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.

UK Communities Secretary says Muslims need to do more to stop radicalisation

In response to the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, UK Conservative Party politician, Sajid Javid argued that Muslims have an added responsibility to limit extremism than that of other British residents. Javid is a Muslim himself and services as the Communities Secretary.

He argues against the “well-meaning” idea that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam, saying that the Muslim community needs to do more “soul searching” to find the links between Islam and terrorism.

He believes the only people who can stop terrorism are young Muslims speaking out and showing that “this is not their fight and they want no part of it.”

 

UK Communities Secretary says Muslims need to do more to stop radicalisation

In response to the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, Muslim Communities Secretary Sajid Javid argues that Muslims have an added responsibility to limit extremism.

He argues against the ‘well-meaning’ idea that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam, saying that the Muslim community needs to do more ‘soul searching’ to find the links between Islam and terrorism.

He believes the only people who can stop terrorism are young Muslims speaking out.

Manchester bomber’s Libyan experiences and radicalisation

Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, 22, may have been radicalised through his connections to Libya. His father fled Libya to escape Ghadafi because Abedi senior was connected to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had tried to assassinate Ghadafi. LIFG was prominently represented at the Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Didsbury Mosque which the Abedi family attended. After 9/11, the LIFG was declared an Al Qaeda affiliate and its funding was cut off. The Abedi family’s escape of Libya occurred before the birth of Salman Abedi; however, when Salman was 16, Abedi senior returned to Libya after the Arab Spring when the opportunity to finally overthrow Ghadafi presented itself.

As a result, Salman Abedi moved often between war-torn Tripoli and Manchester. At some point, it is suspected that he went with other Libyans to fight in Syria, where he saw American bombs killing Muslim children. He was full of contradictions, as he drank and used drugs but was violent towards women who adhered to Western sexuality norms.

Salman Abedi was radicalised into a different form of violence than his father. While his father abhorred ISIS, Abedi embraced it after his experiences with cultural clash and violence in Syria. This led to the tragic events last week.

“The Jihad wears Prada, an Analysis of Jihadist Conversions in Europe”

In his French-written study, published in the Cahiers de l’Institut Religioscope in August 2016, Olivier Moos looks at home grown jihadism in Europe and the reasons why some young Muslim Europeans join ISIS.

The diversity of itineraries

A historian at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) and at the Ecole des Hautes etudes en sciences sociales (France) , Olivier Moos, points out the diversity of itineraries and the impossibility to find any decisive variable to explain the enrollment in jihadi groups. Particularly in terms of social background, since many profiles challenge our most common preconceptions. For example, many jihadis do not belong to the most economically marginalized fringes of their society; not all of them have a previous criminal experience; 20 to 30 % of jihadis (depending on the country) are converts, thus have not been raised in Muslim-practicing families, etc .

No “chemical formula”, but some trends

However, and to quote Olivier Moos: “If it is impossible to know in a exhaustive manner, like for a chemical formula, what drives an individual to embrace an extremist thought or to carry on a terrorist action, it is however possible and necessary to circumscribe a certain number of aspects of this phenomenon”.

Thus for the author, some tendencies can be identified. More than politics and ideology, young Muslims that turn to jihadism are above all motivated by a research of status and identity. This process is more emotional than rational.

Moos pays special attention to the “branding” of the Islamic state – which explains the reference to “Prada” in the study’s title.. – and shows how the propaganda of the so-called “Islamic state” functions as a counterculture par excellence. If ISIS is so seductive for its targets, it is also because its propaganda and the urban/”ghetto” subculture share an aesthetics of violence and of transgression.

 By Farida Belkacem

Source :

Olivier Moos, « Le djihad s’habille en Prada », Cahiers de l’Institut Religioscope, n°14, August 2016 : http://www.religion.info/pdf/2016_08_Moos.pdf

German NGOs seek to coordinate and enhance their work on religious extremism

25 German non-governmental organisations active in the prevention of religiously-driven radicalisation and violence have come together to create a new coordination body. The Federal Working Committee on Religiously Motivated Extremism, founded on November 30 in Berlin, seeks to pool expertise and best practices from a range of actors engaged on the ground.(( http://www.ufuq.de/gruendung-der-bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft-religioes-begruendeter-extremismus/ ))

