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.

Manchester terrorist turned from drug-user to suicide bomber

Salman Abedi, the Manchester terrorist attacker, smoked cannabis and dropped out of the University of Salford (where he was studying for a business degree). Some  of his friends say he may have been involved in gangs before he became radicalised. After quitting university, he worked at a bakery.

Some experts are seeing this trajectory  as a  somewhat typical  shift from crime to  terrorism. Because criminals are accustomed to violence, according to some, there is a smaller jump to political violence.

At one point, Abedi flew an  ISIS flag from his Manchester home but the police did not interview.

Abedi attended the Burnage Academy for Boys between 2009 and 2011 but the school did not make a statement because of the status of the investigation.

Neighbours were not very familiar with Abedi but noticed a recent increase in the religiosity of his appearance. Friends from school said that he was ‘fun’ until he went to Libya in 2011. Abedi reportedly had just returned from a trip to Libya a few days before the attack.

Abedi’s cousins were arrested as well and two of them were recently released.

Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM ) will interview presidential candidates on secularism and discrimination

One month before the first round of elections, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) sent letters to the presidential candidates on March 23 requesting interviews. According to the CFCM, contacts have already been made to “solicit a meeting.”

“We have have reached an agreement with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon, Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon” stated CFCM’s president Anouar Kbibech. “As for Marine Le Pen, we must decide on the course of action to be taken. It all depends on what happens in the next few weeks.”

The themes the CFCM intends to discuss are broken into two principal categories: their “vision for secularism” and their response to “the fears and worries” of French Muslims regarding discrimination and amalgamations that are made between their religion and terrorism.

 

Jewish scholar prosecuted for anti-Muslim remarks in France

One of the world’s leading historians on the Jewish communities in Arab countries is being prosecuted in France for alleged hate speech against Muslims.

The Morocco-born French-Jewish scholar Georges Bensoussan, 64, is due to appear before a Paris criminal court over a complaint filed against him for incitement to racial hatred by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, the group recently announced on its website.

The complaint, which leading French scholars dismissed as attempt at “intimidation” in a statement Friday, was over remarks about anti-Semitism by Muslims that Bensoussan, author of a definitive 2012 work entitled “Jews in Arab Lands,” made last year during an interview aired by the France Culture radio station, the Collective said.

The Collective based its complaint on two remarks by Bensoussan.

“Today, we are witnessing a different people in the midst of the French nation, who are effecting a return on a certain number of democratic values to which we adhere,” read the first quote flagged.

The second quote cited read: “This visceral anti-Semitism proven by the Fondapol survey by Dominique Reynié last year cannot remain under a cover of silence.” Conducted in 2014 among 1,580 French respondents, of whom one third were Muslim, the survey found that they were two times and even three times more anti-Jewish than French people as a whole.

“Besides, with the animosity toward the French nation, there will be no integration as long as we will not be rid of this ancestral anti-Semitism that is kept secret (…) as an Algerian sociologist, Smain Laacher, very bravely said in a film that will be aired on France 3, ‘it’s disgraceful to keep in place this taboo, knowing that in Arab families in France and beyond everybody knows but will not say that anti-Semitism is transmitted with mother’s milk,” the quote continued.

At least 12 people have been murdered in three attacks by suspected jihadists from France on Jewish targets in that country and in Belgium since 2012.

The anti-Islamophobia collective called Bensoussan’s statements “dangerous and in line with far-right rhetoric” targeting Muslims.

But three prominent French writers and historians — Jacques Tarnero, Yves Ternon and Michel Zaoui – disputed the allegations, calling the complaint against Bensoussan “scandalous.”

The cautions taken against Bensoussan “are part of a strategy of intimidation intended to censure any lucid statement, any form of criticism,” they wrote in a statement they published online last week.

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France wrote in its statement that Paris prosecutors initiated the prosecution against Bensoussan “in light of the gravity of his remarks.”

 

French government under pressure from mayors to release watch list

The French government is resisting pressure from conservative mayors who are demanding access to a confidential list of security suspects, including thousands suspected of Islamist radicalization.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said this week he would not provide the information to mayors who want to act against – presumably by trying to expel – residents of their cities and towns who appear on the so-called S File or S List.

Cazeneuve in a newspaper interview pointed out that people on the list, while they are monitored, are not subject to an arrest warrants “because there is no proof that they are really dangerous. They are only suspects.”

“The need for confidentiality in the investigations is essential,” he added. “Thanks to the confidentiality in the investigations, we have arrested 355 people linked to terrorist networks since January.”

Cazeneuve said the government should find a way to involve mayors in the process of preventing radicalization, but without hampering the efficiency of the intelligence agencies and their work.

Last month Guy Lefrand, the conservative mayor of Evreux, a small town in Normandy, asked intelligence and police agencies to provide him with names of people on the S List living in his city and suspected of being radicalized.

