Aftershocks of Berlin Christmas market attack lead to counter-terrorism debates in Germany

It is now almost a year ago that Anis Amri, a Tunisian man who had arrived in Germany in 2015 and claimed to be a refugee, steered a lorry into a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and injuring 56.

New report on intelligence failings

Almost immediately after the event, growing evidence pointed to severe failings on the part of the authorities. Not only had they not noticed the danger emanating from Amri; different sections of the justice system had also failed to arrest the young man following any of his multiple brushes with the law.

Amri, whose legal right to remain in the country had expired long ago, had had repeated run-ins with the police not only on the grounds of suspected Islamist radicalism but also for violations of residence requirements and for a range of drug infractions.

Now, a new report, commissioned by the government of Berlin, has attempted to chronicle the events leading up to the December 2016 attack. Its author, former federal prosecutor Bruno Jost, paints a dismal picture of German counter-terrorism efforts.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fall-anis-amri-sonderermittler-wirft-behoerden-versagen-vor-a-1172571.html ))

Lack of cooperation and of personnel in the counter-terrorism sector

Jost describes how large gaps opened up in Germany’s counter-terrorism architecture that allowed Amri to slip through the cracks for more than a year. The vertical information flow between different levels of the security apparatus remained deficient, so that high-level counter-terrorism bodies – who discussed Amri and his potential plans – never held all the relevant information that had been collected.

Horizontally, cooperation between the different institutions – various police departments, domestic intelligence agencies, and prosecutorial bodies – was equally haphazard. Moreover, security agencies did not share information across Germany’s internal federal boundaries, meaning that the states of Berlin, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Baden-Württemberg left each other in the dark regarding their respective insights into Amri’s persona and intentions.

Finally, Jost highlighted severe staff shortages particularly in Berlin: although the capital’s authorities had for a time designated Amri as the most dangerous individual with jihadist linkages in the city, they were unable to keep track of him. Notably, he could only be monitored on weekdays: on weekends, there was a lack of staff.

Solving the staffing problems

As a response to the Amri case, politicians from across the political spectrum have called for greater centralisation of counter-terrorism efforts at the national level. Similarly, there is cross-partisan agreement on the need to replenish Germany’s police, whose forces had been depleted over the course of several years of budget cuts.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/nach-bericht-zu-anis-amri-das-ist-wirklich-eine-bittere.694.de.html?dram:article_id=398118, http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-10/terrorismus-union-forderung-reform-ueberwachung-anis-amri ))

More personnel, however, will most likely not solve all problems but may also generate new issues of its own. In fact, the reliability of German counter-terrorism staff has come repeatedly into question in recent months.

Questions about the reliability of intelligence personnel

First, the country’s domestic intelligence agency – the Verfassungsschutz – was rocked by revelations about an alleged Islamist mole. In this somewhat bizarre case, a former porn actor and bank clerk, who had recently joined the agency, had passed on classified information online to a supposed member of the Salafi scene – who, in fact, turned out to be another member of the Verfassungsschutz working undercover.

While it was initially suspected that the man had acted out of jihadist motivations, he ultimately turned out to be not driven by political or religious terrorism but by “boredom”: in different internet fora, the man had enjoyed playing different ‘roles’, passing himself off in turns as a hard-core militarist, a far-right neo-Nazi, and a fervent jihadist.(( http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/vermischtes/urteil-maulwurf-verfassungsschutz-100.html ))

A state informer as an Islamist agent provocateur

In the case of Anis Amri, intelligence personnel has played an occasionally dubious role, too. Prior to his attack on the Christmas market, Amri moved in the orbit of hard-line preacher ‘Abu Walaa’, arrested in November 2016 for being the central node of ISIS’s network in Germany. Recent investigations have shed light on the potentially pivotal role of an inside man employed by the Verfassungsschutz within these circles.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/anschlag-in-berlin-die-mysterioese-rolle-eines-v-manns-im-fall-amri-1.3689391 ))

The undercover informer, working under the codename “Murat”, had driven Amri to Berlin on at least one occasion in 2016. Moreover, there is evidence that Murat pushed Amri to commit an attack in Germany: a Muslim man who had witnessed interactions between Murat and Amri turned to the police after the Christmas market attack, alleging that Murat had been a crucial influencer inciting Amri to violence against German targets.

Murat had reported to his superiors at the agency that Amri was considered a candidate for travelling to Syria in order to join local jihadist groups – rather than being prepared to mount an operation in Germany. Now the possibility emerges that Murat himself may have overplayed his role as an agent provocateur, thereby helping to pave the way for the Berlin attack.

Blurring lines between state intelligence bodies and terror groups

The case of “Murat” thus highlights the possibility that the inside agents of the Verfassungsschutz – called V-Männer in German intelligence jargon – may become important factors in the terrorist groups they are supposed to observe.

The resulting blurring of the lines between intelligence agency and terror group is not confined to the Islamist spectrum: Investigations into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) cell, who killed 10 (mostly immigrant) victims between 2000 and 2006 and was responsible for two bomb attacks as well as 14 bank robberies, have uncovered systematic linkages between the neo-Nazi terror group and the German intelligence community.(( http://taz.de/Die-NSU-Serie-Teil-2/!5350062/ ))

Shadow of the NSU case

Seven intelligence agencies paid more than 40 men and women inside the NSU’s network. Among them were high-level neo-Nazi functionaries; and many informers had a long criminal history ranging from incitement of racial hatred to attempted murder.

A high-level agent the Verfassungsschutz is suspected of having been at the scene of at least one of the NSU’s murders; and the agency’s informers have been accused of having sheltered NSU members and of having delivered weapons and explosives. After the NSU was discovered, the agency shredded a large number of documents pertaining to the NSU affair, protecting its informers and preventing the full investigation of the group to this day.

The Verfassungsschutz’s heavy reliance on inside men also caused the failure of an attempt to ban the neo-Nazi NPD Party in 2003: the fact that high-level NPD leaders were in fact paid informers of the domestic intelligence agency led the Constitutional Court to decide that the party could not be banned because it was too close to the state and hence not independent in its decisions.(( http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/v-mann-affaere-fatale-frenz-connection_aid_204938.html ))

Demands for more electronic surveillance

It is perhaps against this backdrop that agencies have recently renewed their demands for enhanced legal and technological tools that can help dispense with reliance on controversial V-Männer. The President of the Verfassungsschutz, Hans-Georg Maaßen, reiterated  his call that his agency be given access to online messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram. He also demanded enhanced competencies for surveillance of internet browsing.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/verfassungsschutzchef-maassen-fordert-mehr-technische-werkzeuge/20416986.html ))

One might be tempted to observe that none of these new tools would have been necessary to apprehend Anis Amri: existing legal possibilities would have been sufficient, had the various players in the police and intelligence communities only managed to work together and use them.

When asked about the failure to stop Amri, however, Maaßen continues to reject all responsibility. Instead, he places the blame at the feet of Angela Merkel’s (brief) open-door policy of summer 2015. Maaßen asserts that Amri crossed the border irregularly, that he had no legal claim to asylum, and that he should have been deported back to Italy under the rules of the Dublin system even before his agency should have become involved.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/geheimdienst-verfassungsschutz-fordert-mehr-befugnisse-a-1363344,0#artpager-1363344-0 ))

German Muslims’ react to election results, rise of far-right AfD party

Germany has gone to the polls – and the results have thoroughly shaken the country’s political scene. The impression, prevailing at times in sections of the liberal international media, of Germany as a beacon of stability in a Western world marred by the rise of populism had for a long time been a faulty one. The election results of September 24th should finally dispel this myth.

A diminished Chancellor

To be sure, Mrs. Merkel will most likely remain Chancellor for a fourth term. Yet after her CDU/CSU party obtained only 32.9 per cent of the popular vote – its worst score since 1949 – many are expecting her to step down and make way for a successor before the next scheduled elections in 2021.((http://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.kanzlerdaemmerung-in-berlin-wie-lange-bleibt-merkel-noch-kanzlerin.a322c77d-9fc8-4cff-9792-3569fd3cff5a.html ))

Not only the CDU/CSU took a drubbing, however – the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s junior partner in the outgoing coalition government, also suffered heavy losses. In what amounted to the SPD’s fourth electoral defeat since its ousting from the chancellery in 2005, the party only took 20.5 per cent of the vote – the worst results of the post-war era.

