The Fine Line Between Extremist Suggestion and Violence: Current Developments of Salafism in Germany

The Salafist scene in Germany emerged around 2004/5 with a few prominent preachers, and since then various strains have evolved. This dispersion is also reflected in the variety of motives and ways of life that lead individuals into the scene – and in the different approaches of prevention work aiming to prevent a shift towards the Salafist ideology. Heiner Vogel has been observing the scene for several years and regularly reports on current developments on his blog, Erasmus Monitor. Götz Nordbruch spoke to him about his assessments.

Liebe das Jenseits

In recent years, the Salafist scene has grown not only larger but also broader. In your point of view, does it still make sense to refer to Salafism as a category?

Actually the scene has been thoroughly shaken up, especially due to events in Germany and Syria since 2012. The rise of the ‘Islamic State’ and the ensuing conflicts within the political and militant camps, have led to new coalitions and to the establishment of new networks. This has increased competition between preachers and their followers. A certain pragmatism has also been adopted. Crackdowns by security forces on militant groups and the increasing opposition of civil society to the scene, has meant that preachers have had to adapt their rhetoric accordingly. Many now avoid contact with the jihadist wing, with whom they had flirted for years. The militants have become much more decentralised after the ban on Millatu Ibrahim and the DIK Hildesheim.

There are now hardly any militant groups that the public would be aware of. Overall, one can speak of a heterogenization of the scene, which extends in part to other spectrums and milieus of Islamism. The Syrian civil war has played a central role here too. Ultranationalist Turks with Islamist leanings and Salafist groups have come increasingly closer despite fundamental ideological differences. In Germany, not only Salafism, but rather Islamism in general has changed.

Heiner Vogel is a political scientist and author of the blog, ‘Erasmus Monitor.’ On his blog, he regularly reports on actors and strategies of the Salafist scene and German jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

When discussing radicalisation, particular attention has been placed on violent forms of Salafism. What do you think of this prioritisation? Which connection do you see between preachers such as Pierre Vogel and others who openly call for violence?

Of course, violent forms of Salafism are the main problem. The dilemma, as is well known, is the overlapping of the various strains. Separating ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’ is almost impossible, as both subtle and open forms of agitation play a role in radicalisation. Ideology and emotion usually go hand-in-hand.

Preachers like Pierre Vogel or Sven Lau have moved in these grey areas of the scene for a long time now and, since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, they have especially focused on the militant sphere. Of course, they and most other preachers knew the legal risks and always made sure not to go too far in public.

However, in the case of Syria, they have joined forces with Salafist aid organisations and militant groups and managed to charge emotions, creating a wave of solidarity in the entire scene: whether amongst purists, political or militant Salafists, or followers of other Islamist strains. Sven Lau and other preachers then openly crossed the line between extremist suggestion and militancy. The step from one camp into the other can be made very quickly.

Pierre Vogel has always personally condemned terror and violence against ‘innocent people’. He, and other ‘pragmatists’ like him, created the basis for militancy by playing around with forms of relativisms when it comes to the ‘defence’ and ‘resistance’ of Muslims against ‘oppression’ or Western military operations in Islamic countries. However, one can currently notice a verbal restraint in the scene. This is mainly due to the fact that civil and state pressure has increased significantly, as well as the ‘centrifugal forces’ within the scene.

When it comes to the causes of radicalisation, there are often two explanatory models: we either hear about religious illiterates influenced by a criminal biography or familial and psychological problems, or about ideologised individuals whose actions are ultimately consequences of their way of thinking. Both types exist and this makes prevention work all the more difficult. Do you see any similarities between these cases? What connects them and where are the differences?

It’s hard to describe a prototype Salafist. As you mentioned, there are a significant number of followers who are particularly prone to religious or political extremism due to disorientation and psychosocial dispositions. Similarly, there are also many Salafists who have been socialised into certain ways of thinking and living through their family structures.

Common to both groups is that they feel repressed and disadvantaged in society and present themselves as an avant-garde in this society. These individuals feel overwhelmed or even marginalised by a system in which everyday life and working worlds rapidly change, and where societal, political and religious values and belief principles shift and alter. But of course, there are also fundamental differences between the two groups. Religious illiterates are much more insecure. They virtually fall into the scene through self-discovery processes, psychological problems or disorientation. These people are searching for guidance and want to be shown the way in a world they do not understand. And that’s what they get in the Salafist scene, whose authoritarian belief practice dictates fixed structures. In this environment they feel understood and respected. Conversion alone allows the individual access to the social structure, and they are required to do little more. In this way, they evade the pressures and expectations of the ‘meritocracy,’ represented by their parents, school or the state. In the Salafist scene they learn how to question the existing system and internalise the victim role.

On the other hand, there are those people who have already been shaped by their personal (conservative) environment. It is they who point the way for the inexperienced. A dominant demeanour acquired in childhood, through which they feel confident and willing to exercise their influence, could be enough for them to manipulate other insecure individuals. They are not necessarily trained in religious matters, but they often dispose over basic religious knowledge, perhaps through culturally conditioned socialisation. The habitus, the familial roles or the weekly visit to the mosque could already be enough for them to differentiate themselves from the rest of society.

The online propaganda of IS still plays a major role in public perception. Once again attention is focused on violent forms, although today it is hardly possible to find such videos accidentally. At the same time, many online forums are now characterised by positions reminiscent of Salafist proselytising, but these views are not always deliberately disseminated by Salafist actors. Where do you see a need to act preventively online? Is it important to deconstruct jihadist propaganda? Or should the emphasis be on civic and religious education in general, without directly referencing IS?

In general, violence and brutalisation should be focused on and given more prominence without having to deal with IS. Violence is always present in a society, whether in the schoolyard, at a club or at a demonstration. One should not shy away from delicate political or religious discussions when deconstructing jihadist propaganda. Only through an open approach is it possible to reach specific groups, whether that may be in relation to the Palestine conflict or Western foreign policy. Of course, lines have to be drawn. Many are religious illiterates and rituals and codes of conduct play a bigger role than religious expertise. Emotions often guide their actions and template their thinking. One should attempt to tap into these aspects in order to reach target groups.