Capacity building among diverse organisations

Participating organisations are diverse, ranging from local social work initiatives active in underprivileged neighbourhoods to associations operating at the national level. Major Islamic associations, such as the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) also take part.(( http://islam.de/28232 ))

The Committee’s creators hope to forge a network that crosses Germany’s often cumbersome federal administrative divisions that have vitiated a common approach in the past. Its foundation comes as the parliamentary opposition has once more criticised the lack of a national-level prevention strategy against violent Islamist movements.(( https://www.welt.de/newsticker/news1/article159834940/Gruene-fordern-bundesweites-Praeventionszentrum-gegen-islamistischen-Terrorismus.html ))

Beyond Islamism

However, the Committee and its participating NGOs have stated that they will seek to assert their independence from politicking and a public debate that is uniquely focused on the Islamist threat. Instead, the Committee seeks to retain a broader, cross-religious focus: whilst radicalisation of Muslim youth will be a prominent aspect of its work, it will also encourage projects dealing with Christian fundamentalism or extremist sects.

Moreover, the group seeks to build bridges to organisations active in preventative efforts in the far-right and neo-Nazi scenes. This is an approach with considerable potential, given the fact that over the past years and decades, a whole landscape of NGOs and institutions working with individuals and communities vulnerable to right-wing extremism has developed.(( http://www.ufuq.de/gruendung-der-bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft-religioes-begruendeter-extremismus/ ))

Need for a strong voice

The actual impact of the newly created Committee remains to be seen. Its members will gather in early 2017 for a first conference and exchange of ideas. Yet the Committee’s biggest task is perhaps to develop stronger capacities for public advocacy and lobbying. Whilst demands for their services are on the rise, many projects and organisations working with groups vulnerable to the appeal of jihadist messaging are struggling with financial constraints and cutbacks. (( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/praevention-in-berlin-es-fehlt-geld-fuer-kurse-gegen-radikalisierung/14929730.html ))

Indeed, as politicians shift to the right and advocate a ‘law and order’ approach to Islamist terrorism in order to tap into the growing voter base of the populist Alternative for Germany party, ‘soft’ strategies of prevention and social work are in danger of being side-lined. The creation of the Committee is thus exceedingly timely.

As European authorities target Salafism, the word needs parsing

What exactly is Salafism? In continental Europe, the word is now used as a catchall for extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. This week for example, authorities in the German state of Hesse raided five premises including a mosque; it was the latest move in a crackdown on ultra-militant forms of Islam all over Germany which began last week. “Extremist propaganda is the foundation for Islamic radicalisation and ultimately for violence,” said the interior minister of Hesse, Peter Beuth, by way of explaining the latest raids. “The Salafist ideology is a force not to be underestimated,” he added.

On November 15th, German federal authorities banned what they described as a Salafi organisation known as “True Religion” or “Read!” whose notional purpose was to distribute copies of the Koran. On the same day, police swept through 200 offices and other buildings across the country. Ralf Jäger, interior minister of the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), reportedly gave this reason for the ban: “Every fifth Salafist who has travelled out from NRW under the aegis of so-called Islamic State in order to join a terror cell had previous contact with ‘Read!’”

In France, too, the word Salafi or Salafist is often used as a generic term for forms of Islam which are too extreme for any government policy to parley with or accommodate. Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister, has reported with alarm that the Salafis, although a tiny minority among French Muslims, may be winning an ideological war in France because their voice is louder and more efficiently disseminated than any other. François Fillon, a centre-right politician who is likely to make the run-off in next year’s presidential election, is a strong advocate of cracking down both on Salafism and on the groups linked to the global Muslim Brotherhood.

In the very loosest of senses, all Muslims are Salafi. The word literally describes those who emulate and revere both the prophet Muhammad and the earliest generations of Muslims, the first three generations in particular. There is no Muslim who does not do that. But in practice the word Salafist is most often used to describe a purist, back-to-basics form of Islam that emerged on the Arabian peninsula in the 19th century.

But even Saudi Salafism, despite appearances, is no monolith, according to H.A. Hellyer, a British scholar who studies Muslim communities across the world. Several different tendencies can be detected among the kingdom’s religious scholars, who underpin the monarchy.

