Wahhabi Eruption in Troubled Germany
by Stephen Schwartz, Veli Sirin, and Ali Uyanik
Germany and Islam have made news lately, none of it good. Germany has a large Muslim minority of around four million, or five percent of the total population of 80 million. About two-thirds of German Muslims originate from Turkey, including Kurds. The descendants of immigrants are integrated or assimilated to varying degrees. Most are Sunni Muslims, but the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi community, embodying Shia, Sufi, and pre-Islamic shamanic beliefs, claim a million adherents or a quarter of all German Muslims. The rest are Balkan Muslims (Bosnian and Albanian), Iranian, Arab, and South Asian.
Turkish and Kurdish Islam in Germany has been molded by the historic secularism of the Turkish Republic, which erected numerous mosques in Germany and controls them extra-territorially through the Turkish State Religious Administration and its German and Dutch representative, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs. While fundamentalism has been present in the German Turkish Muslim communities for decades, mainly in the form of the Milli Görüş or "National Vision" movement affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, its appeal has been ideological rather than political, and it has seldom interfered in German affairs. In addition, some German Muslims, including spiritual Sufis, are religiously conservative or anti-secularist.
German authorities have been confused in their reaction to violent bigots – and not only to Islamists. On July 2, Heinz Fromm resigned his post as director of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution when it was found that an employee of the agency had shredded documents relevant to the investigation of a neo-Nazi terrorist faction in the former East Germany. From 2000 to 2007, at least 10 people – nine obscure victims of Turkish and Greek immigrant origin and one German policewoman – were murdered by the cell. Called the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) and composed of only three active members, the gang injured 20 more in bombings of ethnic Turkish people and carried out a series of bank robberies. Their existence was not discovered until November 2011.
Evidence files on the infiltration of a predecessor neo-Nazi group from which the NSU was drawn were destroyed soon after the terror team was identified. The two male members of the NSU had committed suicide, and a third, female participant surrendered to police. Almost immediately, Artur Hertwig, head of the department monitoring leftist and rightist extremism in the Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution, was dismissed by Fromm for failing to handle the NSU conspiracy adequately. The two different political areas of inquiry, which had been combined in 2006, were separated. Now Fromm has followed Hertwig in losing his job.
The failure of the German authorities to detect and halt the neo-Nazi killings increased anxiety among Muslim immigrants and their German-born children. In March, the German Interior Ministry released a 760-page study of attitudes toward integration among the country's Muslims. The authorities determined that the great majority of German Muslims seek integration, although some may hold critical views of the country, and others resent the attachment of a terrorist reputation to Islamic faith.
At that time, the conservative daily Die Welt commented, "The good news is that 78 percent of young German Muslims and still half of the young Muslims without a German passport have a favorable view of democracy... And it is these people who Germany must not disappoint, either by shutting them out or defaming them, or through tolerating [Islamist ideology]."
But an unexpected phenomenon has materialized in the form of "Salafism," the camouflage term used by Wahhabis, the ultra-fundamentalist, separatist, and jihadist interpretation that is the state sect in Saudi Arabia. The Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution estimates that Germany harbors 3,000 to 5,000 "Salafis," or about one-tenth of one percent of the German Muslim community.
Wahhabism, whether it is granted the courtesy of the cover title "Salafism," is dangerous for Germany as for other Muslim countries and Muslim minority communities. Followers of Cologne-based Wahhabi cleric Ibrahim Abou Nagie, organized in a group called "The True Religion," distributed, allegedly, 300,000 free copies of Qur'an to Germans in early Spring of this year. The weekly Der Spiegel and Die Welt noted a brief YouTube posting of a video, traced to Nagie, that threatened journalists from other representatives of Germany's elite media – the newspapers Frankfurter Rundschau and Tagesspiegel – for writing about the Qur'an handouts.
The video said, "We now have detailed information on the monkeys and pigs who published false reports about the (Frankfurt Salafist group) DawaFFM and many other brothers and sisters… We possess a lot of information, for example, we know where you live, we know what football team you root for, we have your mobile phone numbers."
The local printer of the Qur'ans has suspended production of them and apparently wishes to cancel the contract. The original goal of the Wahhabis was to disseminate 25 million Qur'ans in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Though Germans do not seem to object to the giveaway of books, many are alarmed by Wahhabi-"Salafi" ideology. Cem Özdemir, a German-born leader of the Green party, whose father was from Turkey, condemned the Islamists: "I have a problem with all religious groups that place their world view above the constitution and above human rights. That applies as well to those Salafists who invoke violence and whose ideology fuels Islamist terrorism," he told Die Welt.
Other German Muslims criticize the Wahhabis for presenting themselves as the sole representatives of Islam in Germany – a gambit that is often successful, unfortunately, in the West.
On May 1, a detachment of about 30 Wahhabis was arrested in the western German city of Solingen after a clash with a far-rightist group, Pro NRW (referring to the initials of Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state), which called a demonstration near a "Salafi" mosque during a local election campaign. Pro NRW's event, held in defiance of a police order, consisted of displaying the "Muhammad cartoons" dating from 2005, and announcing a "Muhammad cartoon contest," as provocations, which the Wahhabis accepted as such. In the May 13 local election, Pro NRW gained only 1.7 percent of votes in the second and final round. Pro NRW, like the homicidal NSU, is no less a reprehensible minority of extremists, for German non-Muslims, than the Wahhabis – or "Salafis" – are to Muslims.