‘Jamaica’ coalition at odds on immigration, Islam

With the SPD immediately declaring that it would not join another Merkel-led coalition government, the Chancellor is now faced with the unenviable task of having to piece together a new government made up of her CDU/CSU party, the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP).

Whilst this coalition is gaily referred to as the “Jamaica” option because of the black, green, and yellow colours of its composite parties, reaching an agreement between conservatives, liberals, and ecologists will be anything but easy.

Not least with respect to questions of immigration, integration, identity, and Islam the three parties espoused strongly diverging positions throughout the electoral campaign. These differences are likely to harden now: the conservative wing of the CDU/CSU is attributing the severe losses of the election night to an insufficiently conservative profile. Long-standing critics of Merkel’s centrist course announced immediately after the publication of the first exit polls that they would seek to “close the party’s right flank”.((http://www.fr.de/politik/bundestagswahl/nach-der-wahl-seehofer-will-die-rechte-flanke-schliessen-a-1357158 ))

Ending Germany’s anti-populist ‘exceptionalism’

This ‘right flank’ had fallen prey to the large-scale electoral gains of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD had started as an anti-Euro movement; it centred on dissatisfaction with what it perceived as an overly concessionary stance on Mrs. Merkel’s part towards Greece and other southern European countries during the Eurozone crisis.

Yet the group quickly took on an anti-immigration line, particularly since the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees in 2015. Ever since, it has developed a staunchly Islamophobic profile and relied upon the calculated breaking of taboos in order to gain attention. Leading party functionaries have strong ties to the Pegida movement, as well as to the neo-Nazi scene.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/neue-abgeordnete-das-sind-die-radikalen-in-der-afd-fraktion/20361302.html ))

After scoring 12.6 per cent of the popular vote on September 24th, leading AfD politician Alexander Gauland announced to overjoyed supporters that this was the first step to “taking back our country and our people”. This statement built not only on the widespread populist slogan of ‘taking back control’, so widespread for instance in Brexit Britain. It also retained the völkisch-nationalistic tone of the AfD’s election campaign.((http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/bundestagswahl-gauland-afd-wird-die-bundesregierung-jagen.1939.de.html?drn:news_id=795978  ))

“What is wrong with this country?”

The AfD thus emerged as the biggest winner of the election night by far: in 2013, the party had failed to take the five-percent-threshold below which parties do not obtain any parliamentary seats. Whilst it had been expected that the AfD would make it into the Bundestag – and thus constitute the first far-right party to enter the national parliament since 1961 – the populists’ strong showing was nevertheless met with shock by German Muslims.

Many took to Twitter to express their incredulity: lawyer Serkan Kirli asked “What is wrong with this country?”(( https://twitter.com/RA_SerkanKirli/status/912216210045128704 )) And renowned journalist Hakan Tanrıverdi‏ felt like he “had been made a foreigner” by the millions who voted AfD.(( https://twitter.com/hatr/status/912026940986535936 ))

Religious leaders’ reactions

Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups have expressed their concerns over the AfD’s entrance to parliament. Many Christian leaders stressed that the party’s positions were irreconcilably opposed to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. (( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

Among the initial Muslim voices, the most widespread fear has been that the established parties might adopt the AfD’s far-right positions in an attempt to regain the trust of the populists’ electorate. Burhan Kesici, leader of the Islamic Council of Germany (IRD), voiced the expectation that “not a single Islamophobic or xenophobic statement be tolerated in the Bundestag”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ ))

Muslim representatives demand AfD’s ostracism

The Islamic Community Milli Görüş (IGMG) stated that “we expect a clear demarcation against the AfD’s positions”(( http://islamrat.de/kesici-zum-wahlausgang-wir-alle-tragen-eine-historische-verantwortung/ )); a sentiment echoed by Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). For even if the other parties should make the AfD’s suggestions their own, “in the end”, Mazyek asserted, “voters will not vote for the copy but the original”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Non-denominational organisations, such as those representing ethnic Turks in society and in politics, have taken a similar stance. For the Turkish Union in Berlin and Brandenburg (TBB), “the democratic parties are now called upon not to seek any cooperation with the AfD and to refrain from making any AfD positions their own.”(( http://tbb-berlin.de/?id_presse=634 ))

Approach towards AfD and its voter base unclear

What continues to be unclear from the formal statements of German Muslim figures, as well as from the post-election utterances of the mainstream parties, however, is how democratic forces should actually engage with the AfD and its sympathisers.

To many observers – Muslim or other – the desired ‘clear demarcation’ against the AfD amounts to de facto ignoring the populists. Yet it is not only that the AfD managed to gain millions of votes: judging from the party’s behaviour so far, its spite and disregard for democratic rules will simply be difficult to ignore in the Bundestag.

In a post-election opinion piece for the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Aiman Mazyek consequently noted that merely ‘ignoring’ the party would not do: “We should precisely not ignore [the AfD] but rather take on the controversial debate and lead it in the light of the defence of freedom and human rights”. What this might mean in practice remains of course to be seen.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

Explaining the AfD’s rise

In any case, the night of the election was less dominated by a discussion of how to deal with the AfD in the future Bundestag than by the attempt to make sense of its electoral success. Scrutinising the role of the media, ZMD chairman Mazyek highlighted the ways in which populists had managed to set the political agenda through their dominance of airtime.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/gastkommentar-des-zentralrats-der-muslime-was-wir-im-umgang-mit-der-afd-falsch-gemacht-haben/20370900.html ))

In particular, he criticised the TV duel, which had focused overwhelmingly on issues of migration, integration and Islam, and in which suggestions that migrants were dangerous scum wishing to drain the German welfare state and upend the country’s social order went unchallenged.

A deeper process

Yet whilst the media circus obviously boosted the AfD’s taboo-breaking messages by giving them a disproportionate share of the broadcasting time, the roots of right-wing populism in Germany are much deeper than suggested by a  mere focus on skewed pre-election media reporting.

The arrival of the AfD in the federal parliament only renders visible what had previously remained hidden under the surface (or, perhaps more accurately, been swept under the rug). On September 24th, mainstream observers and politicians alike were finally made to take note of the fact that a non-negligible part of the country no longer shares the very basics of the political consensus.

“Why did you vote AfD?”

In a sign of its befuddlement, the socially liberal Die Zeit newspaper asked “Why did you vote AfD?” and asked readers to describe their electoral motives in the comment section. The paper received hundreds of answers. These are of course not statistically representative; they are nevertheless illustrative of the parallel universe of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and paranoia many AfD voters live in.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-09/wahlentscheidung-warum-afd-gewaehlt ))

Responding to the Zeit’s question, one women commented that “I have voted for the AfD because I have thoroughly studied the Qur’an and the hadiths; terms such as ‘abrogation’ or ‘taquiyya’ [misspelling of the Arabic term original] are more than familiar to me.”

She went on to name the most trusted sources for her supposedly authoritative understanding of Islam. Pride of place was accorded to the right-wing blogs of ‘intellectuals’ such as Henryk M. Broder and Roland Tichy, both of which regularly pedal in conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim hatred.

‘Critics of Islam’

She also mentioned a barrage of books on the ‘Islamic danger’ that have often dominated Germany’s best-seller lists over the last few years. Authors include Hamed Abdel-Samad, Abdel Hakim Ourghi, Bassam Tibi, Zana Ramadani, or internationally-known Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Authors and activists such as Seyran Ateş and Ahmad Mansour also had the dubious honour of being included on her list. This shows the unfortunate development in which politically conservative voices get co-opted into the worldview of the radical right – even if they seek to avoid it and even if they might offer an understanding of issues such as jihadism that is at least in parts more nuanced.

A parallel discursive universe

All of these seemingly legitimate voices have created a far-right universe of immense depth. AfD sympathisers can move within this segregated sphere of ‘alternative facts’ without ever being confronted with diverging statements – or with a Muslim, for that matter: once more, support for the AfD was strongest in areas with the lowest number of immigrants.(( https://twitter.com/georgrestle/status/912271976185651200 ))

Consequently, the AfD’s stronghold continues to be the territories of the former GDR, where it obtained 21.5 per cent of the popular vote. In the state of Saxony, home of the Pegida movement and the site of some of the most vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-establishment hatred, the AfD emerged as the largest party, outdoing even the CDU in its former heartland.