“France is under a state of emergency, and it is the duty of the state to give us access to the S List,” he told reporters at the time. “If the state won’t provide this information, I demand that they take the responsibility for removing these people from my town.”

Several other mayors joined their voices to Lefrand’s. The Association of Mayors of France plans to meet with Cazeneuve in the coming weeks to discuss the issue.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who is running for a fresh term in elections next year, has promised that if he is elected he will immediately organize a referendum to ask whether citizens agree those listed in the S List should be subject to administrative detention.

First created in 1969, the S (the S stands for State Security) List includes the names of people considered potentially dangerous and therefore subject to surveillance by police and intelligence agencies.

Those listed include gangsters, anarchists, unionists, anti-nuclear campaigners and suspected Islamist radicals or Muslims in the process of radicalization. It includes people who have visited jihadist websites, met with radicals outside mosques in France, or traveled – or tried to travel – to Syria to join the jihad.

Today some 20,000 people are listed, of whom around 10,500 are suspected radicals or individuals in the process of becoming radicalized, according to numbers published at the beginning of 2016. The individuals are under physical and phone surveillance but are only subject to arrest if they commit a crime, or are suspected to be ready to do so.

The list is overseen by France’s internal and external security agencies, and only their staffers, along with senior government officials, have access. Even where police are instructed to monitor someone listed, the agencies do not generally give reasons.

Nathalie Goulet, a center-right senator and vice-chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee, initially supported divulging the names of listed people, but has changed her position.

“I agree with Interior Minister Cazeneuve not to give names to mayors or to anyone else,” she said in a phone interview. “I think it is important that intelligence agencies work in confidentiality. And don’t forget that not only does the list encompass a lot of different people, not all linked to terrorism or radicalization, but that they have not been prosecuted.”

Goulet said some of the mayors who are pressuring Cazeneuve are motivated by the upcoming elections.

“They know that there are only presumptions against the listed people, and nothing else,” she added.

 

Tareq Oubrou’s argument for why Islam belongs in France

Tareq Oubrou is the leader of the Muslim community in a city famous for the earthy red wines that have made this region a household name — and that his followers are forbidden from sampling.

But after three major terrorist attacks in two years and recent controversy over the “burkini” swimsuit, Oubrou has become France’s leading advocate for an Islam that is progressive, inclusive and, most of all, French.

In a series of articles, television interviews and now a popular book, Oubrou has publicly criticized the headscarf, argued for welcoming homosexual Muslims into the faith and equated the essence of Islam with the basic French idea of human emancipation.

For this imam, the two are one and the same — and entirely unrelated to the frequent public debate over what Muslim women wear, either on the street or on the beach.

“I don’t care what people put on their heads,” he said during an interview in his office in Bordeaux’s grand mosque. The room was piled with books from floor to ceiling. “I find that a shameful debate.”

In his recent book, “What You Don’t Know About Islam,” published in February, Oubrou calls for an “Islam of France,” which he defines as “the reconciliation of a spiritual Islam that expresses itself in the language of the Republican values already in place.” Namely, France’s holy triumvirate of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Largely for ideas like these, Oubrou has become a darling of the French political elite. In 2013, he was named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest award for civil and military merit; in January 2015, he was chosen by the Interior Ministry as a special adviser to the government after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. There are even rumors that he could become a government minister if Bordeaux’s mayor, the popular Alain Juppé, wins the country’s presidential election next year.

But his ideas have also earned Oubrou many detractors, including a number of ordinary French Muslims, who feel that his views often parrot those of the government. After all, the same people who decorated Oubrou with the Legion of Honor ultimately condoned the burkini ban, on the grounds that it was an affront to republican equality.

“It’s coming from a good intention, I think,” Marwan Muhammad, director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said in an interview. “But many see his vision of Islam — that Muslims should be discreet, should be less visible than they are today — as basically validating Islamophobic stereotypes, that basically Muslims should prove their loyalty to the state by assimilating.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has issued several fatwas against Oubrou, whom its leaders regularly call the “imam of debauchery.” “He should be killed without hesitation,” insisted Dar al-Islam, its French-language magazine, in its spring issue. Oubrou says he has not lost any sleep over this latest threat — and still refuses the government’s offer of police protection. “If I were afraid, it would be a defeat,” he said.

To Oubrou, France has been since the French Revolution less of a country and more of a concept, committed to human rights and universal equality. And these, he argues, are the same lofty aspirations as those of Islam and any true religion.

“The Muslim faith is in the service of all humanity in general — as is the nation,” he said. “That’s what religion is: how to serve man, how to transform him, to make man as perfect as possible in thought, in sensibility, in spirituality, in relation to the mysteries of God.”

