Photo Gallery: The Honor of Lions

Foto: Henning Kaiser/ dpa

Conflict with Far-Right Party Young German Muslims Defend Right to Protest

A debate about violent Salafists has erupted in Germany after radical Muslims clashed with supporters of the anti-Islamic Pro NRW party during its recent election campaign. Three young Muslims who took part in a demonstration against the party in Cologne described their pious worldview to SPIEGEL.
Von Hubert Gude, Souad Mekhennet und Christoph Scheuermann

After the water cannons have withdrawn and the Muhammad cartoons have been stowed away, three young men get into a car in front of Cologne's main train station. They are bearded and have the look of religious men. They seem somewhat dissatisfied.

Malik says: "It's sad and humiliating that so few people came."

Martin says: "Brother, it's Tuesday afternoon. Many of us work."

Koray shrugs his shoulders. He took the day off, he says, so why shouldn't other people do the same?

Furious and Speechless

Malik, Martin and Koray had left Hamburg in the morning to protest in Cologne against the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that members of the right-wing extremist party Pro NRW intended to display in front of a mosque.  Against the will of the police, the Cologne Administrative Court had approved the display of the drawings made by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. One of his drawings was among a series of cartoons published by Danish newspapers in 2005 that led to worldwide protests by Muslims, who were offended by the pictures. Many Muslims believe that visual depictions of Muhammad should be prohibited.

Malik, Martin and Koray were furious and speechless at the judges' decision. They went to Cologne fearing that there would be injuries again, as there had been in two other nearby cities, Solingen  and Bonn,  a few days earlier.

In those incidents, furious young men with beards and dressed in long robes, hoodies and camouflage jackets had assaulted members of Pro NRW and the police. In Bonn, they were armed with wooden slats and stones, and 29 officers were injured, including two who were hospitalized with severe stab wounds. Murat K., the suspected knife attacker, is now in custody. Police arrested a total of 109 protesters.

Germany is now embroiled in a debate over violent Muslims. Politicians and federal security officials see a new form of aggression taking shape, and some are asking themselves whether radical youth invoking Islam could instigate an uprising in Germany.

'We Don't Throw Any Bombs'

The riots mostly involved Salafists, who preach a particularly rigid form of Islam and see themselves as the only true Muslims. Wolfgang Bosbach, a domestic security expert with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says: "Salafists want to replace the democratic constitutional order with a theocracy. That's why Salafism and democracy are simply incompatible."

Uwe Schünemann (CDU), the interior minister of the northern state of Lower Saxony, agrees. He wants to curtail the right to free expression for radical Salafists. The Federal Constitutional Court, Germany's highest court, must examine whether the fundamental right to free expression can be restricted when it comes to "hate preachers who are aggressively and combatively challenging the German constitution," Schünemann says. If such a prohibition were imposed, Salafists would no longer be allowed to engage in political activity, and they would be barred from using the Internet to drum up their supporters to attend gatherings.

Malik, Martin and Koray would not describe themselves as Salafists. Malik says that the general public equates a Salafist with a terrorist. "But we don't throw any bombs," he says. All they do, he explains, is live their lives in as Islamic a fashion as possible. This means no alcohol, no parties and no fooling around with women but, instead, leading a pious life that is pleasing in the sight of God. It also means praying five times a day, studying the Koran extensively and doing "a lot of Daawa," that is, converting "infidels" to Islam.

The Honor of Lions

The three men look tired as they sit in the car on their way home to Hamburg. The Cologne police estimate that about 300 protesters "who can be considered part of the Salafist scene" were in the vicinity of the mosque last Tuesday. They came from Berlin, Bonn, Bremen, Fürth, Frankfurt and Villingen-Schwenningen, most of them young men born in the 1980s and 1990s who had arranged to meet using Facebook, email or WhatsApp instant messages on their smartphones. In many cases, their families originally come from Russia, Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt, and most of them have a German passport. Malik was under the impression that the numbers were much smaller than the police estimate, no more than three or four dozen.

Days before the event, the most radical ones had called upon their fellow Salafists to come to Cologne in large numbers. The former Berlin rapper Deso Dogg, a convert to Islam whose real name is Denis Cuspert, even penned a fighting poem about "the honor of lions." He wrote to his supporters: "Anyone who is even thinking of not attending should fear Allah."

Those who had not been sent back or arrested by the police en route to the DITIB Central Mosque in Cologne's Ehrenfeld district stood, like Malik, Martin and Koray, in front of the crowd-control barriers and waited. More than 1,000 police officers were deployed to prevent clashes between the Muslims and the right-wing extremists.

Bullied and Disadvantaged

The last two weeks were not a pleasant time for Malik, Martin and Koray. As Muslims who choose to live as genuine a form of Islam as possible, they already feel bullied and disadvantaged -- by passersby, teachers, fellow students, bosses and coworkers. They view the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad carrying a bomb in his turban as part of a series of humiliations that has continued for years.

They would never throw stones, they say, but they are furious because they perceive the cartoons as an attack on the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, on themselves. Malik says: "The dignity of the Prophet is more important to us than our own dignity." For this reason, he adds, they must defend themselves against this attack. They see it as their only option because they believe that no one has the right to insult their prophet, even if the perpetrators are only members of a tiny, far-right party waging an inept election campaign in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. A Muslim who protests against the cartoons, they say, is serving God.

Malik says: "On the Day of Judgment, perhaps the Prophet will ask: 'Where were you when the name of the Prophet was defiled?' I don't want to have to reply: 'Oh, envoy of Allah, I am one of those who looked the other way."

On the day before the protest, he had found someone on the Internet who had agreed to drive them to Cologne. Martin and Koray made sandwiches for lunch, and the three of them left Hamburg early on that Tuesday morning to rescue the honor of the lions that would stand by the Prophet. Each of the three men paid €46 ($60) for the round-trip ride to Cologne.