In a somewhat ironical take on the election results, Green Party politician Belit Onay noted that it was therefore not Muslim immigrants who had created ‘parallel societies’ in Germany – a supposed development often presented as proof of insufficient integration. Instead, he argued, the true ‘parallel society’ existed in the AfD milieus of the East. ((https://twitter.com/BelitOnay/status/912010309031915521 ))

“Anxious citizens” and their fear of Islam

Many Muslims have also taken offence at mainstream politicians’ insistence – both before and after the election – that they would ‘take seriously’ the fears and worries of the AfD electorate. In a euphemistic turn of phrase, Pegida marchers and populist supporters have become known in Germany as ‘anxious citizens’ (besorgte Bürger).

This term connotes a predominantly but not uniquely Eastern swathe of the electorate that is in part hard-pressed by socio-economic conditions, yet whose overall fearfulness is squarely directed at cultural change associated with immigration.

According to statistics published by the ARD public broadcaster, 95 per cent of AfD voters feared “the loss of German culture and language”, and 92 per cent were afraid of “the influence of Islam in Germany”.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html )) This resonates with previous studies, in which 40 per cent of German respondents believed that the country was being ‘infiltrated’ by Islam.

Minorities not present during the campaign

In a piece titled “Here is an anxious citizen speaking”, journalist and activist Ferda Ataman castigated the fact that all parties rushed to embrace and legitimise the fears of the AfD electorate. Conversely, she observed, “no one spoke of the anxieties of Muslim, Jewish, or homosexual voters” in the face of the AfD’s rise.

In fact, she asserted, the voice of these minorities had been almost completely absent during the campaign, ensuring that everybody talked about them but that they were never at the table. In this way, racist, xenophobic, and sexist claims were never effectively contested in public.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-im-bundestag-hier-spricht-eine-besorgte-buergerin-kommentar-a-1169716.html ))

Pushing back against populism

Some hope that such contestation will take place now, and that the arrival of the AfD in the Bundestag will reinvigorate civil society activism – especially among those groups most targeted by the AfD’s programme. Christian religious leaders have already urged their community members to step up against nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, and to become politically active.(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/kirche-und-politik/2017-09-25/religionsvertreter-zu-den-ergebnissen-der-bundestagswahl ))

The Liberal Islamic Union (LIB), a small group of self-definedly ‘progressive’ Muslims, wrote in a Facebook post that the LIB was now “confronted with an important task: to continue to work together for an open and tolerant society, in which everybody has his or her space.”(( https://www.facebook.com/liberalislamischerbund/posts/1487350311300459 ))

Many existing Muslim civil society initiatives will also take the election result as a call to action: Ozan Keskinkılıç, one of the co-founders of the Berlin-based “Salaam-Shalom” initiative for Jewish-Muslim dialogue, emphasised his willingness to take up the fight with the surging forces of populism: when asked whether he was contemplating emigration from Germany, he vowed “I stay and thereby I resist”. ((https://twitter.com/ozankeskinkilic/status/912012221026271232 ))

Limited organisational footprint

It would surely be a most welcome development if the AfD’s success at the ballot box should lead to increased Muslim engagement in society and in politics. At the same time, financial and organisational resources of many Muslim initiatives continue to be exceedingly limited, and the political climate is likely to worsen in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, some think that the best hope for Germany’s Muslim community is the potential breakup of the AfD amidst infighting between its national-conservative and quasi-fascist factions. Indeed, the party’s short history has been thoroughly marked by infighting. Although these disputes have shifted the party to the right countinously, some observers expect the party to lose popular appeal as it becomes ever more radical.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/demoskop-richard-hilmer-zu-afd-das-geht-bis-tief-in-die-mittelschicht-hinein/13318392.html ))

Waiting for the AfD’s break-up?

Indeed, on the morning after the vote, AfD leader Frauke Petry (who had just been elected to the Bundestag) announced that she would not join her party’s parliamentary group. For months, Petry had wished to take her party on a firmly ethnonationalist yet parliamentary course, with the ultimate aim of forming a coalition with the CDU/CSU.

Her party base thoroughly rejected her ‘moderate’ stance, however, opting instead for an opening to the neo-Nazi flank and a more rabble-rousing style. Following Petry’s departure from the parliamentary group, leading counter-terrorism expert Peter Neumann commented sardonically: “The AfD is radicalising itself through successive schisms. Social scientists know such processes from terrorist organisations as well.”(( https://twitter.com/PeterRNeumann/status/912270720440373249 ))

Waiting for the AfD’s self-destruction nevertheless seems a risky gamble. Not only is the implosion of the populists not a foregone conclusion; even if it did happen, they might still manage to do severe harm to German democracy in the process.

German TV debate between Merkel and Schulz focuses on migration and Islam, catering to populists

German voters will choose a new chancellor on September 24 in an electoral contest pitting incumbent Christian Democrat Angela Merkel against Social Democrat Martin Schulz. After a brief surge in the polls earlier this year, Schulz’ SPD now looks set to lose the election to Merkel, trailing her CDU by about 15 percentage points in recent polls.

Four journalists steering the debate

Against this backdrop, the campaign’s only TV debate took place on September 03. Seen as the highlight of a previously rather lukewarm electoral contest, the debate was supposed to discuss four main topics in equal measure: migration, foreign policy, social justice, and internal security. Yet it was the first item on the list that took up nearly 60 of the debate’s 90 minutes.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/tv-duell-die-angst-der-moderatoren-vor-dem-mob-1.3652046 ))

The four TV journalists hosting the programme – and particularly Claus Strunz of the Sat. 1 TV network – honed in on questions of immigration and integration, giving the discussion distinctly populist overtones.

It was above all the hosts who presented refugees and migrants as a threat to internal security and as a drain on Germany’s resources; who insinuated that Islam was inherently irreconcilable with German constitutional principles; and who claimed that Muslims were unwilling and unable to participate in German society – in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Populist demeanour

In order to pressure the two candidates into conceding that politicians were unable to take effective control of migration and to ensure migrants’ integration, the hosts (again with Strunz in the lead) resorted to all available means. Shortly after the onset of the broadcast, Strunz appeared to deliberately falsify a quote by Martin Schulz, in which the SPD politician had stated that refugees were “more valuable than gold” – a fact that Schulz managed to call out.

Other misrepresentations went unquestioned, however – such as the claim that Germany was home to 226,000 people who had no legal right to stay and remained in the country only due to politicians’ failure to expulse them.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/claus-strunz-internetnutzer-empoert-ueber-tv-duell-moderator-a-1165932.html ))

One-sided discussion of migration

Summing up the TV event, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper noted that it was as if the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) had been a prominent guest in the studio. It also castigated the complete failure to discuss the issue of migration from any other but the most myopic of all perspectives.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/medien/tv-duell-die-angst-der-moderatoren-vor-dem-mob-1.3652046 ))

For instance, not one of the hosts’ questions dealt with the deplorable conditions faced by migrants in Libyan camps or with the deaths of thousands of men and women in the Mediterranean. Neither did anyone inquire about the hundreds of attacks on refugee shelters or the resurgence of right-wing terrorism plots in Germany.

Negative Muslim reactions

The reactions of the targeted ‘foreigners’ and ‘Muslims’ were, predictably, negative. Author and activist Imran Ayata summed up their sentiment when he asserted that the “clear winner” of the debate had been the AfD.(( https://twitter.com/ImranAyata/status/904416160086716417 ))

The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, noted that the hosts had fallen for the own “populist trap”. While moderator Claus Strunz had recently claimed that “populism is the Viagra of a flailing democracy”, Mazyek asserted that “populism is the Viagra of a flailing and ever more shallow media coverage”.(( http://www.huffingtonpost.de/aiman-mazyek/merkel-schulz-muslime-_b_17907854.html ))

Luay Mudhoon, renowned commentator on Islamic affairs, deemed the TV duel a “black day for German TV journalism” and bemoaned the “AfD-leaning leading questions”.(( https://twitter.com/Loay_Mudhoon/status/904426758325366785 )).

“Islam is a part of Germany”

Yet some Muslim observers chose to concentrate on the – rare – positive elements in the debate. The German-Turkish Journal welcomed the fact that both Chancellor Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz had stressed the positive contributions of many Muslims to German society and that they had agreed to the statement that “Islam is a part of Germany”, albeit in a somewhat roundabout manner.(( https://dtj-online.de/angela-merkel-bekraeftigt-der-islam-gehoert-zu-deutschland-tv-duell-87597 ))

This question – “Is Islam a part of Germany” or “Does Islam belong to Germany” (“Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland?”) – has been a staple of public controversy since a 2010 speech by then-President Christian Wulff. Wulff asserted that Islam was indeed part of Germany’s social fabric.

