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Parallel Justice: Islamic 'Arbitrators' Shadow German Law

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In mosques or tearooms, Muslim elders dispense verdicts that keep their communities in line. They mediate between aggrieved immigrants, sometimes at the expense of German justice. Some say the arbitrations ease caseloads in court, but others see the creeping advance of Sharia law.

Hassan Allouche, originally from Lebanon, says he mediates 200 cases a year. Zoom
Ufuk Ucta / DER SPIEGEL

Hassan Allouche, originally from Lebanon, says he mediates 200 cases a year.

The men ambushed Fuat S. on the street, then locked him in a basement and tortured him. Fuat was later admitted to the hospital in Berlin's Neukölln district with gaping wounds, contusions and broken bones.

Police took his statement concerning the attack the same night. Fuat S., a gambler and a recipient of "Hartz IV" -- Germany's social welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed -- gave a detailed statement. He'd conned an acquaintance, Mustafa O., out of €150,000 ($217,000) and the man was taking his revenge, Fuat said, together with his three brothers. They hit his hands, arms and knees with a hammer and threatened to shoot him.

The public prosecutor's office in Berlin initiated proceedings against Mustafa O., a Palestinian man who had come to their attention repeatedly for violent acts. Police had investigated him in a number of cases, and now prosecutors saw an opportunity to convict a dangerous repeat offender. But when the case began, Fuat S., the principle witness, unexpectedly withdrew his testimony. It was not Mustafa who had tortured him, he said, but an Albanian man he didn't know. Mustafa, he said, wasn't even in the basement at the time. This was clearly a lie, as police analysis of telephone data showed, but the judge was forced to acquit the defendant due to lack of evidence.

The decision, in fact, was reached by a different judge. According to police, the victim's and the perpetrator's families had met at a restaurant in the presence of an Islamic "justice of the peace," an arbitrator who mediates conflicts between Muslims. The two families had reached a compromise: Fuat would drop the charges, and in exchange be relieved of part of his debt.

According to Bernhard Mix, the public prosecutor in charge of the case, Fuat's false testimony was part of a deal between the families. "It's difficult to establish the truth using legal means, when the perpetrator and the victim reach an agreement," he says.

Judges Without Laws

Politicians and social workers tend to focus on forced marriages and honor killings, but the baleful influence of these Islamic arbitrators has gone largely unnoticed by the public. Joachim Wagner, an author and television journalist of many years, has taken a closer look at the phenomenon in his book "Richter ohne Gesetz" ("Judges without Laws"). Reconstructing Mustafa O.'s case, he reaches the conclusion that "the Islamic parallel justice system is becoming a threat to the constitutional legal system."

These justices of the peace don't wear robes. Their courtrooms are mosques or teahouses. They draw their authority not from the law, but from their standing within the community. Most of them are senior members of their families, or imams, and some even fly in from Turkey or Lebanon to resolve disputes. Muslims seek them out when families argue, when daughters take up with nonbelievers or when clans clash. They often trust these arbitrators more than they trust the state.

The late juvenile court judge Kirsten Heisig drew attention to this problem a year ago: "The law is slipping out of our hands. It's moving to the streets, or into a parallel system where an imam or another representative of the Koran determines what must be done."

In Wagner's book, judges and prosecutors tell of threats toward public officials and systematic interference with witnesses. "We know we're being given a performance, but the courts are powerless," says Stephan Kuperion, a juvenile court judge in Berlin. Federal public prosecutor Jörn Hauschild warns, "It would be a terrible development if serious criminal offences in these circles could no longer be resolved. The legal system would be reduced to collecting victims."

So who are these men who make the decisions about justice and love, lives and monetary compensation?

'They Trust Me'

Hassan Allouche sits behind the wheel of his station wagon, steering the vehicle through Berlin's rush hour traffic with one hand, talking on his cell phone. Two Arabs have called on him for help in a rent dispute. He lights a cigarette and says, "People are afraid of the authorities. They trust me."