At mid-June, German police banned the Wahhabi group "Millatu Ibrahim" based in Solingen, searched Nagie's house in Cologne, and raided residences and meeting premises in seven states. Originating in the Solingen confrontation, 44 Wahhabis and 37 others were examined by the authorities.
In Bonn, the same May 1 incidents injured 29 police officers, including two with serious stab wounds. According to Der Spiegel, a Wahhabi preacher, Abu Abdullah, threatened German chancellor Angela Merkel with attacks on Germans living abroad. The accused knife-wielder, identified only as Murat K. in line with German practice, was arrested, as were 109 other persons. In both Solingen and Bonn, the Wahhabi attackers wore the distinctive untrimmed beards and typical garments favored by Muslim ultra-fundamentalists. Following the Solingen and Bonn violence, a Wahhabi mobilization was called in Cologne, where display of the "Muhammad cartoons" was legitimized as free expression by a court ruling, but 1,000 police turned out to keep the anti-Islam advocates and the Wahhabis apart. Only about 300 of the latter showed up, and the event was a failure for both sets of trouble-makers.
Wahhabi fanatics, who reject the framework of constitutional liberties provided in Germany as supposedly "un-Islamic," assert that their activities are benign. They claim they do not throw bombs, but simply live an Islamic life of prayer, Quranic study, and preaching to non-Muslims.
Some doubt that the number of Wahhabis ("Salafis") in Germany exceeds a few dozen. The Wahhabis are an unfamiliar element in the German Muslim scene; even the radicals of Milli Görüş do not join them, and most seem to be North African, although they may have obtained German citizenship. Nevertheless, the terror plot that produced the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, was centered in a Wahhabi mosque in Hamburg, Germany.
Increasing extremism among opponents of Islam and defenders of its Wahhabi interpretation may be aggravated by resentment in Germany over the continuing European economic crisis, in which it appears Germany will be held responsible for the financial misfortunes of the Mediterranean tier in the European Union – Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. Yet in the May election in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the anti-Muslim Pro NRW gained so meager a result, the Social Democrats and the Greens received 50 percent of ballots, and the established center-right Christian Democrats 26 percent. Voters in the state affirmed their confidence in the German financial and social system, and rejection of the politics of rage.
Germany has lately, however, produced other disturbing developments. In mid-May, a rapper based in Cologne, Shahin Najafi – an Iranian exile since 2005 – was the object of a threatening fatwa by a 93-year old cleric, Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, from Iran's religious center, Qom. Golpaygani inferred that Najafi had committed "apostasy" for delivering a rap performance in which the entertainer satirized, but appealed to the spirit of, the 10th Shia imam, Ali Al-Hadi Al-Naqi, who lived in the ninth century CE. Titled "Ay Naqi!" or "Hey, Naqi," neither the rap nor Najafi himself were mentioned in Golpaygani's fatwa. Rather, the ayatollah stipulated that "if" an unnamed person disparaged one of the imams, he would be considered to have left Islam. Since judgments of apostasy produce executions in Iran and assassinations abroad, Najafi feared for his security.
German media pointed out the vague content of Golpaygani's fatwa and said it could not be determined whether he had even heard of Najafi, but the fatwa was widely published in Iranian media, and susceptible readers interpreted it as a call for Najafi's murder. A bounty of USD100,000 (one lakh dollars in Indian numbering) was offered on the internet to his killer. Najafi is a popular singer among young supporters of the reformist "Green movement" in Iran. Najafi filed a criminal complaint against the Grand Ayatollah in Cologne, for incitement to murder. Since then, the rapper has received official protection and has cancelled a European tour.
Extremists need one another. Pro NRW attacks all Muslims, Wahhabis reply by assaulting police, and Iranian authorities threaten a rapper who referred to the 10th Shia imam. The tomb of the imam, Ali Al-Hadi Al-Naqi, was blown up by Wahhabis in Samarra, Iraq, in 2006. Haters thus form a vicious circle.
Germany has additionally gained unfortunate publicity by the decision of a Cologne court, at the end of June, finding male circumcision of Jewish and Muslim children to be a "criminal assault" if carried out without the consent of the boy. The judgment arose from a case in which a four-year old Muslim child was circumcised and developed post-operative bleeding. The doctor who performed the operation was not charged.
Even as comparisons of contemporary German society with its dark antecedents during the Hitler dictatorship are widely repudiated – to a point where it is often said in America that the first person to mention a Hitlerian precedent in an argument loses – the ban on circumcision provoked alarm in Jewish communities around the world.
As in similar episodes elsewhere, German Jewish organizations condemned the ruling although the individual who underwent the medical procedure was Muslim. The Central Council of Jews in Germany characterized the verdict as an "unprecedented and dramatic intrusion" and an "outrageous and insensitive" act.
Jewish Council President Dieter Graumann said, "Circumcision for young boys is a solid component of the Jewish religion and has been practised worldwide for millennia. This religious right is respected in every country around the world."
The Central Council of Muslims in Germany denounced the court decision as a "blatant and inadmissible interference" with parents' rights. It stated, "Freedom of religion is highly valued in our constitution and cannot be the play-thing of a one-dimensional case law which, furthermore, consolidates existing prejudices and stereotypes."
Jewish parents preside over circumcision of their male offspring eight days after birth, while Muslim boys may be circumcised at various times, often at puberty. Male circumcision has been criticized by so-called "intactivists" but medical evidence shows that it is a determining element in preventing penile cancer.