Salafism and radicalisation in Germany – a topic for schools and education

The departure of young people to fight in Syria and Iraq has become a topic at many schools. Salafist indoctrination and radicalisation becomes a problem even before young people begin to call for violence. Social pressure, rigid world-views and enemy images negatively impact the classroom climate and challenge instructors. ‘A critical approach in prevention work consists in recognizing your pupils’ faith in Islam and reinforcing them in their German-Muslim identity; this helps insulate them against the victim ideology propagated by Salafists’, according to Götz Nordbruch.

Wir sind nicht Demokratie

‘I am a Muslim’ – countless young Muslims reacted with these words in Facebook and other social media to the debates following the attacks in Paris in January 2015. Teachers who broached this subject during instruction reported similar reactions. Give the context of the brutal violence and the symbolic character of the attacks upon the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and the Jewish supermarket, to many observers these statements are very provocative. So: Can these reactions be seen as a sign of refusal of the students to condemn the attacks? The reactions allow for differing interpretations.

Young Muslims complain time and again that their points of view, interests and experiences only rarely get heard publicly. Discussions about the Middle East conflict in class? Not a chance! Media reports about attacks on Muslims and Islamic institutions? Hardly worth a mention in the newspaper. Considering the dozens of deaths that one could lament each and every day as a result of the various conflicts in the Middle East, the public outcry in connection with the Paris attacks not only seems disproportionate but also confirms their impression that a double standard is being applied.

Approaching Youths

These perceptions aren’t necessarily true but they make it difficult for theses youths to identify with society and they strengthen reservations vis-à-vis the non-Muslim world. In this way, they create a docking point for Salafist currents that target young Muslims. ‘Do you feel a sense of alienation?’ a Salafist preacher asks in a video distributed on YouTube, thereby selectively picking up on experiences with hostility and discrimination that many are familiar with. They offer an escape by rigorously denouncing society and retreating into a community of Muslims.

Alienation, a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness – these topics play a central role in Salafist propaganda. Professionally-made videos with titles such as ‘Der neue Jude: der ewige Muslim‘ (‘The New Jew: The Eternal Muslim’), which are distributed in the social networks by initiatives like ‘Generation Islam’, often reach tens of thousands of viewers within days. In light of current discussions about the role of Islam in society and widespread Islamophobia, these videos convey to young people the sense that here their concerns are taken seriously. The video makers are only superficially interested in combating discrimination and racism. The real focus is spreading a victim ideology in which the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is portrayed as inevitable. The ‘West’ is waging war against Islam and thus coexistence between true believers and non-Muslims is impossible.

Salafist propaganda is not limited to ideological discourse, however. Equally important are the promises of community, solidarity and emotional bonding made by initiatives including ‘Die wahre Religion‘. Salafist preachers recruit members by organizing weekend seminars with football games, barbecues and other recreational activities. The origins, ages and social standing of the ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ who join these events become irrelevant; only their common declared belief in Islam is important. The community offers support and material help during personal crises and assistance in everyday life. It makes donation appeals for ‘brothers and sisters’ in need; they take seriously the mandate for Muslims on almsgiving. Simultaneously, this boosts the group’s appeal.

The activities of Sven Lau (aka Abu Adam), a prominent Salafist preacher who got a lot of publicity with the ‘sharia police campaign’ in 2014, are exemplary of this approach. During their rounds in Wuppertal’s urban center, these young men appealed directly to young Muslims at shisha cafes and casinos. And they combined their call to resist ‘sinful behavior’ with information about their own community where Islam-appropriate and ‘meaningful’ life is possible. For young people who don’t have alternative recreational offers, this is an opportunity to escape from rigid and unsatisfying structures and make a new beginning in a decent and truly pious environment.

The Salafist scene has been successful with this kind of discourse over the past years, especially with regard to young Muslims. Up to 100.000 fans can be found on Facebook pages like ‘Die wahre Religion‘ (‘The True Religion‘) or at ‘PierreVogel.de’. A teacher at a vocational school in Berlin’s Neukölln district noted: ‘All of my students know who Pierre Vogel is’. This doesn’t mean that all of those who watch the videos of this preacher from Cologne share his views. Most take him as a freak and enjoy watching him for entertainment, but they don’t take his ideas seriously. Nevertheless, the great interest that preachers like him attract show the appeal of their program, which inspires young people to join the movement.

The Salafist Scene in Germany

Thanks to the images from Syria and Iraq, media coverage is focused on violent Salafism. This makes it all the more important for educators to be aware of the different types of Salafist doctrine in deciding what kind of intervention is conceivable and necessary.