Allouche came to Germany from Lebanon 37 years ago. He acts as a religious arbitrator, just as his great-grandfather did before him. People greet him on the streets of Berlin, shaking his hand or bowing. "He's kept us from a great deal of harm," one Turkish businessman says.

Allouche's brother was shot while trying to resolve a conflict, and since then he always wears a bulletproof vest when doing his work. He says he mediates 200 cases a year, often offers his own services and doesn't ask any payment, although he accepts gifts. "I do this for Germany and for Allah," he says.

Wagner, the journalist, believes that getting rich plays only a minor role for most of these arbitrators. Far more important, he says, are power and prestige, as they increase their influence within the community with each successful mediation.

Although the mediators generally work in secret, "it's common practice," Wagner says, repeating what Ralf Menkhorst, detective superintendent for the city of Essen, has told him. "Any beginner realizes after three cases that this phenomenon exists." Police in Bremen, for example, know of four or five arbitrators by name.

They operate in a gray area between conflict resolution and obstruction of justice. Allouche, for example, claims to work closely with authorities, but investigators suspect him of preventing witnesses from giving statements to the police. So far they've never been able to prove an obstruction of justice.

This culture of arbitration predates Islam, since earlier Arab tribes also solved conflicts with verdicts passed by senior family members. In countries such as Lebanon or in southeastern Turkey, these lay judges still take the place of governmental institutions. In Germany, they find followers wherever the local population includes many Muslims who haven't integrated into German culture.

Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, an Islamic studies professor in Marburg, believes this distance between immigrants and the German state explains the success of religious arbitration. Many immigrants, she says, mistrust police and the legal system. Criminal prosecutors are concerned about extended Muslim families and strict religious groups. "They disdain the rule of law. They haven't integrated, and don't intend to. The family is above the law," Bremen's police write in a working paper.

Munich-based imam and arbitrator Sheik Abu Adam says he considers it a religious duty to mediate among the faithful. He invites both parties to visit him at the mosque, listens to both sides, and ultimately has them sign a peace treaty. The important thing, he says, is not who's right and wrong, and evidence is no particular help -- the important thing is to find a compromise. In nine out of 10 cases, the people respect his decision, he says. "My judgment is fairer than the government's," he says.

A Problem of Integration

Abu Adam teaches a reactionary kind of Islam. He lives with three women, doesn't believe in separating religion from the state, and rejects moderate branches of his religion. "I tell my people, don't go to the police," the sheikh says unabashedly. "We'll take care of this conflict among ourselves." He dismisses accusations of running a shadow justice system, saying, "I'm making less work for the police."

Investigators do cooperate with Islamic arbitrators in a few exceptional cases. In Essen, for example, police and an imam work together to mediate disputes within Muslim families.

If these arbitrators would limit themselves to containing conflicts, there would be no reason to object, says legal and Islamic studies expert Mathias Rohe in the Bavarian city of Erlangen. German law, after all, allows for arbitration. What Rohe finds unacceptable is the exertion of influence over criminal proceedings. "Criminal prosecution is a privilege of the state," he says.

The state justice system, though, is having a hard time shaking off the shadow system. Klaus-Dieter Schromek, a judge in Bremen, criticizes his colleagues for not taking the phenomenon seriously enough. "If conflict mediators manage to force the justice system out of homicides and other serious violent crimes," he told Wagner for the book, "it will mean more conflicts settled using these methods."

Legal steps alone can't prevent a parallel Islamic justice system, not with so many immigrants from Muslim countries who insist on following values retained for centuries -- such as the primacy of men and the unconditional struggle for one's own honor and that of the family. One problem is that they pass on these clichés to their children, so even third-generation members of immigrant families mistrust the German legal system.

"We need to promote our constitutional legal state starting in school," says Rohe, the Islamic studies expert. If German integration were in better shape, he believes, Islamic arbitrators would have been out of work long ago.

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