Good Manners

The three value good manners and education. Martin is studying environmental engineering in Hamburg. His parents, devout Catholics from Poland, were not pleased when their son told them, about a year ago, that he was converting to Islam. Martin had had Muslim friends for some time. He wears his dark blonde hair in long, unruly strands. Since converting to Islam, he has gone by the name Abdul Rahman, or Servant of the All-Merciful, and he is also growing facial hair that could charitably be called a full beard.

Koray, like Martin, was born in Hamburg. His parents are from Turkey. He is attending an upper-level commercial school and eventually plans to attend the university, but he doesn't know what he'll study yet. He took a day off for the trip to Cologne, although he didn't tell his teachers that he planned to protest against the cartoons. He is cautious and determined not to get in trouble with the police.

Koray and Martin have known each other since they grew up together as young boys in the eastern part of Hamburg. They have treated life more seriously since becoming Muslims. They are more mature, even though they are only 19, and they have decided that, from now on, girls, clubs and all the trappings of youth are no longer important to them. Instead, they work hard at the university and in school, because, as Koray says, it pleases Allah when his followers increase their knowledge and education.

Malik's father is from Algeria, and his mother is German. He has a high-school diploma and wants to obtain the higher education entrance qualification. He is now trying to make ends meet as a self-employed financial adviser for Muslims, but because business isn't going well, he also works as a cashier at Ikea. Malik is 22 and the most eloquent of the three. He acts as their spokesman.

Keeping Emotions Under Control

Malik, Martin and Koray understand the rage of the young men of Bonn and Solingen. Malik says that he thinks it "isn't good" that rocks were thrown. On the other hand, he also doesn't feel that he has the right to express an opinion about other Muslims, even if not every Muslim always behaves in an Islamic way. "I don't judge," he says. "And I don't distance myself from anyone."

Malik tends to give extravagant answers to questions, answers that quickly take him back to the 7th century. He says that Muhammad always exercised self-control, even when a man once grabbed him so roughly by the collar that it gave him welts on his neck. It is important for a Muslim to keep his inclinations under control, says Malik, including the propensity for violence. Perhaps the stone-throwers in Bonn didn't have their inclinations under control, he adds. "They were deeply offended by the cartoons." The stone-throwing and the knifings, says Malik, must be seen as actions that occurred "in the heat of passion." The police, however, believe that the Salafists brought the stones to the demonstration.

Malik, like Martin and Koray, is skeptical of journalists. He says that they only want to put words in their mouths because their goal is to show how violent and brutal Islam is. The three young Muslims feel most at ease when they are with like-minded people and can calmly talk about their religion. Koray recommends watching a YouTube video of a South African preacher who offers tips on how to deal with Christian missionaries -- in other words, the "enemies" -- and quickly silence them with arguments.

Warnings of Attacks

Near the city of Gütersloh, a little less than halfway into the trip, Martin launches into a lecture about Muhammad as a historical figure. He is very knowledgeable, and yet when he talks it sounds as if he were reciting a speech in school that he had learned by heart. The conversation later turns to the question of whether a Muslim should be allowed to watch American TV series, such as "How I Met Your Mother." Martin says he liked watching the series, but that he felt that God was insulted a little too often on the program. He suggests that viewers turn off the TV whenever this happens.

Not everyone who is associated with the German Salafist scene seems as harmless and peaceful as these three young men. That afternoon, in front of the mosque, after the Pro NRW supporters had left, Martin, Malik and Koray were standing around with a group of Muslims who were incensed over Chancellor Angela Merkel. How could the chancellor allow the Muhammad cartoons to be displayed in front of mosques, they asked? One of the furious ones was Abu Abdullah, who, during the Bonn protest, had already warned the chancellor about possible attacks on Germans living abroad -- unless she put an end to the anti-Islamic campaign.

Reda Seyam, an Egyptian-born German, was also at the protest in Cologne. In 2002, German and American authorities suspected him of being one of the backers of the Bali bombing that killed 202 people. Federal security officials later found Islamist propaganda videos on Seyam's hard drive, as well as receipts for payments to Islamists. He also attracted attention to himself in 2006, when he named his son "Jihad," which led to a legal dispute  with the interior minister of the city-state of Berlin. Seyam, who won the case, now operates an Internet-based "Islamic News and Information Center" in Berlin.

Constant Temptations

Shortly after Hanover, or about two-thirds of the way through the journey, Malik, Martin and Koray ask the driver to pull into the next rest stop. They want to pray. No stars are visible in the sky yet. While the three men use the compass on an iPhone to find southeast, the direction of Mecca, Viktor, the driver, lights a cigarette. He likes these three bearded guys, he says, and he points out how polite they are. Then he talks about a brothel on the Dutch border, a mansion with 60 girls, where a man can have fun for days. He'll be happy to give us more information, he says.

Later, as the car continues along the A7 autobahn, Malik says that he can't understand why half-naked women wearing nothing more than a few bits of cloth are depicted on so many billboards. The women are being degraded into sex objects, says Malik, and if feminists are opposed to this, he is happy to agree with them. The three men see life in Germany as a constant test of their resignation to God's will and their ability to resist the temptations of Satan. Some of these temptations include sleeping late in the morning, when they are supposed to be saying their early prayers, or eating gummi bears, which are often made with gelatin derived from pork.

Martin says that people his age distract themselves from the important questions in many ways. These young people, he adds, want nothing from life but pleasure, and no one wonders what the purpose of it all is. Martin, Malik and Koray believe that they have discovered that purpose for themselves, and they want others to discover it, too.

The lights of Hamburg are approaching when Martin says: "Man was created to serve Allah."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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