Security agencies estimate that there are approximately 7000 Salafists in Germany. That makes them a small minority among the roughly 4 million Muslims in the country – nevertheless, they assume a very visible role in the inter-Muslim discourse. While the beginnings of the Salafist scene go back to the 90s, the movement was able to gain real traction around 2004 with the activities of Pierre Vogel, an ex-boxer who converted to Islam, and the Palestinian-born preacher Ibrahim Abou Nagie.

By means of seminars on Islam, speeches and Internet sites, all primarily in German, these preachers approach adolescents and young adults who often can’t be reached by the established mosques. In the meantime, their campaign has become a nationwide phenomenon involving several dozen more or less prominent preachers. These often very charismatic personalities also address current topics, especially those related to Muslim lifeworlds (‘Are Muslims permitted to take part in Christmas celebrations?’, ‘Is it OK for Muslims to listen to music?’). This allows them to come across as credible alternatives to the imams of the major Islamic associations who are frequently not properly trained to work with youths and are also unfamiliar with their realities in school, leisure time and work.

Their online programs play an important role when it comes to the visibility of Salafists. Young Muslims are turning to the Internet more and more for answers to their questions on religion, especially those concerning everyday life. And this is also where they quickly meet upon the Salafist propositions. Despite enhanced efforts by Islamic umbrella organizations such as the Turkish-Islamist Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), Millî Görüş or the Central Counsel of Muslims (Zentralrats der Muslime) to offer alternative perspectives with the help of own programs, to this day, Salafist content still makes up a large part of the German-language websites on Muslim faith questions.

The Salafist spectrum is no way uniform, however. What adherents of this movement all have in common though is the claim that they interpret and follow the texts – the Quran, the Sunnah and the stories about the life of the prophet – strictly and independently of the temporal context. As opposed to most Islamic theologians who have actively discussed the circumstances of the revelation of the holy text, the meaning and metaphors of Islam during its 1400-year history, Salafists take every word literally. This is closely related to the Salafists’ glorification of the Muslim community’s early period, which is seen as the authentic expression of ‘true Islam’ that has been adulterated by subsequent generations. They focus on the Salaf, the forefather of Islamic history, and refuse to place the Islamic sources within an historical context or to take into consideration the higher values and meaning behind the revelations.

This kind of thinking is problematic in a variety of ways. It stands for the rejection of social differences and this leads to the debasement of those who think differently (‘infidels’, ‘kuffar‘ in Arabic) and have alternative life plans: ‘Those who do not live as we do are immoral (‘haram’), act wrongly and live in sin’. In accordance with this point of view, pluralism and being different are not considered normal but rather as a deviation from the divine order. This worldview’s hostility to democracy and freedoms is reflected in its rejection of self-responsible and self-determined thinking. Reflecting on values and questioning norms is dismissed in the same way that different interests and views are.

Despite all their similarities, however, Salafists do in fact differ; especially when it comes to the knowledge on the alleged true belief. Furthermore, is one’s self-concept as an authentic Muslim is not necessarily connected with an obligation to missionize and only a minority advocates the use of violence. Another minority of Salafists can be described as ‘quietistic-puristic’, in other words, they have the prophet as a role model in private life but don’t make demands of any kind on others. Particularly visible – and boasting the highest numbers – are those Salafists who also assert their claim of exclusive truth vis-à-vis other Muslims (and non-Muslims), and prompt them to return to the pristine doctrines of the past. For them dawah (or ‘invitation to Islam’) is a religious obligation. They take is as their duty to bring all those with deviating convictions and life plans back to true Islam. This involves building up social pressure on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

For a small group, this also implies a willingness to enforce their ideas using violence. This isn’t limited to aggressively asserting own tenets; in fact, it views the use of violence as a legitimate means to profess God’s message. Jihad – the violent struggle against infidels – is not only propagated by individuals of this spectrum; they see it as an obligation for all Muslims. Close to 1000 individuals are associated with this Islamist terrorist spectrum by the security authorities. Considering the attacks in Paris and the growing number of individuals traveling to Syria and Iraq (at the beginning of 2015, the number from Germany was estimated to be more than 600) and they pose a real potential of thread for attacks even inside Germany and abroad. It is thus not surprising that these individuals are often in the focus of news reports about the Salafist scene – even though they form only a small part of the current. In educational work, it is thus all the more important to also recognize the differences and not to associate every follower of Pierre Vogel with the violence** in Syria and Iraq. It is possible to deal with their religious claims to have embraced the absolute truth and their attitude to put social pressure on others within an educational framework. When it comes to the threat of violence, however, pedagogy alone will no longer suffice.

