‘This is the 9/11 generation’ – Questions of identity and religion in education and prevention

Jihadists reach students because they address their problems. Talking about Islam can prevent radicalization, according to ufuq.de’s Jochen Müller. He explains the methods and ideas of the association and why he believes that workshops in schools might help to prevent radicalisation. The following Interview was published in “die Tageszeitung” on 14. October 2014

Bildschirmfoto 2017-08-31 um 13.52.01taz: Herr Müller, all of the jihadists who left Germany to fight in the war in Syria come from the Salafist scene, whose numbers have grown significantly in recent years. Why is this scene so appealing to young Muslims?

Jochen Müller: Salafi messages are not only attractive for young Muslims but for converts as well. They offer what adolescents and young adults are looking for: Orientation, community and values. Moreover, they address the needs of young people with regard to religion and belonging.

Why are Salafists enjoying so much popularity at the moment?

We are talking about the Generation of 9/11. When the attacks happened in 2001 these Youngsters were still children. They were born in Germany and have grown up with the understanding that this is their country and that they will also raise their children here. At the same time, however, they see that they are not fully recognized by the majority of Germans and don’t feel a real sense of belonging.

Someone once said to me: A hundred years from now, Germans will still ask me where I come from just because I have dark hair. Or: When the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Christian Wulff, suggested that Islam is part of Germany the tabloid ‘Bild’ ran a front page article titled: How much Islam can Germany tolerate? That’s a slap in the face for young Muslims who live here. This had the effect of getting more Muslim youths interested in religion – even if they aren’t particularly religious. It often had to do more with identity and an insistence on belonging.

What do these young people do then?

They ask questions, they look for answers. Their parents, however, usually can’t provide answers, nor can the imam. That’s because they are often unfamiliar with the world of young people who subsequently turn to the Internet. Here they will quickly stumble upon Salafist-run sites. This is why so many young people who know relatively little about Islam still know about Pierre Vogel …

… the Salafist preacher.

That’s right. He offers answers. Simple, catchy answers. He relates to what these young people have experienced, Salafists create an ideology, an enemy stereotype along the lines of: ‘You are a Muslim and as a Muslim you will always be discriminated against and blocked from being a full-fledged member of this society. Just look at what is happening in Syria and in Palestine. Here in Germany, Islam is also being suppressed. Enough is enough! Be proud and defend yourselves. That’s what you have to do.

If someone then comes along and claims that sharia law and the constitution; Islam and democracy are not compatible, then these young people don’t have the knowledge or the arguments to counter this. And, of course, this reference to their religion also gives young people the opportunity to vent frustrations or to provoke. Thus, at school someone might suggest that sharia law is more important than the constitution. And before you know it, the whole school will talk about this. Works great, this kid has never gotten so much attention in his entire life!

But not everyone who wants to learn more about his or her religion will end up with Salafists.

No, of course not. But compared to the older generations these young people meet many more controversies and conflicts involving their religion. This makes it possible for the Salafists to address them. Many of the young people who are attracted to this ideology tend to have experienced alienation and feelings of helplessness, or they might have hit some rough patches in life leading to breaks in their biography, for instance. The family often plays an important role here, the classic examples: an absent father, separated parents and so forth. This applies especially to the small, militant scene.

How do these young people get in touch with Salafism?

Primarily through the Internet – and through preachers at individual mosques. But it can also come about through contact on the street, at a shisha bar, on a football pitch. Somebody recently mentioned an incident involving some young kids playing football at a playing field. Two older, religious boys walked up to them and proposed: Let us play too. If you win, you keep on playing. If we win, you come along with us to the mosque. The younger ones found that cool. They lost and then went to this specific mosque where they met a Salafist preacher who spoke with them. They liked it because he addressed their needs.

We also heard of agitation at schools.

Yes, that happens. Usually students try to persuade classmates of what they consider to be ‘true Islam’. One example: At a school in Hamburg, several students distributed material about how Muslim boys and girls are supposed to behave and dress. Some of the students protested that these pupils had no right to judge what constitutes a good or bad Muslim. A heated debate followed. This took place before the summer vacation. When school resumed after the summer break, the two boys returned to school wearing prayer caps and traditional garments. The school then prohibited this outfit. The result: Even the students who had criticized the boys before now took their side because they had the feeling that the school was attacking Islam by prohibiting the Salafists dress. The school thus achieved exactly the opposite of what they wanted.

What does ufuq.de do at such schools?

Drawing on the central question: ‘How do we want to live?’, we give these young people the space to talk about their ideas; about belonging, identity and religion.

What does that mean?

We visit school classes and youth facilities with young teamers who usually have a migrant background or are Muslims themselves. We work with films that we have produced. These films cover topics such as gender roles, Islamophobia, sharia, the constitution or Salafism.

We want to start discussions and we offer the space for them to find out, how they want to live together in their classrooms, in school and in society. For example: How should boys and girls live together? Do you think it’s OK when girls aren’t accorded the same freedoms as boys? Questions like these are discussed. And we have observed an interesting fact: In groups that are dominated by a pupil who acts as the agitator, all we need to do is empower the others to think and to speak out. This raises their awareness for the very simplistic worldviews of the Salafists and their enemy stereotypes. Those who agitate in the name of ‘Islam’ happen to lose ground very quickly. This process can happen relatively fast.

How fast is relatively fast?

We do short-term interventions, either in the framework of school-based project days or in workshops with three 2-hour sessions.

Can this have a sustainable effect?

In the meantime, we have worked with over 4000 young people in many cities and we believe that this approach is working. Most of these young people see themselves as Muslims, whether they are religious or not. Many of them don’t know much about their religion. When somebody tells them: ‘Let me explain to you real Islam’, no one will dare to object as they don’t want to come across as a bad Muslim. This deadlock can be opened by sessions with our teamers. Most of them are Muslims themselves. They can show the kids that there are many different ways to lead one’s life in accordance with Islam.

And then they realize that it’s not necessary to take sides; they can be German and Muslim; democratic and Turkish or Arab. Helping them to find their place here in society, that’s our job.

This is called primary prevention. What about those who have already been indoctrinated, you can’t reach them, can you?

No, the situation is similar to what we know from right-wing extremism: You might be able to rattle them a bit but our main task is to protect the group from them.