A question of belonging

Ever since, commentators have argued about whether ‘Islam’ can belong to Germany or whether only ‘Muslims’ can (but not ‘Islam’). The same discussion regularly resurfaces and never yields any conclusion, in part because the question is itself a non-starter and any answer to it always seems to degenerate into nothing more than semantic sophistries.(( An entire academic literature has focused on this debate. For an overview see Spenlen, Klaus (ed.) (2013), Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland? Fakten und Analysen zu einem Meinungsstreit. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press. ))

Many have nevertheless rejected the notion of allowing either Islam or Muslims any part in German identity, citing the country’s inherent and primordial ‘Judeo-Christian’ make-up. (There is always something slightly odd about this claim, given that not too long ago Germany thoroughly erased Judaism from European lands by killing six million of its adherents.)

The Muslim ‘other’

Responding to these pressures, some Muslim voices seek to highlight that they are ‘more German’ than others, also in order to advance their own agendas. Ercan Karakoyun, leader of the Gülen movement in Germany, tweeted during the debate: “A form of Islam that can be reconciled with the Basic Law? There is one! #Gülen movement.”(( https://twitter.com/ercankarakoyun/status/904417326442962944 ))

Ultimately, however, the enduring lesson of an evening spent in front of the television remains that people of Muslim faith are still seen as ‘other’ in significant parts of German society: ‘they’ really do not belong to ‘us’. The TV debate between Merkel and Schulz did nothing to challenge this perception and almost everything to reinforce it.

Saudi support for religious radicalism in Germany: old questions, still unanswered

The Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative British think-tank, has issued a new report harshly condemning Saudi Arabia for funding religious extremism in the West.

The report, so far not accessible to the public, has been submitted to the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. The Henry Jackson Society speaks of a “clear and growing link” between jihadist terrorism and Saudi money and support.(( http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-40496778 ))

Saudi religious activism in Germany

The Society’s findings have been eagerly taken up abroad as well, including in Germany. Germany, too, has witnessed repeated public debates on the role of Gulf money in supporting Islamist extremism. In late 2016, a German intelligence report claimed that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait were supporting radical Islamists in the country.

Speaking to Deutsche Welle, Susanne Schröter, anthropologist and professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Frankfurt, said that she was not at all surprised by the findings ofthe Henry Jackson Society. She asserted that Saudi Wahhabism was largely similar to the ideology of the so-called “Islamic State” and that the post-1979 Saudi attempts at exporting a rigid and violent understanding of religion had been a great success.(( http://www.dw.com/en/saudi-arabia-exports-extremism-to-many-countries-including-germany-study-says/a-39618920 ))

Long-standing accusations

In and of itself, none of these allegations are new. In journalistic as well as in academic discourse, it is commonplace to assert that the oil boom (al-tafra) allowed the Saudi Wahhabi establishment to go on such a spending spree that it managed to obtain what had eluded religious reformers for more than a thousand years – namely global hegemony over the Islamic nation (umma).

To be sure, this perspective has some valuable insights to offer: it is indeed true that the Saudi clerical and political establishments have sought to rely on the exportation of religious doctrine as a way of buttressing their own agendas. Nor can it be denied that individuals socialised in Saudi or Saudi-funded institutions have been amongst the proponents and perpetrators of jihadi violence.

Saudi money, Saudi control?

 

Yet what those pointing to the “Saudi connection” often fail to make explicit are the ways in which Saudi largesse does its work. More specifically, one might wonder about the extent to which Saudi monetary transfers to various religious causes and institutions actually lead to Saudi control. And here the Saudi track record does not look particularly good.

At almost every historical juncture – starting from the 1990/91 Gulf War, through the internal Saudi unrest of the 1990s and the wave of terrorist attacks of the early to mid-2000s, to the engagement of the Saudi state in Syria – the Islamist and jihadist scene, supposedly marked by the adhesion to Saudi dogma, in fact abandoned the Kingdom and worked on the side of the Kingdom’s enemies.

Local adaptations

In some ways, this should not come as a surprise: to many outside observers (Islamists and even jihadists included), the Saudi regime appears simply too corrupt and sclerotic to be worthy of sustained loyalty. And even where such questions of political allegiance take the back seat, Salafi preachers – even those educated in a Saudi setting – have always been forced to adjust their teachings to local circumstances.

To give but one rather colourful example in this regard, in order to make to with the gender norms prevalent in the country, Germany’s most well-known Salafi Pierre Vogel – touched upon in the abovementioned interview with professor Schröter – has stated that in the German context it is licit for women to have a prominent role as public speakers at gender-mixed Salafi events.

According to Vogel, haja (‘necessity’) in this case nullifies the prohibition on gender-mixing imposed by the doctrine of sadd al-dhara’i’ (‘blocking of the means’). Needless to say, this striking doctrinal innovation would certainly be regarded with a high degree of suspicion by Saudi scholars.((See Wiedl, Nina (2014). “Geschichte des Salafismus in Deutschland”. In Hazim Fouad and Behnam T. Said (eds.), Salafismus: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Islam. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder. ))

The attractiveness of the ‘Salafi’ creed

In her interview, Schröter discusses the proximity of various figures of the German Islamic associational scene to Saudi money and religious orthodoxy. Yet the precise workings of the stipulated causality are left unclear: how is it that generous financial backing from the Gulf leads to the radicalisation of Muslims in the West? And on which terms?

The most glaring lacuna in this respect is the failure to provide an account of the sources of the attractiveness of a Salafised religiosity: why is it that this particular religious form should be seen as appealing by a small but considerable number of European Muslims? Indeed, the Islamic tradition would offer a host of other spiritual paths, some of whom may also be deemed “radical” (though not necessarily violent).

More complex questions

This is not to deny the overwhelmingly illiberal nature of Saudi-sponsored religiosity. Nor is it to exclude that Saudi support may play a role in spreading a particularly rigid, Wahhabi-tinged religious thought and practice.  What appears necessary to scrutinise, however, are the ways in which a Wahhabi-Salafi creed resonates with the particular conditions of Muslim life in Germany and Europe.

This means going beyond pointing to Saudi funding of mosques and preachers. It means starting to ask a host of questions that may be far more difficult to answer, and the answers to which might be far more unsettling.

Insults and attacks: Muslim students from Berlin experience Islamophobia on Holocaust memorial trip

Anti-Semitic prejudice amongst Muslim youth has become an issue of growing concern in Germany. Schools, while at times being the site of anti-Semitic hatred,(( http://www.taz.de/!5406125/ )) have reacted by expanding educational opportunities aiming to combat the hostility to Jews exhibited by some of their students.

Grass-roots project combating anti-Semitism

The Theodor-Heuss comprehensive in Berlin has mounted one such educational initiative. Its project group “Remembrance”, founded by teacher Sabeth Schmidthals, takes groups of students to various sites of Jewish life and persecution in Europe.

Schmidthals says that the starting point for her project had been an in-class reading of Inge Deutschkron’s autobiographic book I Wore the Yellow Star, in which the author recounts her experiences as a Jew living in the Third Reich. It was in this context that “I noticed how strong the prejudice against Jews and also against Israel really is”, Schmidthals says.

As a response, she took her students on a trip to Israel in 2015; in 2016, they visited France and Spain. In June 2017, she and twenty predominantly Muslim 16- to 18-year-olds made their way to Poland, stopping in Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, and Krakow.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/theodor-heuss-schule-in-moabit-berliner-schueler-in-polen-rassistisch-beleidigt/19985282.html ))

Islamophobic assaults

In Poland, however, the remembrance of Jewish life and of the Holocaust was somewhat overshadowed by repeated Islamophobic assaults on Muslim group members. Hijab-wearing girls were particularly targeted, facing repeated insults as well as physical attacks: one was drenched in water, another one was spat at. A young man was threatened with a knife.

Some students were not served in shops, with shopkeepers asserting that they would only sell to Poles. Another female pupil was kicked out of a shopping centre when she spoke Persian on her phone. The group was also denied access to a synagogue in Lublin, with guards citing “security concerns”.

