The Convert As Missionary
Abu Hamza, born a German named Pierre Vogel in 1978, is a very popular Islamist preacher in Germany. The former professional boxer became Muslim in 2001 and is now among the most influential German representatives of Saudi-originated Wahhabi fundamentalism, which masquerades as "Salafism."
His "kunya" or "Islamic nickname," Abu Hamza, means "father of the strong." He should not be confused with the notorious radical Muslim agitator currently locked up in Britain, Abu Hamza al-Masri, known for his missing eye and a prosthetic hook that substitutes for his right hand, or for the two late al-Qaida terrorists active in Pakistan and Iraq, who also used the same name. Vogel's impact among German Muslims is no less ominous, however, even if his extremism appears more restrained.
Adherents of Wahhabism like Pierre Vogel, alias Abu Hamza, call themselves "Salafi" in claiming they emulate the prominent adherents of early Islam. "Salaf" is an Arabic noun meaning "predecessor" or "forefather," and the first three Muslim generations are collectively referred to as "al-Salaf as-Saleh," or the "Pious Predecessors."
Vogel received his religious training in an Islamic school in Saudi Arabia. Through nationwide lecture tours and the creation of several websites, he has reached out to very religious young German Muslims, as well as to young non-Muslim Germans with identity problems.
Those who flock to him are impressed by Vogel's apparent knowledge of Islam and his mastery of Arabic, the language of the Koran. Central to his teaching is the belief that Islam is the only true religion, while all Christians and Jews are "kuffar," or "unbelievers." In addition, Vogel sees "da'wa," or calling others to Islam, as an obligation incumbent on every Muslim. He has fashioned himself as a missionary and argues explicitly that he possesses theological evidence for the superiority of Islam.
Vogel's worldview embodies a rigid distinction between Islamic and "un-Islamic" behavior. The strict division between "the bad" and "the good" appeals to some young Muslims, because they are promised a clear orientation in their everyday lives and identification with a like-minded community. Although Vogel rejects the use of violence in the cause of Islam, the German authorities see his Manichean outlook – the harsh separation of "bad" and "good" – as dangerous, because of its radicalizing effects on the very religious and the confused.
The preaching of Pierre Vogel and his limiting Islam to a formal set of "Salafi" rules is opposed increasingly by other German Muslim personalities and organizations. They also criticize Vogel for exploiting complaints of discrimination against Muslims in Germany. On his websites, Vogel asserts that Muslims in Europe are faced with an impending Holocaust.
The internet is his main stage. His sites have gained five million hits in one and a half years, a matter of which he is proud.
What is the basis of his attraction? Born Muslims consider him "cool," as a broad-shouldered German with a reddish-blond beard, who can chant Koranic chapters in Arabic without mispronouncing a syllable. Vogel knows what life is like as a teenager in Germany. "I know everything," he says. "Casinos, discos, women. And I also know why it is better to live another kind of life in which one abstains from sex before marriage," he explains. For every convert who comes to him, 10 to 20 people who were born Muslim claim that he has helped them find their way back to Islam.
For non-Muslims, and particularly the young who encounter him, Pierre Vogel provides answers to anxieties about the meaning of existence. If, according to simplistic Wahhabi doctrines, the only need is to serve God, then life immediately seems easier to face. By unquestioning adherence to the Koran and the prohibitions and recommendations of the Wahhabi interpretation, believers are promised standing in the afterlife and probable entry into paradise. Vogel's outward piety, like his German origin, adds to his image as someone who refuses to conform to the society in which he lives. That is also deemed "cool."
Radical Islam, in the style of a musical remix, with anti-globalization propaganda added to religious sermonizing, arrived in the German universities long ago. The media also play an important role in the prestige of the extremists, as a steady diet of news about aggressive Islam makes many young Muslims and non-Muslims defensive. "One-sided news brings thousands of converts," says Pierre Vogel. There are always those whose curiosity is stimulated by a threat. According to Vogel, they want to know the truth about Islam; "they come to listen, and discover that Islam is the truth."
Critics of Vogel describe his method as brainwashing. A young Pakistani studying in Germany comments, "There is currently no alternative for young people who want to learn about moderate Islam in Germany." The Wahhabi "Salafis" have the best web sites and publish the most translations of Islamic literature. Unfortunately, Muslim university students are typically afraid to say anything about the situation. Whoever speaks against Pierre Vogel will be abused by his supporters, in online chat forums. "The success of this movement makes me very angry, because it has nothing to do with Islam as I understand it," says the same Pakistani student in Germany. "I do not want to live in a society defined by Pierre Vogel. It would be a nightmare for all people."
Pierre Vogel, or Abu Hamza, uses all the weaknesses of our society and sets us against one another. People like him do not appear randomly. With the help of financing from the Gulf states, they fill an existing void in knowledge about Islam. As they are daily more active in German universities, they are a serious problem.
A space should be opened up in German public life, where intelligent people may get together to repudiate the hatred Vogel uses to manipulate Muslims. This view of the condition of young German Muslims may seem pessimistic, but Vogel and others like him pose a real danger. It is necessary to admit it, face it, and combat it.