Category: Middle East Conflict

Dresden university sheltered migrants despite hostile anti-Muslim sentiments

Dresden – It is not always easy to welcome migrants, especially from war-torn, Muslim-majority countries, in a stronghold city of Germany’s xenophobic movement.

“It’s a difficult situation. We have a minority of people who are against refugees, but a very loud one. That’s part of the reality,” Hans Georg Krauthäuser, the vice rector for academic and international affairs at Dresden University of Technology (TUD) told a group of international journalists that the German Academic Research Service (DAAD) facilitated to tour around the university campus earlier this year.

The capital of eastern German state of Saxony, Dresden is home to the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym Pegida. The anti-immigration and anti-Islam movement held its rallies every Monday since October 2014 in the square called Theatherplatz in front of the Semperoper, Dresden’s historic opera house. At most, the rallies gathered roughly 20,000 protesters, according to media reports.

“This is not good for an international city of science like Dresden,” Krauthäuser added.

After all, Dresden hosts dozens of research facilities and institutions with a roster of international researchers. They are run by all four major German research organizations; the Helmholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association and Europe’s largest organization for application-oriented research, the Fraunhofer Society. Together with TUD as one of the top technical universities in Germany, they make Dresden as one of the three hotspots in the eastern German research and innovation system along with Jena and Berlin.

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The communication acoustics lab of Dresden University of Technology. Photo copyright: DAAD/Robert Lohse

Michael Fristch, chair of business dynamics, innovation and economic change at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in neighboring state of Thuringia, acknowledged that East Germany may not be very friendly to foreigners.

“It’s a legacy of the socialist system,” he said.

However, it didn’t stop TUD to launch a refugee aid program that started in August 2015 by setting up three refugee camps on its campus. Managed by the German Red Cross, the camps hosted a total of 1,220 residents from August to October 2015. By March, the program hosted 300 almost all-male residents, with 66 percent of whom were from Iraq and Syria.

According to Eurocities, the network of major European cities, Dresden welcomed 5,500 people from crisis areas by October 2015. But in contrast to Pegida’s strong sentiments against migrants, the city administration welcomed them with open arms.

In a statement provided to Eurocities website, Dresden mayor Dirk Hilbert said the city wanted to welcome asylum seekers professionally and socially with good-structured programs to avoid them feeling of being sidelined.

TUD picked up the speed to integrate them by organizing activities such as German language courses, winter clothes collections or additional security service, with the help of 600 registered volunteers including students.

For teaching in the language courses, students can get credit points similar to those they would get from an internship, Krauthäuser said.

Tatiana Sandoval-Guzman, a Mexican biologist at the university’s Center for Regenerative Therapies who participated in the program, said they started sewing class for women and kids corner for children.

“We plan to have scientific activities for various age groups of children, despite the language barrier,” she said.

Ulrike Mikolasch, TUD’s refugee aid coordinator said the university offered a limited space for refugees to attend courses free of charge. There were 34 guest students, including 20 from Syria who mostly attended technical and economic studies.

“The main problem is language and other skills that they need to start the course, not the documents,” Krauthäuser said.

Locals also mobilized actions to provide assistance such as introduction to the German language for migrants with the support of more than 80 initiatives. A group of local volunteers were spotted on a spring Friday afternoon teaching German to migrants in a corner of the modern art museum Albertinum near the opera house.

“Integration in the job market or in the education system is one of the most successful ways to integrate into our society. Unemployment, lack of training and no knowledge of the German language have the opposite effect,” Hilbert said.

The city administration and TUD’s efforts to welcome refugees reflected findings of a June 2015 survey by the university that showed most of the locals polled had open attitude towards asylum seekers and only 12 percent agreed with Pegida, while 60.1 percent disagreed. Most of them or 78.6 percent also rejected the idea to prohibit Muslim migrants.

On a larger scale, the first-ever Refugees Welcome Index that global rights group Amnesty International released on May 19 also ranks Germany as the second most welcoming country for refugees after China.