According to Schmidthals, a number of Polish bystanders stepped in to defend the group; yet they received no help from the authorities. When students sought to report some of the incidents at the local police station, they were laughed at.(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593 ))

Students’ reflections

Upon their return to Berlin, students voiced their astonishment at the events of their trip. One of them stated that they “had absolutely not expected something like this, especially not from a member of the EU.” A girl found it “very sad, because we came for them, in order to find out about their history.”(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593 ))

The school has forged intimate links of cooperation with the Haus der Wannseekonferenz, a memorial site and foundation located at the Berlin villa where Nazi leaders decided on the “final solution” in 1942. Its director expressed dismay at the students’ experiences: “I am particularly shocked that it happened to adolescents who are entrusted to us for this trip, and on a trip dealing with this topic [the Holocaust].”(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593 ))

The teacher echoed this sentiment, adding that “against the usual opinion that youth don’t care about this topic, especially not Muslim youth, I can say the exact opposite. The motivation is high.”(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/muslimische-schueler-in-polen-ich-wurde-angespuckt-die.1769.de.html?dram:article_id=389593 ))

Racism on an anti-racism trip

Berlin’s Minister for Education, Sandra Scheeres (SPD), condemned the incidents as “unacceptable”. A number of Polish-German organisations have written to the school to express their solidarity with the assaulted students.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/theodor-heuss-schule-in-moabit-berliner-schueler-in-polen-rassistisch-beleidigt/19985282.html ))

One can only hope that the events on their trip have sensitised students further to the plight that Jews have endured in Europe and still endure in many parts of the world today, and that their own experience with racism strengthens their resolve to reflect critically on all forms of racial oppression, including those directed at Jews.

Anti-Semitism rows highlight challenges of religious pluralism in Germany

Germany is often perceived as a country that has dealt exceptionally well with the ghosts of its past, most notably with respect to the reflection on the Holocaust. Yet upon closer inspection, the old demons do resurface and intermingle with contemporary political predicaments.

Nothing shows this more clearly than a series of ongoing rows that touch upon the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the context of a pluralistic society marked by strong immigration. Several events in recent months have shone a particularly harsh spotlight on the question of the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes among Germany’s growing Muslim population.

 

Anti-Semitic bullying at a Berlin school

In spring, a case of anti-Semitic bullying at a public school in Berlin made headlines. A 14-year-old pupil of Jewish faith was withdrawn from his school by his parents after having experienced four months of what appeared to be anti-Semitically-motivated taunts as well as severe physical aggression. The perpetrators had mostly been of Arab and Turkish extraction.(( http://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/antisemitismus-junge-verlaesst-schule-in-berlin-friedenau-nach-angriffen-a-1141494.html ))

The boy’s parents accused the school of having done too little too late to protect their son. The Friedenau Comprehensive School prides itself on being a multicultural and diverse environment and has the tagline “school without racism” as its motto. Consequently, the reproach implicit in many of the ensuing criticisms of the school’s handling of the case revolved around the fact that ‘political correctness’ towards mainly Muslim children appeared to have prevented a clear and resolute stance against anti-Semitism.(( https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article163675459/Der-hilflose-Anti-Antisemitismus.html ))

Defending the school

This, in turn, propelled into action a group of parents, who issued a public letter defending the school against what they deemed “unreflective and one-sided” reporting. The parents asserted that they were “left aghast by the attack” on the Jewish pupil and declared their solidarity with him and his family.

Yet they also stressed that tensions between different groups of students were the “outgrowth of international conflicts” in the Middle East, which made “religiously motivated disputes” inevitable.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/antisemitischer-vorfall-in-berlin-eltern-der-friedenauer-schule-nehmen-stellung/19623020.html )) The letter was met with a sceptical echo from Jewish voices, as well as from politicians.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/nach-uebergriff-an-friedenauer-schule-volker-beck-sieht-antisemitismus-in-elternbrief/19635496.html ))

Muslim anti-Semitism

The Friedenau school case highlights the complexities of religious coexistence in an increasingly pluralistic society. In recent years, Germany has witnessed a marked growth of both its Muslim and its Jewish population.

At the same time, a sociological study conducted in Germany has highlighted a persistently higher level of anti-Semitic attitudes especially among young people of Arab extraction, but also among their Turkish counterparts.(( https://causa.tagesspiegel.de/gesellschaft/antisemitismus-unter-muslimen/muslimische-jugendliche-haben-haeufiger-antisemitische-einstellungen-als-deutschsstaemmige.html ))

Derviș Hızarcı, chair of the Initiative against Anti-Semitism in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, nevertheless sought to stress in an op-ed for the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper that while there is Muslim anti-Semitism, “there has also never been more Muslim engagement against anti-Semitism and for Jewish-Muslim dialogue than today.”(( http://www.juedische-allgemeine.de/article/view/id/28253 ))

Islamic voices for inter-religious dialogue

Subsequently, a group of six Imams and 12 Muslim organisations based in Berlin issued a brief public statement in which they condemned anti-Semitic hatred and urged all Muslim believers to “act in ways that are worthy of our faith”. The statement also suggested that Muslim and Jewish representatives join hands for joint visits to schools in Berlin where anti-Semitic incidents have been reported.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/downloads/19752144/2/gemeinsamer-brief-von-muslimen-gegen-die-diskriminierung-und-ausgrenzung-von-juedischen-mitschueler.pdf ))

Responding to the Friedenau case, Ármin Langer and Ozan Keskinkılıç, the respectively Jewish and Muslim founders of the “Salaam-Schalom” initiative for inter-religious dialogue, stressed that both Jews and Muslims are often made to feel foreign in Germany. Similarly, both groups are constantly identified with external political groups and agendas – with political Islam or jihadism in the case of Muslims, with the policies of Benyamin Netanyahu in the case of Jews.(( http://www.fluter.de/antisemitismus-und-islamophobie-bei-salaam-schalom-kaempfen-juden-und-muslime-gemeinsam-dagegen ))

Against this backdrop, the two men urged a Muslim-Jewish entente against various racisms. Muslims should not be presented as a homogeneous anti-Semitic problem group; rather, care should be taken to strengthen the potential for inter-religious dialogue and to harness Muslim voices to a quest against discrimination targeting Muslims and Jews alike.

Division tactics by the populist right

Needless to say, bringing about this unity is far from easy. In the aftermath of the events at the comprehensive school, Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the far-right AfD party, sought to play upon the tension between Jewish and Muslim communities by asserting that her party was the “guarantor of Jewish life” in Germany.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/frauke-petry-nennt-afd-garant-juedischen-lebens-a-1142090.html ))

She went on to suggest that the increased immigration of Muslims was a direct threat to Germany’s Jewish population. This particularly blatant justification of the AfD’s Islamophobic agenda came shortly after a high-ranking AfD politician had disparaged the central Holocaust memorial in Berlin as an objectionable “memorial of shame” and called for “a 180 degree turn” in the ways in which Germans remember their past. Unsurprisingly, leading Jewish voices thus retorted that the AfD continued to be “unelectable” for Jewish voters.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/frauke-petry-nennt-afd-garant-juedischen-lebens-a-1142090.html ))

Shelved anti-Semitism documentary

The debate on anti-Semitic attitudes among Muslim immigrants and their descendants received further nourishment when the Franco-German TV channel Arte refrained from airing a documentary on anti-Semitism that it had commissioned in a joint venture with German public broadcasters WDR and ZDF.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany demanded that the documentary be shown and a range of public figures accused Arte of censorship. Conservative circles’ particular ire was reserved for the fact that the movie, which had focused on anti-Semitism of Muslim populations, had been shelved for what was deemed ‘political correctness’.

To right-wing commentators, the decision not to air it pointed to the widespread complicity of the liberal media in the Jew-hatred of the Islamic world.(( https://www.welt.de/kultur/article165401199/So-ist-die-Doku-die-von-Arte-zurueckgehalten-wird.html )) Conservative German-Israeli historian Michael Wolffsohn spoke for many like-minded observers when he accused Arte of “caving in to Islamist terrorism in preemptive obedience ”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/streit-um-antisemitismus-doku-zensur-bei-arte/19907424.html ))

Bumbling defence of the broadcaster

Initially, the WDR broadcaster’s editorial team asserted that the documentary had been shelved for its “one-sidedly pro-Israeli” stance.(( https://www.welt.de/kultur/article165401199/So-ist-die-Doku-die-von-Arte-zurueckgehalten-wird.html )) Subsequently, Arte issued a second, more elaborate press statement defending its decision not to air the documentary.

The channel’s director for programming, Alain Le Diberder, asserted that the commission for the documentary feature had explicitly demanded that the film provide “an overview of the contemporary strengthening of Antisemitism in various countries of Europe […], including in Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, Hungary and Greece”.

