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Anti-Immigrant Rally Draws Thousands In Dresden


Thousands of people gathered in the eastern German city of Dresden today to demonstrate against what they describe as the Islamization of Western Europe. This was the 12th such protest in Dresden in this many weeks. Organizers ignored calls from politicians to cancel the march to ease tensions after last week's deadly attacks by jihadists in Paris. The organizers say the attacks in France show why they are demanding an end to Muslim immigration to Germany. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us now from Dresden. And Soraya, you're there watching the protests? Give us a sense of just how big this anti-immigrant demonstration is.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, last week's numbers were 18,000, and today's at least that much if not more. We don't have official figures yet, but you have to picture a steady, large stream of protesters walking past for more than a half an hour. Their march or their protest involves walking around Dresden and showing their discontent with the state of Islam in Germany.

BLOCK: Well, Dresden has relatively few immigrants compared with other German cities, so why would this anti-immigrant sentiment be more vocal or more visible there where you are?

NELSON: Well, it's interesting because I spoke with a political scientist out tonight who has been doing a survey of the people coming. He says a lot of these people, they're middle-of-the-road - I mean, people identify the organizers of this movement, called PEGIDA, which is basically Patriots Against Islamization of Europe is sort of what it translates to - he says that these are middle-of-the-road people who are responding to PEGIDA's calls, that these are Germans, these are pensioners, these are people who have fear what's happening with the economy, and that they're projecting their concerns on to immigrants, certainly Muslim immigrants in particular, who they feel are not integrating well into the society here. So they're particularly loud here in Dresden, in the eastern part of Germany, where there are more economic concerns and issues, even though they do have fewer immigrants as you point out.

BLOCK: We should note, Soraya, that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today, Islam belongs to Germany. She has said in the past that these anti-immigrant rallies are organized by people who have hatred in their hearts. How do you think popular opinion is lining up on both sides of this issue?

NELSON: Well, certainly her comments today have brought more people out. A number of people I spoke to said that they were here in direct response to that. They were very concerned about those comments. They feel that that is just not true, that Germany is being lost because of Islam. In fact, there was one poster in particular that was interesting of Angela Merkel in a hijab, you know, in a scarf, basically - Islamic scarf. And people here say that the government, and in particular Ms. Merkel, needs to listen to what they're saying, that they are a vocal group. We are the people is what they chant, which sounds unfortunately very much like the sort of thing one heard during the Nazi era.

BLOCK: Does it strike you that that sentiment - the anti-immigrant sentiment and specifically the anti-Islamic sentiment - is being fueled directly by the attacks in Paris?

NELSON: That is also what brought people out tonight. At first there were some comments made about how the press, you know, has the right to be free. But again, that degenerated pretty quickly into calls and chants of the lying press, so it's - there is sort of a mixed feeling. I mean, Paris was being used as an excuse is what the government was saying. And certainly some of what we heard being spoken tonight on the stage or on the podium before they started marching through Dresden reflects that.

BLOCK: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking with us earlier today from the anti-immigration march in Dresden, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 13, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
Some readers have pointed out that the slogan "We are the People!" mentioned in this story was made famous by pro-democracy demonstrators in Leipzig, the birthplace of East Germany's peaceful revolution against the communist government of the time. PEGIDA supporters use the slogan because they feel the Berlin government today is ignoring their views just like the communists did then. Our correspondent says she should have included that information but that it was important to point out the phrase is also associated with Nazi propaganda from the 1930s — specifically a phrase used by philosopher Martin Heidegger. Given the demands by protesters that non-ethnic Germans there assimilate or be banned from Germany altogether, opponents of PEGIDA have criticized its appropriation of the "We are the People!" phrase.
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.