The index was based on people’s willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighborhoods and homes. It surveyed more than 27,000 respondents in 27 countries worldwide, including a national sample of 1,001 respondents in Germany, who were interviewed by phone on February 4-8, 2016 and found that 96 percent Germans said they would accept refugees into their country.

“The survey shows people say they are willing to go to astonishing lengths to make refugees welcome. It also shows how anti-refugee political rhetoric is out of kilter with public opinion,” the report said.

Data from the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, showed Germany has the highest number of first-time asylum applicants registered during the first quarter of 2016, with almost 175,000 applicants or 61 percent of EU’s total. It also had the largest share of pending applicants within the bloc by end of March with 473,000 applicants or 47 percent.

Compared with the population of each member state, Germany had the highest rate of registered applicants during the first quarter 2016, with 2,155 applicants per million inhabitants. The top two countries of the applicants’ citizenship were Syria and Iraq, with 88,515 and 25,550 asylum seekers respectively.

The migrant influx was forecasted to positively impact on the local and regional economy. The EU first assessed the macroeconomic impact on the influx in its autumn 2015 economic forecast released in November last year. It estimated the flow of migrants could boost the region’s gross domestic products of 0.2 to 0.3 percent by 2020 through public spending on matters related to migrant inflows. It expected more positive impact on growth in the medium term when migrants integrate into the labor supply.

The International Monetary Fund said in a May 9 report that Germany could boost its economy if it speeds up structural reforms “by broadening the labor market participation of refugees, women and older workers” and set up new policies as the basis for refugees to integrate into its labor market.

The European Commission’s winter and spring 2016 forecasts also said Germany’s increased public spending to host and integrate asylum seekers would support growth to its moderate economic activity.

But for the university, economic growth was not the reason they welcomed the migrants. TUD’s Krauthäuser said it was understandable migrants who fled wars in their countries wanted to come to “a rich and free country” like Germany.

“If you are a refugee, where would you go? You want to live in peace. It’s quite obvious,” he said.

“We have to help those people just because they need help, not because it is good for the German economy,” Krauthäuser added.

At the heart of Europe, Indonesian oversees a Saudi mosque

Jakarta/Brussels – Syarif Abdullah Alqadrie was driving to work when a bomb went off at Zaventem airport last month. By the time the Indonesian arrived at the Great Mosque of Brussels, where he is an administrator, a second bomb exploded at the Maelbeek metro station. Continue reading “At the heart of Europe, Indonesian oversees a Saudi mosque”

Mixed views on whether Indonesia should join Saudi-led alliance to fight terrorism

Indonesia says it has yet to decide whether to join a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism, as observers weigh in on the merit of taking part in the initiative.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said Indonesia would have to learn the terms of reference and modalities before agreeing to such an international alliance.

“Saudi Arabia can’t show us the terms of reference yet,” Arrmanatha said at a press briefing on Wednesday

“We need to learn the modalities to determine whether they are in line with our foreign policy,” he added.

Hamdan Basyar, a Middle East expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said there should be no harm for Indonesia to join the initiative because of its purpose to combat militant armed groups.

“We should join for the sake of tackling violent groups like ISIS. It would create a sense of togetherness in this cause,” he said.

The head ofthe Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI)’s international relations and cooperation department, Muhyiddin Junaidi, said Indonesia should not join the alliance,  which gathers 34 Muslim and Muslim-majority countries.

He said there were indications that the initiative was meant to target a certain group and given that there are ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is not a member.

Muhyiddin, who also heads the same department in Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, said Indonesia should stick to its free and active foreign policy.

“We should refrain from taking sides in a dispute,” Muhyiddin said, adding that the Indonesian people should also understand that the conflict in the Middle East has nothing to do with Shia and Sunni rivalry.

Hamdan said that the perception that the Middle East conflict stemmed from the Shia and Sunni conflict may have caused Indonesia’s reluctance to join the cooperation.

He added that it would be irrelevant to tie it with the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabis, and this was not the cause why Iran is not included on the list.

“It’s more about jostling for dominance in the Middle East,” Hamdan said.

The Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry said in a press release on 15 December that the 34 Middle Eastern and African countries listed in the statement have decided to form a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism and they would establish an operational center based in Riyadh to coordinate and to fight terrorism.

“More than ten other Islamic countries have expressed their support for this alliance and will take the necessary measures in this regard, including Indonesia,” the statement said.

“We were surprised because the invitation was not to form a military alliance,” Arrmanatha said.

He acknowledged that Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was contacted by her Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir and talked about joint cooperation, but Retno stressed the need for further discussions before Indonesia could  agree on any cooperation.

“I think all countries support efforts to fight extremism though they may have their own ways to do it,” Arrmanatha said.

Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama confronts extremists with Nusantara Islam

Speaking to a Javanese gamelan soundtrack, Muslim cleric Mustofa Bisri implores: “We invite others to join us in launching a mental revolution.” Continue reading “Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama confronts extremists with Nusantara Islam”

In Molenbeek, just hours before the raid and Brussels lockdown

Brussels – It was a 20-minute metro ride from the Schuman station under the European Quarter to what seemed like somewhere in North Africa or Middle East, if not for the names of the streets that suggest the place is still very much part of Brussels.

One of the 19 communes in the Belgian capital of Brussels, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, also known as Molenbeek, has been described by some as the hotbed of Europe’s Islamic radicalism. It was thrown into the international media spotlight after Belgian authorities arrested seven people there over the weekend after the Paris attacks on Friday, 13 November.

Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek's town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek’s town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The spotlight was still evident on the following Friday, 20 November, with the presence of satellite news gathering trucks, camera tripods on standby and groups of journalists taking footage or interviewing people at Molenbeek’s town square, just a few metres away from the metro station exit.

Molenbeek is a 5.9-square-kilometre area with about 95,000 inhabitants as of January, according to Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis (BISA). Muslims make up 25 percent of Brussels’ roughly one million population and parts of Molenbeek have a Muslim population of 80 percent, mostly of Moroccan origin.

The shops have Arabic signage and names. Many of them were closed, probably because it was almost noon and the obligatory Friday prayer for Muslim men was approaching. The streets were quiet during the 15-minute walk from the town square to one of Brussels’ biggest mosques, Al Khalil.

It wasn’t easy to find it without a minaret or a wide, arched front entrance usually seen in a mosque, but a butcher from a nearby halal meat shop told The Parrot that the mosque was right across a white van that was parked on Rue Delaunoy.

A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Even with such a clear direction the mosque seemed nowhere to be seen. The building across the white van looks more like a garage workshop and the only readable sign shows that the adjacent open space is a parking lot. But a notice posted on the building’s sliding doors confirmed that it was Al Khalil Mosque.

The notice was a press release from the biggest Muslim institution in Belgium Ligue d’Entraide Islamique or Islamic Mutual Aid League that runs the mosque, condemning the Paris attacks.

“Our humanity and our religious beliefs require us to firmly and absolutely disapprove these practices that have disturbed public order and prevailing peace in our societies,” the league said in the statement.

A quick look inside the building showed that Friday prayer preparation was underway and soon a man, seemed on alert that two strangers were curiously peeking into the building, came out to ask us what we wanted.

“If you want to meet and interview the Imam, please come back in one and a half hour when the Friday prayer begins,” he told The Parrot and a fellow Indonesian journalist.

But we were not the only journalists seeking to meet the Imam. Journalists from a Hungarian news outlet and Belgium’s French-language broadcaster RTBF were also there to interview him, to whom the man told the same thing.

There were also more journalists, whom we saw at the town square earlier, at a local deli where we had lunch.

Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

When we returned to the mosque, the man greeted us again at the door and invited my male colleague into the mosque.

“But you, madame, please go to the ladies’ prayer room through that door over there,” he told The Parrot.

He went inside the building with my colleague but quickly reappeared and approached me.

“Alright, you can go inside but you have to cover your hair first,” he said.

The mosque management seemed prepared that the media circus was coming as the man handed out the press release that was posted on the door and told us to go to a designated corner behind the hundreds of worshippers. At least 20 male journalists had already gathered in the corner on standby with their tripods and cameras.