However, the directors had taken the liberty to fundamentally alter the project by creating a product focused on the Middle East. “We cannot accept that a producer and writer attempts to choose his subject freely in a unilateral manner and without consultation with Arte.” Le Diberder argued that Arte had been “consciously left in the dark with respect to these fundamental changes” to the film.(( http://www.arte.tv/sites/de/presse/files/antwort-von-alain-le-diberder-an-den-zentralrat-der-juden-in-deutschland.pdf ))

Limited Muslim reactions

Public comments by Muslim figures on the affair surrounding the documentary were relatively scarce. Ahmad Mansour, a well-known psychologist and public commentator on issues of (de-)radicalisation, wrote in a Facebook post that while he had not been part of the film crew, he “support[ed] the movie and its contents”. He castigated Arte’s decision to shelve the movie as “unacceptable and worrisome”.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/medien/streit-um-antisemitismus-doku-zensur-bei-arte/19907424.html ))

Yet for the most part, the discussion of the documentary subsequently turned into a shouting match as to whether and how the critique of Israel and of Zionism could be distinguished from anti-Semitism.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/kultur/-maischberger–zur-antisemitismus-doku-wolffsohn-lobt-wdr-haemisch-fuer–gelungene-pr–27839684 ))

Ultimately, the documentary did air on German public TV, yet with critical commentary and an additional “fact checking” feature. Of course this fact-checking device was hardly able to counter-balance the fiercely ideological positions that many of the documentary’s viewers undoubtedly held already before the turned on the TV to watch the film.

Reactions to ‘gender-equal’ mosque in Berlin: anger from abroad, limited impact at home

As Euro-Islam reported, lawyer and women’s rights activist Seyran Ateş has opened a gender-equal mosque in Berlin. After the first Friday prayers on June 16, co-led by Ateş and an openly gay French guest Imam, reactions to the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque have been strong, especially from Islamic authorities in Turkey and Egypt.

Reactions from Turkey

The Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs – Diyanet – mounted a fierce attack on Ateş’ project, describing it as “un-Islamic” and as an attempt to “undermine and destroy” religion. In a press release, Diyanet went on to declare that the mosque violated “the foundations of our sacred faith that are determined in the Quran and the sunna.”(( http://www.fr.de/politik/berlin-moabit-eine-moschee-fordert-den-islam-heraus-a-1300030 ))

Yet in keeping with the current political climate in Turkey, Diyanet’s most vociferous criticism was reserved for the alleged connections of the new mosque to the Gülen movement: “It is clear that this is a project of religious remodelling that has been implemented for many years under the leadership of Fetö [The Gülen Movement] and other nefarious organisations” – or so Diyanet argued.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/berlin-moabit-eine-moschee-fordert-den-islam-heraus-a-1300030 ))

Fake news of a Gülenist conspiracy

These allegations of Gülenist sympathies or influences were swiftly rejected by Ateş, who called the accusations “absurd”.(( http://www.ndr.de/kultur/Seyran-Ate-zur-Kritik-an-liberaler-Berliner-Moschee,journal888.html )) The Chair of the Gülenist Foundation for Dialogue and Education, Ercan Karakoyun, also denied any involvement with the mosque. He pointed out that while in a pluralist society his movement would tolerate Ateş’ initiative, her mosque “does not correspond to our vision of Islam”.(( http://www.berliner-kurier.de/berlin/kiez—stadt/ibn-rushd-goethe-moschee-morddrohungen-wegen-liberaler-moschee-in-berlin-27820764 ))

Karakoyun’s denial of any involvement with the new mosque came after Turkish TV channel AHaber had falsely named him as a confidant of Ateş’ and her mosque project; a claim that had resulted in death threats being uttered against Karakoyun. AHaber went on to label the opening of the mosque an act of “treason”.

Turkish newspaper Sabah spoke of the “liberal mosque madness” while also zeroing in on Ateş’ supposed links to Gülenism. The Star network described the mosque as a “Fetö-church” where women with headscarves would not be allowed to enter.(( http://www.fr.de/politik/berlin-moabit-eine-moschee-fordert-den-islam-heraus-a-1300030 ))

Reactions from Egypt

That Ateş’ initiative would be met with criticism from certain Turkish actors was, in many ways, to be expected: over the course of her career, the activist born to a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father had repeatedly been accused of fouling her own nest by Turkish media and decision-makers.

However, the opening of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque also brought to the scene the Egyptian state fatwa office, Dar al-Ifta’: “no to the violation of religious foundations – no to the liberal mosque”, the Office wrote in an official statement on Facebook.

The Cairene institution was particularly incensed at the gender aspect of the project, criticising the mixing of the sexes at the mosque, the fact that women were not obliged to wear a hijab while praying, and the fact that female Imams were leading the congregation. Dar al-Ifta’ denied that the project would combat religious extremism: “to the contrary – the disrespect of the foundational rules of a religion is extremism, too. This is an attack on the religion.”(( https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/fatwa-moschee-berlin-101.html ))

Reactions in Germany

The echo in Germany has been much more restrained. The main Islamic associations have kept a guarded silence vis-à-vis the new mosque, although the chairman of the Islam Council (IR) stated that he did not believe that the mosque’s approach was in accordance with the basic tenets of Islam.(( https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-germany-a-new-feminist-islam-is-hoping-to-make-a-mark/2017/06/16/fc762d00-529c-11e7-b74e-0d2785d3083d_story.html?utm_term=.fcc83e557c0f ))

The Frankfurt-based hardline organisation “Reality Islam” castigated the mosque as an example of “the disfigurement of Islam and its emptying of all meaning in Germany”. Ateş project, for them, is a form of “intellectual colonisation” that seeks to illegitimately “redefine Islam in accordance with Western ideas of gender equality.”(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/berliner-moschee-fuer-liberale-muslime-der-islam-gehoert-nicht-den-fanatikern/19919994-all.html ))

Ateş defends herself

Againt this backdrop, Ateş sees her long-standing criticism of conservative Islamic associations as vindicated: in an interview with the NDR network, she – perhaps somewhat simplistically – stated that authorities such as Egyptian Dar al-Ifta’ had not criticized and attacked al-Qaeda or the Islamic State as they had attacked her. “This shows the true face of the fundamentalists”, she asserted.(( http://www.ndr.de/kultur/Seyran-Ate-zur-Kritik-an-liberaler-Berliner-Moschee,journal888.html ))

Ateş also expressed dismay at the fact that many deem her commitment to an Islamic religiosity to be disingenuous. Her initial announcement that she would open a mosque had been met with surprise, given the fact that in the public’s perception her persona had been associated with a critical – even hostile – stance towards Islam and an atheist positioning.

In an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, Ateş highlighted that already in her 2003 autobiography she had stated that she did not fight Islam but patriarchy. “Yet there are people who have never bought that I’m a believing Muslim.”(( http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/imamin-seyran-ates-muslime-organisiert-euch.886.de.html?dram:article_id=388789 ))

Positive yet muted feedback

According to Ateş, “95 per cent” of the feedback she has received for her mosque initiative has been positive, especially from the Kurdish community. Nevertheless, participation at the first Friday prayers has been somewhat muted: at the congregation on June 16 there were more journalists than worshippers.(( http://www.berliner-kurier.de/berlin/kiez—stadt/allah-fuer-alle-hier-beten-maenner-und-frauen-gemeinsam-27808522 ))

The mosque has nevertheless sparked some interest from elsewhere: Muslims from Hamburg and Bremen have established contact with Ateş; they seek to open their own mosques and to join forces in a new, liberal Islamic association.(( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/berliner-moschee-fuer-liberale-muslime-der-islam-gehoert-nicht-den-fanatikern/19919994-all.html ))

Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika: “Muslims need new ways to approach their religious heritage”

The German Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it′s possible to find and develop a way of engaging critically with your own religious tradition, says Islamic studies scholar Armina Omerika in an interview with Canan Topcu.

When did you first hear about Martin Luther?

Armina Omerika: I think I heard his name for the first time as a schoolgirl, in history lessons, but I don′t remember precisely when that was. For me, the figure of Luther is part of my general knowledge.

But many Muslims don′t even know about Luther′s existence, let alone his significance for Christianity – isn′t that true?

Omerika: I can′t say whether, what or how much each individual knows. And it certainly depends on a person′s educational background. The level of awareness of Luther among Muslims certainly also has something to do with the context in which they learn about Christianity.

