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Germany

Terror Case Throws Spotlight on German Converts to Islam

Two of the men held in connection with a plot to bomb US military installations and other targets in Germany are converts to Islam. It has raised the question of whether converts are more likely to become radicalized.

Muslims praying at the Sehtlik mosque in Berlin

It's not known exactly how many have converted to Islam in Germany

Perhaps just as shocking to many Germans upon hearing that the terrorist attacks planned could have been more deadly than those carried out in London or Madrid was the fact that two of three suspects taken into custody, Fritz G. and Daniel S., were Germans who had converted to Islam.

It led Bavaria's interior minister and premier designate, Günther Beckstein, to argue that in certain cases, German authorities should keep an eye on people who convert to Islam. While there is no central register for converts, the conservative minister told the financial daily Handelsblatt last week that when "security forces learn of a conversion, they should establish whether it involves a liberal and humane form of Islam or an Islamist one."

The controversial suggestion has unleashed a discussion over the nature of conversion, religious zeal and the appeal that converts have to Islamic radicals.

A suspect being led away by police

The three suspected Islamic terrorists were from a group with a "profound hatred of US citizens"

One of the three men now in custody was observed studying a US military base at Hanau late last year, which moved police to begin their surveillance operations. Although the three knew they were being watched, they continued their planning.

"This underlines their devotion, or fanaticism, in regard to their goal," said Jörg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Crime Agency.

Germany's Federal Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said he was concerned about the radicalization of converts, but did not want to place Muslims under general suspicion. Margot Kässmann, bishop of Germany's largest Protestant church, warned against overreaction and that even new Christian converts were often filled with zeal for their faith.

Role of conversion under scrutiny

Still, the fact that two of the suspects were Germans who knew the country's laws and customs, could blend in perfectly, and yet were willing to kill large numbers of people, has many asking if their conversion to Islam was a motivating factor in their becoming terrorists.

According to Kai Hirschmann of Germany's Institute for Terrorism Research and Study, converts to Islam do pose a danger that is higher than those who are born into the religion. The theory is that the religious convictions of those who choose to convert are much stronger than those simply following in the religious footsteps of their families. They can have the tendency to give 110 percent to the new faith.

"Converts can be more easily radicalized," Hirschmann told the news Web site tagesschau.de "As 'novices,' they try to be more religious than even the religious leaders. That often makes them especially fanatical and also especially dangerous."

Conversion not in a vacuum

But others warn against painting with too broad a brush, saying the reasons and circumstances around conversions are too varied and that it's not the conversion itself that leads to radicalization, but the kind of group one associates with once within the new faith.

A teacher, Brigitte Weiss, wears a headscarf in a courtroom -- she converted to Islam a year ago.

A teacher, Brigitte Weiss, wears a headscarf in court -- she converted to Islam a year ago.

"Conversions seldom happen in isolation," said Stefan Reichmuth, a professor of Islamic studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum. "They occur in the context of acquaintances, the environment or the networks that one encounters after converting."

Most conversions to Islam in Germany, according to him, occur among women who marry Muslim men. Among this group, radicalization is rare and the wives will generally take on the form of Islam practiced within the family.

"So you can't say that conversion to Islam carries an implicit tendency towards becoming a radical," he said. "There might be more solidarity among the group, particularly after Sept. 11, but that doesn't mean one has to become an Islamist."

Estimates about the number of converts to Islam in Germany vary widely. According to the Federal Interior Ministry, between 15,000 and 40,000 German converts and their children are living in the country. Other groups say the number is between 60,000 and 80,000.

The ministry estimates that in 2005, around 1,000 Germans became Muslims, although the German Islam Archive puts the number of converts between July 2004 and June 2005 at 4,000.

Tiny minority of radicalized converts

For Michael Muhammad Abduh Pfaff, the chairman of the German Muslim League and a convert himself, the latest debate only tends to fuel fears about Islam in the larger population.

A woman wearing a headscarf in the colors of the German flag

No one is really sure how many German coverts to Islam there are

The 42-year old, who converted to Islam 18 years ago after having studied the religion in college, says there are many reasons people convert, including a sense of anger at society or injustice in the world. He agrees with experts who say those young people can be especially susceptible to a radical message and Islamist messengers. For these angry, mostly male youth, the ideology of revolt because of a hatred of the status quo can overshadow any theology. But he worries that overblown coverage will give people a false impression.

"Of all the Muslim converts in Germany, we're talking about 25 or so who would fit into this category," he said.

He draws comparisons to Gudrun Ensslin of the Red Army Faction, the left-wing terrorist group at the center of Germany's "Autumn of Terror" 30 years ago. She was the daughter of a Protestant pastor with a very strong ethical sense who became radicalized when she fell in with a group of far-leftists unhappy with German society.

Worries about intolerance

Surveillance of converts would be impossible to put in place, says Pfaff

Surveillance of converts would be impossible to put in place, says Pfaff

For Pfaff, the capture of the three suspects was good news, converts or not, and he calls Bavarian Interior Minister Beckstein's suggestion for surveillance "pure populism" made to score political points. Indeed, he says, such a program would be impossible to put in place because of the uncertainty around the number of converts in Germany and the lack of a central register for them.

But, Pfaff says, ideas such as surveillance worry some German converts to Islam who, unlike their Turkish or other co-religionists from the Middle East, have nowhere to go if the atmosphere for Muslims in Germany became intolerant and rights began to disappear.

"Turks could go back to Turkey, I suppose, and Egyptians to Egypt," he said. "But for us converts, this is our home. That's why I have a special interest in seeing that our rights are protected."

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