“After the prayer, the Imam will meet you here. He will give a statement and you can ask him questions,” the man told journalists in the mosque.

The Friday prayer started with the Imam, Mustafa Kastit, reading out the press release.

“No reason nor devotion can justify those cruel acts,” he said of the Paris attacks that happened a month ago.

“Islam is a religion which advocates a society of coexistence based on respect and dignity for each and everyone,” he said and proceeded to deliver his sermon in Arab first and then French.

Mustafa said in his sermon that he addressed it to his friends, fellow Muslims and society in general. He also spoke about the need to have equal employment opportunity for local Muslims.

Moleenbeek had 53.2 percent female unemployment rate was while male unemployment was 28.6 percent, according to BISA.

The town square of Brussels' Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
The town square of Brussels’ Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Mustafa also condemned the terror attacks in Paris, saying “terrorists don’t have nationalities, [skin] colors and don’t have religions.”

After the prayer, another preacher delivered another sermon and by the time we got to meet Mustafa, after his interview with RTBF, the mosque’s muezzin was calling for Asr prayer. Mustafa said he would see us after the prayer but due to time constraint, we could not wait that long and had to leave Molenbeek.

Media reports said on that Friday evening, Belgian police raided an apartment building in Molenbeek’s Rue Jean-Baptiste Decock, which is about 400 meters from Rue Delaunoy where the mosque is located, in search of one of the Paris attackers Salah Abdeslam. They didn’t find him but found weapons in one of the apartments. A few hours laters, authorities raised security alert to a maximum level in the Belgian capital, which prompted the Brussels lockdown for several days.

Authorities trying to talk Aceh rebels out of joining Islamic State

Authorities are trying to dissuade former combatants of Free Aceh Movements (GAM) from their desire to join the Islamic State group, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism chief has said.

Local media reported this week that Fakhruddin Bin Kaseem also known as Din Robot, a former commander of the now-defunct separatist group and dozens of his comrades have expressed willingness to join Islamic State for economic reasons.

“It’s their rights, but we are trying to find a solution, through dialogue to give them understanding,” Saud Usman Nasution, chief of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency, said Wednesday.

He was speaking at the launch of books on de-radicalisation written by an Egyptian scholar, Abdul Mon’em Moneb, a reformed Muslim radical.

The former separatists have reportedly complained about economic hardships and a widening social and economic gap among GAM veterans.

“Our legal basis is quite weak [to deal with] who join ISIS. So we are strengthening prevention efforts through dialogue to make people understand [about ISIS],” Saud said.

According to the 2003 law on counter-terrorism, a person can only be charged if there is material evidence that he is planning to carry out a terrorist attack.

The government and GAM rebels signed a peace agreement in 2005, ending decades of conflict that claimed an estimated 15,000 people, mostly civilians.

Saud refused to blame the former combatants’ intention to join IS on the government’s failure to reintegrate them to society. But he acknowledged that some of the former guerrillas had complained that their lives had not improved since laying down their weapons.

“The problem is their welfare and nothing else. It is an individual matter and depends on the mindset. Some of them have succeeded to reintegrate,” Saud said.

Other former comrades have risen to become the province’s top bureaucrats and members of the local elite, including Governor Zaini Abdullah and his deputy Muzakkir Manaf. Authorities say about 300-500 Indonesians have joined Islamic State and at least three are known to have died in combat, including a police officer from Jambi province identified as Syahputra.

Kamaruddin, a deputy chairman of Aceh Party comprised of former GAM combatants, brushed aside the issue, saying that as an ex guerrilla, it would be very difficult for Fakhruddin go to Syria.

“On behalf [former] combatants, what is reported in newspapers in Aceh is a slander. There is no way Din Robot is going to join ISIS. It’s not as easy as he says,” Kamaruddin told CNN Indonesia Tuesday.

Counter-terrorism chief acknowledges death of policeman fighting for IS

Indonesia’s counter-terrorism chief has confirmed the death of a police sergeant who fought alongside the Islamic State group in Syria. Continue reading “Counter-terrorism chief acknowledges death of policeman fighting for IS”