In Egypt, too, the word Salafi is used as though it had a simple meaning, but again that is misleading, according to Mr Hellyer. On the face of things, the Egyptian Salafis are represented by a political party, Al Nour, which emerged as a powerful player after the 2011 uprising, and favours extreme conservatism in matters of dress, gender roles and personal behaviour. This is contrasted with the more tactical and pragmatic form of Islamism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged in Egypt in the early 20th century and now wields influence through ideological allies all over the world, including Europe.

Here is another source of confusion: in the broad sense, the Brotherhood too is partially Salafi in inspiration. It shares the ideal of going back to the very first generations of Muslims; that was part of the thinking of Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder.

Do the politicians of France and Germany, who use the word Salafi/Salafist as though it were virtually a synonym for terrorist, need to know all this? Yes they do, because the safety of Europe’s streets is at stake. In Britain, for example, there are Salafi mosques whose preachers are theologically conservative but are far from terrorists; and there have been terrorists who have had nothing to do with the mainstream of Salafism. It’s important to understand that of the various forms of Salafism described, there is one, the unreconstructed kind, which can (though does not always) morph into terrorism. Labels can be a helpful pointer through a maze of complexity, but in the end the labyrinth has to be negotiated carefully.

Dismissal of prison chaplain over extremism accusations highlights growing tensions between state and Muslim associations in Germany

Model project on prevention

The Ministry of Justice in the state of Hesse has ended its cooperation with an Imam working as a prison chaplain at a correctional facility in the city of Darmstadt. Authorities reacted to advice given by the German domestic intelligence agency (the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz): the agency had classified Imam Abdassamad El-Yazidi as a security risk.

Starting point for this assessment had been El-Yazidi’s association with the organisation Deutsch-Islamischer Vereinsverband Rhein-Main (German-Islamic Associational Union, DIV), deemed since August 2016 to be ‘under extremist influence’ and consequently placed on a surveillance list. El-Yazidi had been the DIV’s chairman until three years ago; presently, he chairs the Hessian chapter of one of the country’s largest Muslim associations, the Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland (Central Council of Muslims in Germany, ZMD), of which the DIV is a member.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/so-treibt-man-verdienstvolle-muslime-ins-innere-exil-14478785.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Complex institutional landscape

This episode highlights the complex institutional landscape of Muslim representation in Germany, with the ZMD being an umbrella body composed of further umbrella organisations. The DIV, which is now in the spotlight, for instance, brings together 46 local associations. One of them, the Europäische Institut für Humanwissenschaften (European Institute for Human Sciences, EIHW), located in the Ostend neighbourhood of Frankfurt, now triggered the intervention by the Verfassungsschutz. The Institut is perceived to be part of a transnational Muslim Brotherhood network. ((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/so-treibt-man-verdienstvolle-muslime-ins-innere-exil-14478785.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Amidst this organisational diversity and fragmentation, El-Yazidi asserted, it was at times impossible for the mostly unpaid volunteers working in the ZMD to scrutinise all aspects of fellow players on the associational scene. At the same time, El-Yazidi also defended decisions to retain contacts with institutions deemed to be under extremist influence, on the grounds that only continued engagement would make it possible to prevent further radicalisation. ((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/so-treibt-man-verdienstvolle-muslime-ins-innere-exil-14478785.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Criticism from Catholic representatives

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, El-Yazidi noted that he had only received a call from the Hessian Ministry of Justice informing him that he had to end his work as a prison chaplain without being given more concrete information about the suspicions directed against him.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/so-treibt-man-verdienstvolle-muslime-ins-innere-exil-14478785.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

Joachim Valentin, responsible for Christian-Muslim understanding at the Catholic bishopric of Limburg and chairman of a Catholic cultural centre in Frankfurt, decried the measure as disrespectful and counter-productive. He criticised the Verfassungsschutz for “failing to differentiate between orthodox Islam, radicalism, extremism, and terror threats.” Blanket accusations and criminalisation would only serve to “drive meritorious Muslims into inner exile.” ((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/so-treibt-man-verdienstvolle-muslime-ins-innere-exil-14478785.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

The ZMD itself reacted with a press release deeming the exclusion of its representative from prevention programmes against radicalisation “incomprehensible”, stressing that so far Hessian authorities and participants had appreciated the collaboration and its effects. ((http://zentralrat.de/28081.php ))