Born in Morocco to Francophone parents in 1959, Oubrou was naturalized as a French citizen in the late 1980s. It was a watershed moment in his life and his development as a thinker. As he put it: “I adopted French nationality, and so I should be loyal, quite simply. I should respect the law, contribute to the economy of this country and its prosperity as much as any other citizen.”

In France, as elsewhere in Europe, there is a long tradition of religions perceived as “foreign” working tirelessly to demonstrate that their teachings are more than compatible with society at large.

Throughout the 19th century, for instance, France’s Jewish leaders, facing constant anti-Semitism, argued that the Hebrew Bible stressed the same values as the nation. They proudly sent their sons and brothers to serve in the French military in World War I.

In the face of rising Islamophobia, Oubrou’s sermons and teachings show a similar patriotic impulse. For instance, he has insisted that the Bordeaux mosque use the French language in addition to Arabic. Children in the mosque’s school learn about Islam in French, as do those enrolled in its seminary.

“Our third and fourth generations dream in French,” Oubrou said. “They should speak to God in French.”

Besides, he says, French citizenship is an identity distinct from other national affiliations: It is a “moral contract,” a commitment to lofty, abstract ideals that make more sense when individuals can connect them with their private faiths.

These days, what primarily interests Oubrou are those who feel excluded from that moral contract, especially the young French and Francophone Muslims who, for a variety of reasons, have been pushed toward radicalization in recent years. In each of France’s recent terrorist attacks, the perpetrators came from this loose demographic, a fact that Oubrou has begun confronting on a local level.

Along with Bordeaux’s City Hall, he has helped create a pilot program for “deradicalizing” young people suspected of showing violent tendencies at an early age. Called the Center of Action and Prevention Against the Radicalization of Individuals (CAPRI), it was formally launched announced in January.

According to Marik Fetouh, the Bordeaux municipal officer for equality and citizenship who oversees the program, CAPRI receives referrals from local authorities about individuals they suspect may be susceptible to radicalization: typically young men in relative social isolation whose social-media profiles suggest an affinity with the Islamic State or the rhetoric of other extremist groups.

Fetouh added that since the announcement of the program, local families — entirely independent of the authorities — have also begun approaching the organization about their children. They feel comfortable doing so, he said, because CAPRI is not meant as incarceration: It is primarily designed as a mental-health initiative, staffed with trained professionals who help troubled youths identify and confront the sources of their anger.

Since it began, Fetouh said, CAPRI has worked with roughly 30 individuals. While a success rate will be difficult to ascertain, the hope is that the program will serve as a humane template for what other communities across France might do as the country confronts the issue collectively. This year, for instance, France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced the establishment of other deradicalization centers, although those will focus on individuals at a later stage.

For Oubrou, a key factor in the fight against radicalization lies in acknowledging the shortcomings of the same nation he has devoted his life to upholding.

“To be honest, radicalization is a symptom of the malaise of the republic. Our notion of equality is never applied on the level of schools or on the level of work. Equality is important between women and men, and everyone must dress the same,” he said, referring to the rationale of those who opposed the burkini. “But not on the level of salary.”

This, in his mind, is the eternal riddle of the French Republic, at times as elusive and equivocal as the religions its staunch secularism nominally opposes. “France is perhaps the most utopian country in the world,” Oubrou said. “But it’s a utopia that’s not achievable.”

Sarkozy wants special jails, courts for terrorism suspects

Paris was once again put on high alert last Sunday after a car loaded with gas cylinders was found near Notre Dame cathedral in an incident that could have been an attack on a Paris railway station.

Security is a key topic in the presidential elections in 2017, as more than 230 people have been killed in militant Islamist attacks on French soil since January 2015.

Sarkozy’s comments come after French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, took a swipe at his opponents this week, saying their hardline reactions to a wave of militant attacks demonstrated an intent to destroy France’s social model.

Sarkozy took an even tougher approach on Sunday by proposing to systematically place French citizens, suspected of having militant links, in special detention facilities in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) 

“Every Frenchman suspected of being linked to terrorism, because he regularly consults a jihadist website, or his behavior shows signs of radicalization or because is in close contact with radicalized people, must by preventively placed in a detention center,” Sarkozy said in the interview.

 

Sarkozy, who announced last month his candidacy for the April 2017 presidential election, has said there is no place for “legal niceties” in the fight against terrorism.

According to French Institute for Public Opinion, Ifop, voters turned out to have most confidence in former Prime Minister Alain Juppe to guarantee security, with Sarkozy in second place, Prime Minister Manuel Valls in third, and Hollande a distant 8th.

French Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said in a separate interview with the French newspaper on Sunday he planned to make proposals next week to Valls to ease prison overcrowding.

“I do not advocate creation of facilities dedicated to terrorists…The real challenge is to prepare the release of those who are sentenced for a short or medium term,” Urvoas said.

