza and other Muslims in Dresden and throughout Germany anxiously wait to see where the PEGIDA snowball is going.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Qamar Hussain's country of origin.

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