A Growing Following in Germany: The Dangerous Success of Radical Young Clerics

By Matthias Bartsch, Maximilian Popp and Christoph Scheuermann

Imams in Germany have long tended to be older men who preach primarily in Turkish or Arabic. Now, though, officials are worried about a new breed of cleric: young, dynamic and followers of a radical brand of Islam. Their adherents are growing in number.

Photo Gallery: Imams for Germany's Youth Photos
DPA

None of his words are arbitrary. It is a show he has performed many times before. Sheikh Abdul Adhim knows which verses of the Koran appeal to his listeners, and which subjects they want to hear about. "Satan will tempt you with money and drugs" he tells the faithful at Berlin's Al-Nur Mosque. "Only faith in Allah can protect you." The members of the congregation nod. "No one preaches as beautifully as Abdul Adhim," they say.

The 34-year-old Berliner is the most prominent figure in a community of young, radical imams who are gaining importance among German Muslims. They appear in mosques and civic centers, they live in cities like Frankfurt, Bonn and Mönchengladbach, and the Internet is their most important platform. Web-based videos have meant a rapid increase in both popularity and influence in the community. Hundreds of followers regularly make the pilgrimage to Adhim's live rallies, or to those held by 33-year-old Pierre Vogel, from the town of Frechen near Cologne.

Supporters of these young imams say that they are reaching youth who would otherwise be lost to the streets. Critics, however, see men like Adhim and Vogel as foes of democracy, because of the strictly conservative form of Islam they preach. Many are Salafists, adherents of a fundamentalist movement that strictly follows the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafists reject innovation, frown on interactions with infidels and believe that the only legitimate laws come from God.

Political Salafism, the fastest-growing radical Islamic movement in Germany, primarily attracts second and third generation immigrants. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, estimates that there are 3,000 to 5,000 Salafists in Germany. The Berlin arm of the BfV has warned that their ideology is almost identical to that of the al-Qaida terrorist network. The debate over how society should deal with the Islamist agitators has re-intensified after Arid U., the man who killed two American servicemen at the Frankfurt Airport in 2011, was sentenced to life in prison earlier this month. The man reportedly had ties to Salafism.

No Effective Effort

Followers of Salafist imams consist mainly of "young men, usually unstable individuals from broken families, who are especially likely to have a criminal record," says Mathilde Koller, the head of the BfV branch in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "For young people who are seeking guidance, contact with imams of this sort can be the first step down a slippery slope to Islamist violence," says Rauf Ceylan, an expert on religion from the northwestern city of Osnabrück. According to Boris Rhein, the interior minister of the state of Hesse and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), almost all violence-prone jihadists known to German authorities can be linked to Salafist imams.

But German authorities, from local and state officials to Federal Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, are unsure what to do about the Salafists. So far, their strategy has been to keep a close watch on them, issue warnings and, if necessary, ban them. As yet, however, there has been no effective effort to examine the motives of those young Muslims flocking to the sermons of imams like Adhim and Vogel.

Adhim denies any connection to militant Islamists. The Berlin branch of the BfV describes him as one of the leading figures of the Salafist movement in Germany, but also as someone who seeks to attain his goals with words rather than violence. Adhim is critical of the imams in traditional mosque communities, who tend to be over 50 and have come from other countries, saying that they have no grasp of the lives of young Muslims in Germany. He says they preach exclusively in Turkish or Arabic.

Adhim was born in Morocco, where his parents still live, working on a fairground in the country's capital Rabat. When he was 19, Adhim came to Germany to study electrical engineering in Berlin. It was his older brother who led him to religion. Now, although he earns his money working as an engineer, he says his goal in life is to spread Islam. He is married to a German convert and has four children. Every Sunday, Adhim explains the Koran to young people at the Al-Nur Mosque -- in German.

Outdated and Out of Touch

Mosques are suffering from similar problems to those facing Catholic and Protestant churches. They are losing members, and they are seen as outdated and out of touch with everyday life. The young, charismatic agitators, on the other hand, know how to reach young people. They offer advice on relationship and drug problems, and they address issues of importance to young people, such as whether energy drinks are consistent with Islamic dietary rules.

The success of men like Adhim and Vogel says a lot about the second and third generation of immigrants, but also about the failures of German integration policy. It is fundamentalist preachers, and not their home country, that have managed to provide young Muslims with a vision.

Last July, Vogel spoke to a predominantly young crowd in Dietzenbach near Frankfurt. The native of the Rhineland region stood on the bed of a white rented truck and raved about paradise, describing it as a place where willing virgins were waiting for the Muslim faithful. "You'll get more of it there than you could ever imagine," he said. It was Vogel's last appearance in Germany, at least for the time being. He is currently spending time in Arab countries to study the Koran, communicating with his fans via YouTube.

Listening to Vogel and watching his videotaped monologues, one could almost believe that the world consists of two dimensions: religious and non-religious, good and bad, heaven and hell.

The main problem with the West, he says in an accent typical of the Rhine region, is the idea that everyone has to realize his full potential and be happy as an individual. He despises individualism, that "Western ideology that tells you not to obey anyone." God, says Vogel, knows best what is good for the individual, which is why people must abide by his rules. "And even if Allah were to instruct you to spend your entire life with one leg against the wall, you would have to do it, because Allah is your god."

Convenient Answers

Vogel's world is clear and his answers are simple. His devotees apparently find this to be quite convenient.

Young Muslims are becoming increasingly attracted to a strictly orthodox and uncompromising form of Islam. Many second and third-generation immigrants are more devout than their parents or grandparents, who came to Germany as guest workers. According to a 2009 study by the Essen Center for Turkish Studies, 75 percent of Muslims of Turkish origin, between the ages of 18 and 29, described themselves as "somewhat" or "very" religious, up from 64 percent nine years earlier.

French political scientist Olivier Roy says that first-generation immigrants were born as Muslims in countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, so that they were already part of the community of the faithful without having to do anything. Their sons and daughters, on the other hand, grew up in a non-Muslim environment, so that their affiliation with Islam requires validation.

Just as punks in the 1970s distanced themselves from society through their music and appearance, some young Muslims are also distancing themselves from their parents, whose lifestyle they ridicule, through a radical form of religiosity. The success of Salafist youth imams is also a reflection of this generational conflict.

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