Manuel Valls ‘supports’ mayors who ban burkinis

In an interview with La Provence, Manuel Valls stated that he “understands” and “supports” the mayors who took steps to ban the burkini, which they judged to be “incompatible with the values of the Republic.”

“I understand the mayors, in this period of tension, who are looking for solutions to avoid disrupting public order,” he stated, insisting, “I support those who took steps, if they are motivated by a desire to encourage the vivre ensemble, without underlying political motivations.”

“The burkini is not is not a new style, a new fashion. It’s the translation of a political aim, against society, based in particular on the subservience of women.”

Valls explains ‘pact’ he wants to build with Islam in France

Prime Minister Manuel Valls advocated the construction of a pact with the Islam of France aimed to join forces to combat the phenomenon of radicalization. In an interview with the weekly Journal de Dimanche, Valls estimated that “Islam has found its place within the Republic”, but with the rise of extremism we have the urgency to “build a true covenant.”

Referring to radicalization, he said that “this infernal mechanical pushes individuals, sometimes very young- men, women, Muslim or converted recently- to take up weapons and use them against their countries.”

The French authorities have been concerned for months about the increasing level of radicalization in a part of the population, especially the youths, a phenomenon that is evident in the increasing travels to the Middle East to join terrorist groups like IS.

However, other analysts draw attention to the socio-economic conditions leading to radicalization, since there is a large group of socially marginalized youths in France and Europe.

Turkish Community Associations join German pride festivals

Signalling solidarity and allying against discrimination

Turkish community associations have joined gay pride marches in Stuttgart and Hamburg, in a bid to broach questions surrounding sexuality and to demonstrate their openness to diversity. The Federal Chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), Gökay Sofuoglu, noted with regard to ongoing difficulties faced by the LGBT+ community that “as an association taking a stand against discrimination of any kind, we cannot close our eyes to this”.((http://www.swr.de/landesschau-aktuell/bw/csd-in-stuttgart-tuerkische-gemeinde-bricht-mit-tabu/-/id=1622/did=17791268/nid=1622/tvsne5/))

Sofuoglu, speaking in the context of the Stuttgart gay pride, noted that there had been some resistance to the decision to participate. Such resistance had also been felt by the chairwoman of the Hamburg Turkish Community association, Nebahat Güçlü: In previous years, Güçlü had failed to overcome her fellow board members’ reservations about joining the local pride march.((https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/hamburg/CSD-Veranstalter-Parade-wird-politischer,csd640.html))

This year, however, the Hamburg community released a statement on its website arguing that “the vindication of equal rights for minorities is a concern for all of us. This includes the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. We are conscious of the fact that as a managing committee in our community we are taking an important but also provocative step that could also trigger negative reactions. Nevertheless, we deem it important and right to stand against all kinds of discriminations in our society and we also face up to the discussion within our organisations”.((http://www.tghamburg.de/news/?nid=149))

That the Turkish community’s participation in local pride festivals is more forthcoming this year must perhaps also be seen in relation to the spate recent attacks more or less straightforwardly motivated by Islamic radicalism, including Omar Mateen’s shooting at the LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016. After this event, Muslim organisations elsewhere have also taken a conscious decision to join pride marches in order to demonstrate their solidarity and open-mindedness.((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/06/28/muslim-community-joins-regina-pride-parade-1st-time/))

The ambivalence of Islamic associations

As Euro-Islam reported at the time, the initial reaction of explicitly Islamic associations in Germany remained muted.((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/06/20/muted-reaction-of-german-muslim-leaders-to-orlando-touches-upon-uncomfortable-issues-of-homophobia-and-media-discourses/)) Since then, Ayman Mazyek, prolific chairman of one of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), has stated in a public speech that when any person irrespective of race, religion, or sexual orientation were attacked, the Muslim community would “rally to their protection”, “defend freedom” and “protect the dignity of the human being and therefore our own dignity”.((http://zentralrat.de/27631.php))

Yet the difficult contortions that underlie Mazyek’s view were on ample display in an interview published ten days before the shooting at Pulse: when stating his view on homosexuality, Mazyek asserted that “I am a citizen of this country and the chairman of a German religious community. For me the Basic Law is decisive. I don’t accept homosexuality personally and religiously. But at the same time I stand up against homophobia, as a Muslim.”((http://www.volksstimme.de/sachsen-anhalt/islam-mazyek-abschottung-weg-der-angsthasen))

To be sure, such a statement is not substantially different from the disconnect between, for instance, contemporary Catholic teachings on homosexuality on the one hand and the Church’s stance on the worth of the dignity of the human individual on the other hand. It does elucidate, however, why participation in a gay pride march might still be one step to far for many explicitly Islamic associations.