In some Muslim societies – in the Middle East, for example – other forms of Christianity are more well known: Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. What people in Germany are often unaware of is that Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East actually studied the Reformation in depth during the 19th century, being sometimes even influenced by contemporary debates within German Protestantism.

Nevertheless, even people with a biographical connection to Christianity aren′t necessarily particularly well informed about Luther as a historical figure or his theological relevance.

From the viewpoint of an Islamic theologian, what stands out about Luther?

Omerika: The fact that Luther questioned the status of clergy keeps being picked up on by Islamic theologians – mainly because this institution doesn′t exist in Islam at all. In terms of the history of ideas, however, what is important to Islamic theologians is Luther′s image of Islam and Muslims and how it developed. It is well worth taking a closer look at the historical reception, the context and the reasoning behind such a negative image of Muslims.

In my view, it functioned as intra-societal criticism and had little to do with Muslims, particularly since Luther had absolutely no contact with Muslims; they weren′t part of his world. The criticism of Muslims was linked to criticism of the Catholic Church.

Is it actually important for Muslims today to study Luther?

Omerika: Yes, absolutely. One of the main arguments for studying Luther is the way he and his legacy are now being handled by Protestant theologians. The Evangelical Church in Germany, as well as colleagues in university theology departments, communicate and discuss Luther′s position on Jews, women, Muslims and social hierarchies quite openly. At the same time Christian theologians remain willing to pick up on other ideas put forward by Luther, building on them and bringing them to fruition.

The Evangelical Church′s relationship with Luther shows Muslims that it is also possible for us to find and develop a critical approach to our own religious tradition.

The current “situation” in the Islamic world is often explained by the fact that there was no Reformation there. So does Islam need its own Reformation?

Omerika: I don′t think calls for reformation contribute much to the theological debate. Luther′s thought and work should be seen as a reaction to a very specific historical context. And that context can′t be mapped onto present-day Muslim societies. The problems that without doubt exist in the Islamic world are entirely different to those that existed in the German principalities of the 15th and 16th centuries; the crises in Muslim societies are the result of many factors such as poverty, the battle for resources, post-colonial problems, an absence of the rule of law and insufficient democratic legitimisation.

As far as Islamic thought is concerned: yes, it needs to reorient itself, the traditional texts need to be re-read and historicised. Traditional modes of thought should be examined to see whether their methodological and epistemological bases still provide a firm foundation today. Not just the content, but the processes by which we engage with the content need to be re-examined. There needs to be some thought given to whether the positions taken in the past still offer adequate solutions for Muslims today. The answer to these problems does not, however, lie in a reformation modelled on historical examples from another age.

Muslims certainly need new ways to approach their religious heritage – with a view to the present and the future – but what they don′t need is the approach favoured by radical factions: drawing on the past, a time when there were entirely different social models. Nor however do they need to draw on the Reformation, which for all its benefits, remains a historical phase that can never be recalled.

Canan Topcu

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Anti-terror march highlights activism as well as divisions among German Muslims

Initially, reactions on the part of German Muslim leaders to the attacks in Manchester and London had been muted, with a sense of the routinized and somewhat hapless repetition of well-worn formulas of shock and condemnation prevailing.

Fighting against complacency

This limited response has not gone unnoticed, with many criticising Islamic associations and Muslim representatives for their relative silence on recent events. The psychologist and renowned expert on jihadi radicalisation Ahmad Mansour spoke for many when he accused the country’s Islamic organisations of complacency.(( https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/zdf-morgenmagazin/zdf-morgenmagazin-clip-14-242.html ))

Now, however, Islamic scholars and activists have called for a public demonstration in Cologne on Saturday, June 17. United under the slogan #NichtMitUns (#NotWithUs), protestors gathered to reclaim their religion from what they deem to be its usurpation by extremists.(( http://www.ramadan-friedensmarsch.de/ ))

Striving for greater visibility

One of the organisers, Islamic scholar and chairwoman of the Liberal-Islamic Union (LIB), Lamya Kaddor, asserted prior to the event that she was hoping for the demonstration to send a strong and noteworthy signal to terrorists and mainstream society alike.

Kaddor observed that “every Islamic organization writes a press release after every attack, and Islamic legal opinions have been drawn up by leading theologians. Yet these things are not publicly noticed.”(( http://www.ksta.de/koeln/muslime-demonstrieren-gegen-terror–manchester-hat-das-fass-zum-ueberlaufen-gebracht–27778146 ))

Broad endorsements

The initiative started by Kaddor and others, including peace activist Tarek Mohamad, has received broad support. Fellow religious leaders, such as Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Lutheran Church in Germany, have tweeted their support.(( https://twitter.com/landesbischof/status/875301959284248576 ))

Politicians, such as Cemile Giousouf, the CDU’s first Muslim Member of Parliament, are equally supportive of the rally. Approving statements have also been made by Social Democratic and Green Party politicians.(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo ))

Reception among Muslim representatives

The echo among other Muslim leaders has been somewhat more complex. Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), stated that his organization would take part in the march.(( http://www.rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/aiman-mazyek-vom-zentralrat-der-muslime-zur-demo-in-koeln-aid-1.6873750 )) The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, so far the only Muslim group to obtain full legal recognition in some of Germany’s 16 states, also announced its participation.(( https://twitter.com/presseahmadiyya/status/874666652864040962 ))

Further support came from authors and activists, such as Islamic feminist Kübra Gümüsay, who called upon Muslims to “emancipate themselves” from a situation in which they are merely reactive to Islamophobic insinuations: according to her, the Cologne march offers the possibility for a Muslim voice to “become the driving force of a peace movement”.(( http://www.ndr.de/ndrkultur/sendungen/freitagsforum/Kommentar-Muslime-demonstrieren-fuer-Frieden,freitagsforum488.html ))

Critical voices

Nevertheless, even within ZMD, support for the march has not been unanimous. The association’s deputy, Mehmet Alparslan Çelebi, has voiced his suspicion that the event will merely reinforce the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims.

The chairman of the Islamic Council (IR), of which the Islamist-leaning Islamic Community Millî Görüş is the biggest member, has been even more categorical in his rejection of the demonstration. He points to the considerable number of comparable public events in the past two years; events that, according to him, have neither helped to dissipate Islamophobic prejudice (as exemplified by repeated calls for Muslims to ‘distance’ themselves anew after every attack), nor been conducive to addressing the root causes of terrorism.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/06/13/zeichen-gegen-terror-setzen/ ))

DITIB refuses to participate

Yet public attention has, once more, focused on Germany’s numerically largest Islamic association, DITIB. Although the organisation’s Chairman had initially welcomed the announcement of the rally((http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 )), a DITIB press release subsequently stated that “demands for ‘Muslim’ anti-terrorism demonstrations fall short, stigmatise Muslims and unduly focus international terrorism on Muslims, their communities and mosques – this is the wrong path and the wrong signal, for this kind of assignation of blame divides society.”(( http://ditib.de/detail1.php?id=603&lang=de ))

On a practical level, DITIB asserted that – due to their commitment to fasting – Muslims could not be expected to take to the streets and demonstrate on a summery day in the month of Ramadan. (Although it might be noted that with the weather forecast predicting temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius and an overcast sky, health risks should have been manageable.)

Faultlines among Islamic associations

DITIB went on to castigate the organisers of the demonstration for what it perceived as a failure to consult with DITIB and others in order to reach a consensus prior to publicly announcing the rally. DITIB also accused Kaddor of being too eager to please and of being the instrument of ulterior and potentially Islamophobic political interests.

Kaddor herself had sought to pre-empt such criticism, by arguing that “it’s not about distancing. We have no reason to distance ourselves, because we are not close to these criminals. But what is at stake is a clear affirmation on our part to our open and pluralistic society. What is at stake is a condemnation of terrorism. For yes, it does have something to do with Islam if other people blow themselves up in its name and kill others.”

To accuse Kaddor of pandering to Islamophobic sentiments, is, however, at least questionable if not outrightly disingenuous. Kaddor herself had in the past repeatedly taken a bold stance against supposedly ‘liberal’ Islamic initiatives that may in fact only serve as a fig leaf for marginalising discourses.

Criticism from the other end of the spectrum

Given this political positioning of Kaddor’s, it is not surprising that those who have taken a much more confrontational line against Islamic conservatism in the past – and whose activism has often earned them the praise of those on the political right flirting with Islamophobic prejudice – have been almost as critical as DITIB of the protest march.

