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World

Anti-Muslim Rallies Grow In Germany

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Some 18,000 people in the East German city of Dresden took the streets yesterday protesting against what they call the Islamization of Europe. They chanted, we are the people. The group has been protesting every week since October, but yesterday's rally was the largest so far. It provoked counter-protests in Berlin, Homburg, Cologne and Stuttgart. And in her New Year's Day address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SIEGEL: She said, don't follow their call because mostly what they have in their hearts is prejudice, coldness and even hatred. Germany does take in more refugees and asylum-seekers than any other country in Europe. Melanie Amann is a reporter and editor with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and joins us from Berlin. Welcome to the program.

MELANIE AMANN: Thank you, Robert. It's good to talk to you.

SIEGEL: And, first of all, who are these protesters in Dresden, and what do they want?

AMANN: Well, it's hard to put just one face on them. They are such a diverse group. They have all kinds of people from all kinds of age groups and different layers of society. I mean, there are 18,000 people after all. You find average citizens, teachers, salespeople, people sitting at a cash desk in small stores. It's very, very different people.

SIEGEL: And what do they mean when they talk about the Islamization of Germany or Europe, which seems to upset them so much?

AMANN: Well, you really have to ask them that because there are hardly any Muslims, and especially in Saxony where the main protests are taking place. Those protesters, they are worried that extremist Muslims might take over in Germany. In whichever way, they might influence our cultural life. They might ask for women not to wear miniskirts in public, for children not to eat pork in public schools where they have lunch. And they are worried that all of the German society - our cultural life might be influenced by Islamic extremists, and they might even take over our political system.

SIEGEL: It seems as though the German political establishment and big institutions - the Cathedral in Cologne, Volkswagen - have all joined in counter actions against these protesters. Were the elites and was the government leadership taken by surprise by the rise of this anti-Muslim movement?

AMANN: Yes, I believe they were taken by surprise. I mean, these protests have been going on since late October. And only, I would say, about a month ago have we all, one must say, really woken up to it and realized that it's a big movement in Dresden. And so, at first, politicians didn't really know how to deal with it. And at first, they were open and understanding towards these people. They were saying, we have to deal with their fears. We have to find out what their fears are and face them and talk to them. But this - recently, this is changing. There's - you mentioned the chancellor's speech early on in the program. And she has used quite harsh words against the organizers. So I have a feeling the tide is turning.

SIEGEL: Whenever there is any kind of racial protest in Germany or some movement that is anti-immigrant or whatever, it gets a tremendous amount of attention, even if it represents a very small share of what a comparable movement in France, say, might get at the polls every year. People are very sensitive about Germany for that reason, some would say overly so.

AMANN: Well, I think we cannot argue that, considering our past, that we still have responsibility to deal with these topics sensitively. And we have to be - we just have to be careful how we discuss these topics. And this is also part of what annoys the protesters. There's a huge group of them who say, like, I want to say what I think. I want to be able to say that Muslims - that I don't like Muslims. And I don't want to be called a Nazi just because I'm - I think that we take on too many refugees. I mean, this is a feeling that's against the media, against politicians and against the foreign press, too.

SIEGEL: You thank you very much. That's Melanie Amann, a reporter and editor for Der Spiegel, speaking to us from Berlin. Thanks.

AMANN: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.