A Growing Following in Germany The Dangerous Success of Radical Young Clerics
Part 2: The Embodiment of a Self-Confident Islam
German imam Vogel was a professional boxer before converting to Islam. He was the German junior champion in the light heavyweight division, which gives him the kind of street credibility that a 60-year-old imam from Neu-Ulm in southern Germany can never achieve. "I know it all: amusement arcades, discos, women," says Vogel. "I can be more persuasive when I say that it's better to be married and live a virtuous life."
A number of Muslims feel that the German convert is too vain, and find it presumptuous for Vogel to drive to rallies in a VW SUV with the license plate number HAM-ZA 911. Vogel calls himself Abu Hamza, the name of a warrior who lived in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The number stands for 9/11, the day of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
His followers agree with Vogel that it's cool to be pious. During his presentations, they hand him their questions, which Vogel then addresses in his monologue. Is gelatin prohibited? Must a Muslim despise the West? When he has finished the questions, Vogel comes up with new ones and sets up a camera. Is stoning in keeping with the times? Do extraterrestrials exist? Vogel says that one reason extraterrestrials cannot exist is that the Prophet, who predicted everything, never mentioned them.
The young imams are servants of Allah and self-promoters in equal measure, but none of them uses the media as skillfully as Vogel. A search for his name on YouTube yields 50,000 hits. Some of the videos placed on the web are jittery, and some were made with cell-phone cameras, which lends them authenticity. In one video Vogel, while driving a car on the autobahn at high speed, implores the German rapper Bushido to abandon his life of money and women and return to Islam. "Brother, you're on the wrong path," Vogel says.
'Holocaust against Muslims'
Talk show hosts invite him to appear on their programs whenever they need a younger, bearded man to goad a group of aging experts with catchy punch lines and provocative statements. Vogel has been on the shows of several major German hosts, including Johannes B. Kerner, Sandra Maischberger and Frank Plasberg. He is the bad guy of the German debate over Islam. It's a role he relishes, partly because he is one of the few Islamists in Germany who have rhetorical skills and want to be on television.
Vogel and the other young imams embody a self-confident Islam. A 2008 study by the Dutch government concludes that Salafists provide their followers with a sense of identity and social cohesion. They seize upon the widespread belief that Muslims are treated unfairly and channel it into their message.
Vogel speaks of a "Holocaust against Muslims." Adhim once warned against a Jewish-American world conspiracy, according to a taped conversation obtained by the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Berlin. The imam accuses the West of lying, hypocrisy and hatred of Muslims. He accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of helping to finance the war in Gaza, and he called upon all Muslims in the Palestinian Territories to wage jihad against the Jews in Israel. According to Adhim, Hamas militants are not terrorists. Instead, he says: "They are the best of this nation! They are at the front in this nation."
The public prosecutor's office in Berlin launched an investigation against Adhim on suspicion of incitement, but dropped it a short time later. An Islamic scholar who analyzed a speech on behalf of the State Office of Criminal Investigation concluded that although Adhim stirs up emotions, he is not a typical "inflammatory preacher." The scholar also said that the young imam exhibited "great intellectual agility."
'Only Just Begun'
In his speeches, Adhim condemns terror and violence. Nevertheless, security services view the Al-Nur Mosque in Berlin, where he appears regularly, as a meeting place for militant Islamists. The mosque has received funding in the past from a Saudi Arabian foundation suspected of bankrolling terrorism.
Vogel also claims that he convinces young people to renounce violence. But a few radicals see him as a role model. Arid U., the Frankfurt Airport assailant, included "Pierre Vogel" as one of his interests on his Facebook page.
Robert B., the German native who was arrested together with a friend in England in mid-July 2011 after arriving on a ferry with bomb-building plans and jihad instructions in their luggage, was also a follower of Vogel. He had attended one of Vogel's rallies in Hamburg in the summer.
For some young Muslims, imams like Vogel are apparently the gateway drug into an ideology with Islamist overtones, which recognizes violence as a legitimate tool, and not just in war zones.
Can this be prevented? Can the government do more than issue general warnings against radical Salafists as Interior Minister Friedrich does?
Berlin has embarked on a unique approach recently: Politicians are working hand-in-hand with the charismatic imams on integration projects. Adhim spoke at an event called "Hand in Hand against Violence," jointly sponsored by Berlin mosques and the city-state government.
Adhim is proud that the government needed his help. But then he says something that gives one pause. "The struggle for the heads of Muslims has only just begun."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Dangerous Success of Radical Young Clerics
- Part 2: The Embodiment of a Self-Confident Islam