What makes Salafism attractive?

The reasons why Salafism has become attractive to some people are as varied as the backgrounds of the adherents. And one shouldn’t assume that only ‘losers’ join up with this movement. Followers include university students as well as former ‘gangsta’ rappers, youths with migration backgrounds, youths of German parentage and converts to Islam. Women are not immune either. Nevertheless, some general observations on what makes Salafism attractive, especially to adolescents, can be outlined here.

Salafism offers knowledge: Youths are interested in ‘their’ religion; they are looking for information in a language they understand. In many mosques run by the known Islamic associations, even today, the lessons on Islam are limited to memorizing texts that are incomprehensible to most youths. Many imams are out of their depth when it comes to questions by young Muslims like: Is it OK to watch James Bond? Is it OK if I vote in Germany? Salafist preachers on the other hand are very familiar with German society and the conflicts facing youths. They address topics that many imams are unaware of.

Salafists claim to know the truth: Ambivalences or unanswered questions don’t exist in the Salafist worldview. They see the world as being divisible into right and wrong, good and bad or moral and immoral. Most people reject this kind of polarizing black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking but in some situations it can be appealing. It offers clear orientation in cases where interests collide and where values need to be weighed up against each other. It unburdens people from having to question their positions. They no longer have to come up with own answers or discuss problems and then find decisions with a group of people. This also helps individuals to evade the responsibility for their choices and actions: They are not responsible for the things they do at the behest of God.

After all, Salafists demand obedience: Criticism against authorities and rebellion against the values of the establishment is typical for many youth cultures but grappling with established notions can be strenuous. Salafism relieves one of the burden of having to forge an own identity while coming to grips with one’s parents and one’s own environment. The obedience towards God – and towards the often very charismatic leaders of Salafist groups – replaces the decision on how they would like to live and who they want to be.

Salafists hold out the promise of community: As a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ – this is how group members address one another here – one becomes part of a tight-knit community. They share the same belief and many other things in the day-to- day life. Even more important: They can count on the solidarity of this ‘family’ when things go wrong – when one gets caught up in financial or emotional crises. The community offers a network that members can rely on when other social ties have been severed. The role the individual is expected to slip into is clearly defined: As a man, one becomes a ‘big brother’ and a fatherly authority figure for the younger ones; as a woman one provides emotional support and serves as a custodian for issues concerning the well-being of the community. This is why Salafism also appealing to some women: Many young women are caught between the expectations of society and their parental home; such role conflicts don’t exist in the Salafi community. As a devout mother figure and her husband’s companion she can escape the difficult decision of having to choose her own way of life between family and career. Clear gender roles take the place of self-doubt and arduous discussions on gender equality and emancipation. And what’s more, by fulfilling their assigned role, women are respected and honored in the Salafist scene. Even for women from homes where they have been subjected to arbitrary male dominance, religion-based role security can also be seen as relief.

Salafists claim to be fighting for equality: Many youths have first-hand experience with injustices and are privy to the sufferings and hardship in many parts of the world. This is why youths become politically engaged in general. Salafists bank on this outrage and instrumentalize it for their own purposes. It’s not their intention to provide information on the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. These conflicts are ‘explained’ as battlefields in the broader, global fight between right and wrong. In this context, Salafists see themselves as the avant-garde fighting for the good; in other words, for the cause of Muslims and Islam. They fuel victim ideology in which resistance and even the use of violence is an obligation for each Muslim. This may culminate in the call for jihad. In their outrage about injustices in the world, the fight against infidels can appear to be a just cause for some youths.

Salafism is thus a form of protest and breaking out of social norms: As contenders for an Islamic order, the Salafists present themselves as the avant-garde and counter-culture against materialism, individualism and immorality. It is not by chance that adherents of this movement also visibly break with the conventions of society; they wear traditional clothing, recite cliché-ridden Arab expressions or hold rituals in public.

Salafism thus also offers a great potential to attract attention; something many youths are looking for and hardly ever get a chance to know. Salafist symbols and rituals provoke, attract attention and guarantee reactions from teachers, parents and perhaps even the media. Tattoos, piercings or flesh tunnels, on the other hand, don’t arouse much attention these days. Wearing a long beard or a niqab, however, almost inevitably puts one in the spotlight and makes one the topic of conversation among fellow students or teachers. Jihadist propaganda goes beyond wanting to provoke; it promises a way out of the sense of powerlessness: The world can be changed with the help of young fighters; ‘justice can be brought about’ and – as claimed by Islamic State propaganda – ‘a true Islamic society can be established’. It is not by coincidence that this aspect plays an important role in the propaganda of jihadists from Syria and Iraq: Images of a presumptive normality in a society where street lamps have been repaired, foodstuff is distributed and the public transportation system has been restored show that an alternative society is possible.

