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Revolt, provoke, segregate: Salafism as the new youth culture

Why does a highly regimented world attract young people? Aladin El-Mafaalani investigates Salafism as a youth culture. In an interview he explains why young people join the scene and why it is difficult to counteract.

Photo: Young men cheering in a crowd

Young, mostly Salafist men attend a speech of Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel in 2011. The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimates that there are currently more than 7,000 Salafists in Germany. On average, they are 30 years old, but most of them enter the scene in their youth - between the ages of 16 and 19 years old.

Aladin El-Mafaalani is a social scientist at the Münster University of Applied Science. In his studies, he focuses on education and migration as well as social policy. As part of his research he has also interviewed several young people associated with the Salafist scene in Germany.

You focus on Salafism as a youth subculture and compare it with the punk movement. Why is it that you consider it a 'youth culture'?

I define it by the function it has for young people. Its visible characteristics - like headscarves and long beards - that are meant to trigger provocation. In that way, the young people want to cultivate a counter concept to the societal majority. And it's the characteristics of Salafism's that appeal to young people.


How big is that youth culture? Is it also prevalent in other countries?

Photo: Aladin El-Mafaalani (Photo: David Ausserhofer)

Aladin El-Mafaalani is a social scientist at the Münster University of Applied Science. In his studies, he focuses on education and migration research and social policy.

This subculture, or scene, is relatively small right now, but it's growing enormously. And it's global: you not only encounter this in Germany, but also in other European countries, and also in Canada, for example.

What is clear is that in mosques that belong to the Salafist scene, 90 percent of the visitors are under 25 years old. Meanwhile, in the big, established mosques, around three quarters of the visitors are of retirement age.


For your research you have interviewed many young people. The label 'youth culture' sounds as if it is your perspective as a social scientist. Would the young people themselves consider Salafism as a culture?

No, the young people that I've met wouldn't even says that they are Salafists. They'd always say, 'we are Muslims'. However, they match with what we understand by Salafism. For one, they say that the strict Islamic way of life is the one and only true way of living. They put this understanding directly in their name, calling themselves "True Islam" for example. The second criterion is active missionizing.

Young people would also not themselves admit that they joined with the aim of provocation. Although everyone who joins knows that by doing so they segregate themselves. They know that - and play with it.

Also you need to take into account that those who already feel discriminated and excluded, don't take any risk when he or she joins a radical group. With the idea being that it is now more than ever. Classic rebellion, in a way.


So, the young people would always say that it is about religion - although other factors like provocation and group affiliation play a role?

Exactly. Our initial research question was, how young people are attracted to ultra-conservative movements. We wanted to understand and explain, why they voluntarily become part of a world that is highly regimented and where there are many things that are forbidden.

We found that they did not only want to segregate themselves from their families by doing this, but also from the societal majority. And they also want to provoke segregation as a reaction, so that they can achieve clarity in a social context.


It's often said that young people join Salafist groups to have their questions answered and to find explanations for their problems. Why is that something that radicalized groups are able to offer when the rest of our society is unable to do so?

If you compare them to Muslim communities, the latter are perceived as rather weak. From the perspective of these young people, they represent the weak Muslims, those who always have to justify themselves. Furthermore, German is not spoken there and it's all about theology.

Photo: Man handing over a Quran to another person in Hannover in 2012

Radical Salafists initiated distribution of Qurans in German. For Salafist groups speaking German - instead of Arabic or Turkish - is an established principle.

That's different with Salafist groups. Before prayer, questions are discussed - they might sound banal, but they are important to the young people, like: May I wear lipstick as a Muslim woman? Or: What do I do when I feel attracted to a woman?

Furthermore, German is spoken because these groups are not separated by nationality anymore. If Arabic was spoken, the Bosnians wouldn't understand anything; if Serbian was spoken, the Turkish people would be excluded. That's why German is spoken - the Salafists have established that as their principle.

It's a factor that's particularly remarkable considering that, originally, speaking German was regarded as a sign of integration.


How can society prevent young people from joining such fundamental groups?

That is difficult, because they don't feel part of current society. No matter where in the world, in the eyes of these young people, Muslims are always seen as weak. What unites them now is the concept that: 'As we don't take our religion seriously and don't live as strictly as 1,400 years ago, we are playing the role victim. Only when we start taking, and living, our religion really seriously, will we regain our strength.'


Is there anyway of counteracting that trend?

It's difficult to break that cycle, because they're already established and well connected. To shatter such a network is very complicated. I assume this will now last for one or two decades.

Normally, the young people come from disadvantaged families, that are not religious at all. That's why the German government is hoping that Islamic classes at schools and acknowledgement of Islam as a part of society will have preventive effects.


Do you think that will work?

It can work, yes. I've visited half of the universities where Islamic teachers are trained. And, of course, Salafists also study there. That's why you need to keep an eye on that.

If this initiative had been in place 20 years ago, then I'd have said we would see success right now and would not be in the situation that we're in. But now, we need to wait and see what happens.


For our video documentary one of our reporters met a young man who was a Salafist, but has now turned away from it. Is that a change that happens often?

Watch video 08:26

#readytofight: 'I was a rebel on a quest'

Not yet, the movement is continuing to expand, but that will change. There will be more and more people growing out of it.

If I and some of my colleagues are right that this is a youth culture that is attractive because it is provocative, then it will be exciting to continue to monitor its development. These are young people, who are active and want to change something from within. But they joined a movement, that doesn't want change - it wants a return to the life and way of thinking that their ancestors had. It's obvious that in the long run this doesn't go together with young people, who want to revolt.

It'll be interesting to see, how that develops - if it begins to splinter, for example, then it might become dangerous.

98 percent of the students involved in the 1968 protests were just annoying, but not dangerous. But from a small part of that movement came the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany - some would say they were terrorists and they were violent. And even within the majority that wasn't violent, there were some that sympathized with those who were radicalized.

It makes perfect sense to distinguish between political Salafists and jihadists. But also among the extremist, but peaceful, Salafists there is sympathy for the violent jihadists. That can become problematic.

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