Germany’s Salafists clash with the radical right

Salafist supporters pray as they counter-protest against a demonstration by right-wing pro NRW supporters outside the new Central Mosque (Zentralmoschee) in Ehrenfeld district, on May 8, 2012 in Cologne, Germany.
Mathis Wienand

BERLIN, Germany — Two tiny radical groups in German society have been profiting in recent weeks from their mutual hatred. The far-right Pro-NRW and a group of radical Islamists, known as Salafists, have attracted huge media attention by clashing with each other.

Experts say that though the two groups may at first glance seem diametrically opposed, in fact they have a lot in common.

The two fringe groups have been on a confrontation course in the run up to a big regional vote in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) this Sunday. The far-right Pro-NRW, which is only around 250 strong and attracted just 1.4 percent of the vote in the last state election, had been running a provocatively Islamophobic campaign which has culminated in a competition to find the best anti-Muslim cartoon.

The group has been holding a series of 25 demonstrations outside Muslim facilities such as schools and mosques in various cities, brandishing the “winning” images as well as the highly controversial caricature of Muhammad by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. 

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And a number of Salafists have risen to the bait. There were violent clashes both on May 1 in the town of Solingen and again last weekend in Bonn. On Saturday around 600 Salafists showed up to demonstrate against a group of 25 Pro-NRW members holding up the cartoons outside the King Fahd Academy, a Saudi school. Some Salafists began to throw rocks and bottles and 29 police officers were injured, including two who suffered serious stab wounds. Over 100 arrests were made and a 25-year-old man has since been charged with attempted murder. 

When the state’s interior minister tried to ban the cartoons in the aftermath of the violence, his decision was overruled by two courts, citing freedom of expression. Another event on Tuesday in Cologne passed without violence due to the massive police presence. 

While there has been condemnation of the far-right group’s actions, the public debate has quickly turned to a focus on the Salafists and their violent reaction. “Salafism’s fanatical members represent a special danger to German security,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich this week, adding: “The Salafists deliver the ideological basis for many who then become violent.”

In fact the Interior Ministry confirmed this week that it is now looking at ways to ban Salafist groups in Germany, following recent incidents.

In all there are thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000 Salafists in Germany. The group, whose roots are in Saudi Arabia, propagate what they say is an original form of Islam. “They claim the authentic Islam for themselves. They feel they have a monopoly on interpreting their religion,” explains Rauf Ceylan, professor of Islamic Studies at Osnabrueck University.

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German politicians and security officials had already voiced unease about a recent campaign by a group of Salafists to distribute Qurans to every household in the country. Backed by Ibrahim Abou Nagie, a Cologne-based businessman and preacher with Palastinian roots, they pledged to hand out 25 million copies of the holy text. In the end they only distributed around 300,000 copies, in what has since been dismissed as a PR stunt to attract maximum attention in the media. 

While many Salafists are extremely conservative when it comes to their religion but are not generally politically active, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country’s domestic intelligence agency, estimates that there are around 1,000 militant Salafists in Germany. Around 200 are thought to be potential jihadists who would be prepared to carry out terrorist attacks. The agency has stated that it has noted increased levels of travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan from people who come from “milieus influenced by Salafist ideology.”

Ceylan argues that there are great difficulties in combating the influence of Salafist preachers, who tend to target young socially alienated Muslims.
For one thing, unlike most moderate imams in Germany who come from abroad, many of the radical preachers speak German fluently, and connect well with young people, particularly using the internet and posting propaganda videos to recruit new converts.

“We need German-speaking imams, who we train here. We have started doing so this year in Osnabrueck,” he says, referring to a new course at the university aimed at educating imams. 

He also says that the Muslim community needs to be watchful for signs of radicalization among its youth. “We have to create an early warning system in certain ghettoized urban areas, so that schools, clubs, mosques, can form a network. You have to train people who feel responsible, and intervene with radicalized young people at an early stage.”

One of the reason Salafists have been successful at influencing some young men, including a notably high proportion of converts, is the simplicity of their doctrine. “The problem is that religion and spirituality have to mature,” explains Ceylan. “If you don’t know your religion very well yet, then you can read the Salafist literature and within a few months, think you have learned Islam. That is fatal and very dangerous.”

The more militant Salafist groups here tend to politicize their religion. “These people read very selectively, and they don’t invest in their spirituality. They mix up religious and political terms.” 

Ceylan argues that an increasingly Islamophobic climate in Germany leads to many younger Muslims feeling excluded from society. The fact that this is increasingly socially acceptable was revealed by the popularity of a 2010 book by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin that was highly critical of Muslims in Germany. “When the Salafists come and say: Hey we will give you an identity, we won’t exclude you, you belong here; this makes these kinds of groups attractive.” 

Alexander Haeusler, an expert on far-right extremism at the Technical University of Dusseldorf, says that in this respect the Salafists are very similar to the far right. They also look to recruit disaffected young people, offering them a sense of belonging and a simple ideology to hold onto, in their case xenophobia and extreme nationalism. 

It’s not the only similarity, he argues. “They are two sides of the same coin.”

Both groups try to present themselves as victims and both feed off publicity. As such, the recent confrontation has served both well. 

Furthermore their totalitarian view of the world is extremely similar, and both are opposed to democracy. “They have the same sort of worldview,” Ceylan agrees. “Everything is black and white, them and us.”

“They need each other,” he says, arguing that they each provide a perfect target enemy for each other. “In the view of the radical Islamists, the West is against Islam, is Islamophobic and is bad. And the tiny Pro-NRW fits into this view. It represents the entire West for them, even though it doesn’t really. And on the other side, the fundamentalists match perfectly Pro-NRW’s image of Muslims. They say, we are against Muslims and that is Islam. Even though this is not Islam, it is a marginal group.”

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Haeusler says that the reaction by the Salafists, who were already unpopular in NRW due to their Koran campaign, was a “gift from heaven” for the far-right, serving to reconfirm all their prejudices about a violent dangerous Islam. “They don’t differentiate between Salafists and other Muslims,” says Haeusler. “They are all thrown into the same pot.” 

The danger is that the general public will also fail to differentiate between the tiny group of Salafists and the 4.5 million Muslims who live in Germany.
“This latest violence by a few Salafists, who are absolutely a tiny fringe group compared to the rest of Muslims who live here, is damaging the entire image of Islam and Muslims,” says Haeusler.

The vast majority of Muslims want to distance themselves from the Salafists and their actions. “Reacting to provocation with violence is not acceptable for peace-loving Muslims because it is un-Islamic and, more than anything plays into the hands of the right-wing,” the Central Council of Muslims said in a statement released earlier this week. 

Yet, once again, the community feels it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. 

“Throughout this whole debate, the Muslim community feels that everyone is speaking over their heads,” Ceylan says. “And once again Islam is being spoken about in a negative context in Germany.”