Salafism – in all its forms – is thus also something that makes the life of the young followers meaningful. As a reward for turning their backs on society, for their self-denial and for their asceticism, true believers can expect recognition by the ummah, the community of Muslims. And, above all, they can also expect the promised rewards in paradise.

Recognition of Religiousness – Preventing Marginalization, Debasement and Violence

Pedagogic work faces numerous challenges here. This includes the necessity of addressing topics as Islam and religiousness, the situation of people from families with migrant history and their experiences with the society in schools. Especially among young Muslims who expressly see themselves as part of society, we take note of the desire to visibly express their religiousness. Unlike first generation Muslim immigrants who never intended to stay in Germany permanently, more and more young Muslims see themselves as active and equal citizens who also want to participate in society. At the same time, they don’t want to give up their religious identity. For these young people, displaying their religious affiliation doesn’t conflict with their self-concept as a Muslim German; in fact, both belong together.

This is observable in day-to-day school life and is reflected in the expectations and experiences of these students. It is more than obvious that the German society has undergone drastic changes in the last decades due to migration. It is necessary to understand and accept these facts. Only if this common ground is reached it will be possible to also talk about positions (of a religious nature) that are hostile to democracy and freedoms without disqualifying legitimate aspects of Muslim religiousness.

Among other things, religious instruction in Islam plays a central role in this context. It enables a reflective approach to religious orientation and faith-based practices. The goal of religious instruction, according to Mouhanad Khorchide, who teaches in the field of Islamic religious education at the University of Münster, is ‘to empower students to develop and perceive their own religiousness and to reflect on the significance of religious content so that they can take personal responsibility for their faith’. Despite a continuing controversy – ignited by experts and the political public – about the focus and content of Islamic education, religious education in schools is an important component in our efforts to prevent extremist views.

Interreligious approaches are also suitable to give students access to the various religious beliefs and traditions and to thus counteract extremist views. Workshops developed by the ‘Maxime Wedding-Project’, for example, are carried out by ‘practicing Jews, Christians and Muslims’. Students shall be enabled to change their attitude towards differences and embrace commonalities of all religions.

Nevertheless, prevention can’t be reduced to just religious education and interreligious contexts. In the past years, various approaches were tested. This was done to initiate discussions (expressly also relating to non-religious aspects) even in heterogeneous learning groups. These discussions are not primarily about religion-based approaches to religious issues. They serve much more as a starting point for discussions about general values and social norms. To this end, the school workshops carried out in various cities by ufuq.de (in collaboration with the University of Applied Sciences Hamburg) are geared at an explicit recognition of religious interests, the debates on values, gender roles and models of social coexistence. (Topics as the Conflict between Israel and Palestine, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are also covered). For the young Muslim teamers who moderate the workshops, it is not about looking at the same old questions on dress code (‘Is wearing a hijab required?’) or behavior (‘May I, as a Muslim, pluck my eyebrows?’) that crop up again and again. It’s about translating them into general questions about values and social conventions.

Religious viewpoints can play a role here but they are subordinated to general considerations on the role of symbols, corporeality and identity issues. The objective of these debates, which include discussions on terms like ‘sharia’ or ‘jihad’, is also to point out various religious and non-religious life plans (‘show alternatives’) i.e. life plans that many youths might be familiar with from their day-to-day life but which are not perceived by them as legitimate options for themselves.

These approaches are used to mediate during the preliminary stages of radicalization processes. They make it possible to work against the entrenched enemy images and rigid worldviews so characteristic to Salafist movements. And by reflecting on religious themes, they promote a religious self-conception that makes it easier for youths – and for the learning group as a whole – to resist social pressure and missionizing attempts by Salafist players.

But empowerment cannot be achieved alone by highlighting alternative community programs and by teaching civic and humanist values, which include equal respect to young Muslims, at schools. Real capacity building requires the right attitude from teachers and, above all, also real opportunities for participation and to shape their schools and in their social environments. This is what can prevent a sense of alienation and promote genuine participation. Active involvement in discussions about the school’s mission, and carrying out humanitarian aid projects for the Syrian population, for example, are just a few of the methods that can help prevent a feeling of exclusion and powerlessness.

This is not new and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do this. In fact, experiences gained in civic education and violence prevention programs can be transferred and used for the pedagogical work that is necessary to prevent the spread of Salafist attitudes.