Signs of strain between state and Muslim associations

The affair surrounding chaplain El-Yazidi is only the latest episode in a gradual worsening of the relationship between German authorities and the country’s Muslim associations. In recent months, much of the political discussion has centred on DITIB and the influence of the Erdogan government over this association and its mosques.((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/17/freiburg-declaration-secular-muslims-starkly-reveals-fault-lines-among-german-muslim-associations/ ))

Yet it is questions of foreign financing and control more generally have taken centre stage, amidst a renewed debate about the (lack of) loyalty Muslim citizens exhibit vis-à-vis the German state. ((http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/10/17/old-question-loyalty-german-turks-relationship-erdogan/ )). This prompted the ZMD in its reaction to the El-Yazidi affair to stress its determination to “reject any influencing from abroad, no matter from which country.” ((http://zentralrat.de/28081.php )) Yet recent developments surrounding the EIHW have rekindled voices accusing the ZMD itself to be an apologist of the Muslim Brotherhood. ((http://www.allgemeine-zeitung.de/politik/hessen/im-schatten-der-muslimbrueder_17372765.htm ))

‘Political correctness’ allowing Islamist extremism to flourish in British prisons, report warns

Political correctness in prisons is allowing extremism to flourish because guards are too afraid of confronting Muslims, a report has found.

A review into Islamist extremism in the British justice system has found that “cultural sensitivity” towards Muslim prisoners is preventing staff “challenging unacceptable extremist behaviour and views”.

The report, by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, warns that supervising staff are being “pressured” to leave prayer rooms during collective worship.

Islamist prisoners are also attempting to prevent searches by “claiming dress is religious” and are also getting access to extremist literature that is available in chaplaincy libraries or from individual prisoners.

Mr Acheson’s report concluded that extremists are “exploiting…staff fear of being labelled racist”.

It also warned that “charismatic Islamist extremist prisoners [are] acting as self-styled ‘emirs’ and exerting a controlling and radicalising influence of the wider Muslim prison population”.

The Government has said that it will implement a number of the report’s recommendations.

Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, has already announced that the most dangerous extremists will be locked up in isolated high-security prisons within prisons to prevent them from radicalising other inmates.

On Monday, she will also announce that governors and prison officers will be given new training to “prevent influential extremist prisoners exerting control and radicalising others”.

Scrutiny of the issue resurfaced last week when it was revealed that Anjem Choudary, one of Britain’s most prominent Islamist clerics, faces years in jail for drumming up support for Islamic State.

Choudary, one of the UK’s most notorious hate preachers, was convicted earlier this year. He will serve 10 years in jail after being found guilty of pledging allegiance to Islamic State.

Ministry of Justice looks set to target Muslim prison chaplains

A forthcoming Ministry of Justice report will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the radicalisation problem in UK prisons. Quoted in the Sunday Times, an anonymous Whitehall official has described Deobandi Sunni chaplains as holding views “contrary to British values and human rights” and as “unlikely to aid [in] deradicalisation”, with the potential to make “radical Islamists” firmer in their beliefs.

The Prime Minister has signalled his willingness to implement the report, and the appointment of Peter Clarke, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, demonstrates the Ministry’s determination to tackle “extremism”. The spotlight will widen beyond terrorist offenders to include Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains.

The Ministry’s leaks to the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday play the sectarian card and ignore sober academic research, and leave British Muslims with little optimism that the report will be fair. The Deoband school is portrayed as stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its anti-colonial origins, ignoring massive changes since. And the findings of a major study on Muslim chaplaincy carried out by the University of Cardiff have also been ignored.

That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but found that pastoral practice and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect. Muslim chaplains learnt new attitudes in the workplace, leaving aside a focus on rigid orthodoxy and their own faith community for empathy and open-mindedness, while working in a multi-faith environment.

When called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience had an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities.

The Government leaks indicate that the preponderance of Deobandis among Muslim prison chaplains is seen as a bad thing, with questions being asked about their appointment. However, their domination is largely due to the huge investment in imam training Deobandis have made in Britain, more than any other group. Secondly, after 7/7, the government sought Muslim prison chaplains with theological training to encourage more professionalization of the sector, which favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand.

It is hard not to see this attack on Muslim chaplains as anything other than institutional Islamophobia, which could have very damaging effects. Getting rid of this experienced cohort of chaplains will place the pastoral care of Muslim inmates, who sadly now make up nearly 15% of the prison population, in peril.