For instance, Seyran Ateş, a lawyer and activist for women’s rights who recently made headlines with her planned opening of a gender-equal mosque in Berlin, asserted that the march was in some sense too little too late and disparaged Lamya Kaddor’s statements as “sad”.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 ))

Ideological divergences, political differences

In these squabbles, ideological or doctrinal differences, personal enmities, and jockeying for public and political influence seem to intermingle quite freely. Ateş’ and Kaddor’s dispute is in part reflective of substantive disagreements: the two women have a different understanding of Islam, a different agenda, and a correspondingly different set of political sympathies.

Yet Ateş’ categorical rejection to participate in any of Kaddor’s events might also be linked to the fact that Ateş’ gender-equal mosque is due to open its doors on the eve of the planned peace march in Cologne and that Ateş is planning her own anti-terror demonstration in Berlin.(( http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/berlin/friedensmarsch-in-berlin-tausende-muslime-wollen-gegen-terror-und-gewalt-demonstrieren-27783342 )) Any competition over the leadership of a ‘liberal’ Islam is therefore most unwelcome.

Political momentum

Initially, the political momentum appeared to be with Kaddor: DITIB’s non-participation has been harshly criticised, with the federal government’s Commissioner for Integration, Aydan Özoguz, stating that DITIB “is positioning itself even further on the sidelines and is threatened with an altogether final loss of credibility.” (( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo ))

The Green Party leader Cem Özdemir echoed this criticism, asserting that “it is beyond me that DITIB does not make use of this possibility to send a clear signal of solidarity.”(( https://www.domradio.de/themen/islam-und-kirche/2017-06-16/kritik-ditib-wegen-absage-anti-terror-demo )) Even Chancellor Merkel stated her support for the rally.((https://twitter.com/RegSprecher/status/875699500043689986 ))

A disappointing turnout

Subsequently, however, the march suffered from a disappointingly low turnout. Instead of the up to 10,000 demonstrators that had been expected, only roughly 1,000 ended up congregating in Cologne.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/demonstration-in-koeln-den-islam-von-den-terroristen-zurueckerobern-1.3548979 ))

For now, further marches are planned by Kaddor in other German cities, including Berlin and Hamburg. Whether these marches will still take place, and how the politics around them will evolve, remains to be seen.

Germany’s DİTİB rocked by internal dissent, dismissals, and disputes

 

Recent months have not been kind to Germany’s largest Islamic association, the Turkish DİTİB. Particularly since the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the organisation has been under fire for its real and supposed proximity to the Turkish government.

This criticism received new force when it was revealed that DİTİB’s Imams had done the dirty work of the Turkish authorities by spying and informing on suspected members of the Gülen movement in Germany.

Growing internal dissent

In all of this, DİTİB as an organisation and its internal workings have often continued to appear inscrutable. Compared to the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) and its ambitious chairman Aiman Mazyek, DİTİB is also less present and outspoken in the public debate, adding to the sense of mystery surrounding the association.

Yet the post-coup political maelstrom and the deteriorating German-Turkish diplomatic relations appear to lead to growing internal dissent and schisms within DİTİB that are increasingly visible from the outside.

Asylum for DİTİB Imams?

DİTİB’s Imams are Turkish state employees, sent to Germany for a number of years before returning back home to Turkey when their contracts with DİTİB’s close to 1,000 mosques in Germany run out.

Since the coup attempt, however, a number of DİTİB Imams have asked for political asylum in Germany, for fear of arrest and persecution should they return to Turkey, due to their (past) affiliation with the Gülenist movement.(( https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Ditib-Bei-den-Ermittlungen-wegen-Spionage-laeuft-erheblich-viel-schief-3664619.html ))

Internal criticism repressed

In February 2017, Murat Kayman, coordinator of DİTİB’s local German branches stepped down from all of his DİTİB offices. Kayman had also been a member of the powerful DİTİB section in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, home to a large share of German Turks.

Kayman had been widely perceived as one of the key advocates of a greater structural independence of DİTİB from the Turkish state, and his departure was seen as having occurred due to considerable internal pressure. At the time of his resignation, Kayman warned that all sides to the various ongoing German-Turkish disputes needed to “disarm verbally and to focus on substantive questions if they do not want to jeopardise durable coexistence”.(( http://www.ksta.de/koeln/murat-kayman-ditib-vorstand-legt-aemter-nieder—rueckt-verband-enger-an-ankara-heran–25773130 ))

Resignation of DİTİB’s youth leadership

Yet Kayman’s departure has not been the endpoint of DİTİB’s internal turmoil. In May 2017, the entire governing board of DİTİB’s youth organisation, the Union of Muslim Youth (Bund der Muslimischen Jugend, BDMJ), announced its collective resignation. The move came after the senior German DİTİB leadership had forcibly transferred two of BDMJ’s functionaries.

The BDMJ leadership complained that a meaningful continuation of their work had become impossible “in the face of the current situation that has been persisting for more than a year.” The youth leaders, who – like most of DİTİB’s grassroots functionaries, work on a voluntary basis – complained of “having been by-passed and not taken seriously once more” in the context of the dismissal of its two members.(( https://dtj-online.de/ditib-jugend-bdmj-ruecktritt-83748 ))

Local dismissals

The internal upheaval in the German DİTİB branch has also reached the very local level. In recent months, DİTİB’s highest functionary in Berlin apparently forced a change in the governing board of the German capital’s famous Şehitlik mosque (pictured above) by manipulating the list of candidates eligible to be elected.(( https://dtj-online.de/ditib-jugend-bdmj-ruecktritt-83748 ))

In other mosques, DİTİB Imams that were suspected of political disloyalty were fired. They subsequently contested their dismissal in court. Although the Imams lost their cases – the court stated that not DİTİB but the Turkish state was their employer – these affairs nevertheless cast a glaring light on the internal state of the association.(( http://www.lto.de/recht/nachrichten/n/arbg-koeln-entlassung-kuendigungsschutzklage-imame-ditib-moscheegemeinde-arbeitgeber/ ))

Pre-existing tensions

The recent events in Turkey and in German-Turkish relations have aggravated and brought to the fore a tension that, in fact, already predates these developments. In many respects, this is a tension over the future direction of DİTİB in particular and of Muslim associational life in Germany more generally.

The youth wings of Germany’s Muslim associations are filled by young men and women born and raised in Germany. Irrespective of their continued affinity to the country of origin of their parents or grand-parents, their upbringing in the German context has nevertheless shaped them in manifold ways.

Generational conflict

By contrast, the organisations’ ‘old guard’ remains essentially Turkish (in the case of DİTİB), with Imams and functionaries being sent by (and returning to) the Turkish state. Thus, the fallout between the DİTİB leadership and the association’s youth wing is also a generational dispute, in which the former is accusing the latter of having become “too German”.(( https://www.pressreader.com/germany/leipziger-volkszeitung/20170529/281608125386373 ))

DİTİB is not the first organisation to experience this conflict, either. In recent years, the German youth section of the Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG) has also clashed time and again with the old leadership. The IGMG’s youth wing wished to break with an orthodoxy that seemed too traditionalist and too ‘Turkish’.((See El-Menouar, Yasemin (2013). “Islam und Sozialkapital: Beispiele muslimischer Gruppierungen in Deutschland”. In Klaus Spenlen (ed.), Gehört der Islam zu Deutschland? Fakten und Analysen zu einem Meinungsstreit. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press, 2013, pp. 382 ff.)

Future prospects

All this highlights the ways in which the German Islamic associational scene is in turmoil; especially the parts that are predominantly Turkish or of Turkish heritage. What remains to be seen is the ultimate outcome of this unrest.

Some, such as Lamya Kaddor, Islamic scholar and leading member of the Liberal Islamic Union (LIB), see the personnel changes as indicative of a new era of contestation and of much-needed debate. Especially the dissatisfaction among younger members shows, according to Kaddor, that Germany’s Islamic associations need to become more open, more democratic, and more adapted to the needs of Muslims living in Germany if they want to stay relevant.

At the same time, the internal purge that appears to be going on within DİTİB also raises the obverse possibility – of an association that is more and more under the conclusive control of fierce loyalists of the AKP and President Erdoğan and bereft of any alternative voices. In that case, dissenters will be faced by a formidable task of organising themselves anew outside of any existing fora.