Ausgabe 48/2004

Muslim Integration Fighting the Preachers of Hate

Germany is afraid of a clash of cultures within its own borders. How can it be avoided? A new tough stance against radical Islamists is helping. But how far can a democracy push in its fight against radical beliefs?

By Dominik Cziesche, and

A mosque in Berlin. Germany is increasingly addressing the question of how to live peacefully with its Muslim population.

A mosque in Berlin. Germany is increasingly addressing the question of how to live peacefully with its Muslim population.

No one likes to have guests like Hodja, a Turkish citizen who traveled to Germany for the sole purpose of contributing to the spiritual edification of his fellow Turks. "America is a great Satan, Great Britain is a lesser one, and Israel a blood-sucking vampire," he yelled into a prayer room in Bavaria.

Then the immigrant imam explained his vision of the future of Muslims in Germany: "Things will happen behind the scenes. You must be ready for the right moment. We must take advantage of democracy to further our cause. We must cover all of Europe with mosques and schools." His comments were greeted with loud applause from his audience of devout Muslims.

That was two years ago, at a time when, in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the security services had just begun taking a closer look at the inner workings of German mosques. At the time, however, politicians were still avoiding issues that were considered sensitive. The left wing was doing its utmost to protect its ideology of a peaceful, multicultural society, while the right wing held fast to its conviction that foreigners are guests who don't really belong.

After Sept. 11, the public debate about how people from different cultures will live together in the future began on a relatively furtive scale. People were too worried that criticism of Islamists could be misinterpreted as xenophobia.

It was only after the gruesome murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh three weeks ago in Amsterdam that decades of repressing the issue came to an end. The uproar in the Netherlands has brought the conflict closer and made it much more visible. Last week, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a harmless, mainstream mosque in the southern German town of Sinsheim.

The incidents have opened many people's eyes to the dangers of religious extremism, and politicians of almost every stripe are now demanding a tougher stance against those believed to be responsible.

Using the mainstream to combat the fringe

Germany's leaders are also now realizing that the country's approximately 2,000 Muslim congregations and houses of worship are the key to peaceful coexistence. If the imams preach reconciliation and distance themselves from terrorism, it will force militant Muslims to the periphery. At the very least, this approach will help separate the radicals from peaceful, law-abiding Muslims. However, if the imams preach hatred, Germany is likely to face the same kinds of conflicts that are now happening in the Netherlands.

20,000 German Muslims demonstrated for tolerance and peace -- and against terrorism in Cologned on Sunday.

20,000 German Muslims demonstrated for tolerance and peace -- and against terrorism in Cologned on Sunday.

Steps have been made and German authorities have now classified the country's mosques in an attempt to identify the more extreme ones. About a hundred mosques are considered "centers of radical teaching and recruitment," and are being closely observed, with plans in the works for a tougher approach toward these kinds of mosques.

However, the case of a Pakistani mosque in Frankfurt shows just how difficult this is. In May of last year, an informant reported that the mosque's imam had incited his congregation to commit suicide attacks and to fight the Americans. The police searched the mosque's prayer rooms and seized various audio tapes. The authorities hoped to use the information to close the mosque, whose Afghan-born imam was already notorious. But there were no calls to holy war on the cassette tapes. The case boiled down to the word of one man against that of another. In mid-September, after an investigation lasting more than a year, the Frankfurt district attorney's office closed its case against the imam for lack of sufficient evidence.

Tape recordings of such radical sermons would probably provide authorities with enough evidence for conviction. Mosques, however, are rarely bugged. According to a high-ranking government official, a bugging operation is only considered appropriate in extreme cases, because it ties up "far too much personnel; we really have other things to worry about."

Catching a "hate preacher" on camera

Two weeks ago, a camera team working for a German television network managed to succeed -- more or less by happenstance -- where security agencies often fail. The journalists were filming a sermon by Berlin imam Yakup T., who was berating Germans in the heart of Berlin's largely Turkish Kreuzberg neighborhood. He called them useless infidels whose armpits stink because they don't shave.

Late last week, the Turkish-born imam was able to experience that smell at closer range in the offices of German government agencies. He was ordered to appear before officials at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (FOPC), police officials and German immigration law experts, all of whom now want to deport him as quickly as possible. Yakup T. is now being investigated for incitement to hatred and violence and has been suspended from his job as an imam.

Metin Kaplan, the infamous "Caliph of Cologne," was deported in October for preaching hatred.

Metin Kaplan, the infamous "Caliph of Cologne," was deported in October for preaching hatred.

Despite the prompt reaction, his sermon triggered a heated debate. The German government is taking a much harder look than ever before at its relationship with the Muslim segment of the population. The central issue of the debate is this: How far should tolerance of such hate preachers go?

Should the Muslims distance themselves more decisively from radical elements in their ranks, as German President Horst Koehler is demanding? Koehler believes that "something has gone wrong" between Christians and Muslims. Interior Minister Otto Schily, echoing the sentiments of politician Guenther Beckstein, the Interior Minister of Bavaria, was a little more direct when he said that "tolerance doesn't mean tolerating intolerance."

The chancellor has also made his thoughts clear on the matter. In a speech over the weekend, he said, "We in Europe must defend the principles of the Enlightenment as the cornerstone of our policies." The Muslims, according to Schroeder, must "clearly and unmistakably declare their support for our legal system and our democratic rules of conduct."

Unhelpful suggestions

Many of the other proposals made last week, however, seemed overly hasty and unhelpful. The market for political ideas was beginning to look like an oriental bazaar and some highly controversial suggestions were discarded as quickly as they were proposed. A few examples:

  • The minister of education of the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Annette Schavan, demanded that imams only be permitted to preach in the German language. Critics immediately began asking whether that meant that Catholic priests couldn't celebrate mass in Latin and Rabbis couldn't speak Hebrew. Probably not.

  • Green Party politician Hans-Christian Stroebele and fellow party member Juergen Trittin proposed adding a Muslim holiday to the German calendar. It was a ridiculous suggestion that was greeted with general derision and Trittin was rebuked by none other than Chancellor Schroeder himself.

  • Joerg Schoenbohm, a member of the conservative CDU party from the state of Brandenburg, called for revoking the German citizenship of imams who preach hatred. Schoenbohm's idea, however, seems as unconstitutional as Schavan's demand that imams preach in German.


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