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Battling Salafism on Germany's streets

October 26, 2018

Saloua Mohammed's most important tool in the fight against Salafism is listening – to parents whose kids radicalize online, to youth who rave about Salafism, and to women returning to Germany after fighting alongside IS.

Saloua Mohammed, Bonn-based social activist against Salafism
Image: DW/M. von Hein

"Let's see who is going to win in the end, shall we?" social worker Saloua Mohammed says. "They won't get my youths that easily."

"They" are radical Salafists: Ultraconservative Muslims who interpret the Quran literally, live their faith the way it was common during the times of the prophet Muhammad and are looking for new followers. And this — the recruitment of young people into Salafism — is exactly what Mohammed wants to prevent. 

Mohammed fights for each and every one of "her" children. She is a faithful Muslim herself, wearing a headscarf in public. She prays in the mosque, but sometimes walks into Cologne Cathedral to find peace. Mohammed comes from a liberal-leaning Moroccan family in which religion was discussed and tolerance taught. That, she says, provided her with arguments and a kind of intellectual protective armor. She has good use for both.

A social worker, she is in her mid-30s, lively and full of energy. When she talks her hands are almost constantly in motion. In addition to her job with the Catholic Church aid organization Caritas, she has been volunteering as a street worker in Bonn for years.

Bonn used to be the capital of West Germany and is considered a center of the Salafist movement in Germany's most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, or NRW for short. 

Journalists not welcome

Mohammed works primarily with young people who have already been in contact with the Salafist scene. She talks to desperate parents, goes to schools or visits affected families at home.

We meet Mohammed in a cafe in downtown Bonn. She would have been willing to be accompanied by journalists when working with her clients. But none of her "problem kids" agreed to that. The topic is just too sensitive, Mohammed explains.

Read more: Not all Salafists are the same, says expert

In 2013 she was awarded the Integration Prize of the City of Bonn for her social commitment. But there is criticism, too.

Sometimes she even has to deal with personal insults: "In the eyes of right-wing extremists, I am a terrorist who is supposed to, and I quote, 'don a suicide-vest and blow herself up.'"

Salafists giving out free Qurans in the streets of Bonn, Germany in 2014
Radical Muslims handed out free Qurans and encouraged people to "Read!" in downtown Bonn in 2014Image: DW/I.Azzam

Salafists, on the other hand, call her a traitor. They deem Saloua Mohammed much too open and Western.

"For them I'm just a 'Euro-Muslim,'" the street worker says, shrugging.

Mohammed is strong and able cope with hostility. For her, that comes with freedom of opinion, "a very important value in our society." She says you simply have to live with the fact that there are people with different opinions out there.

It is much harder for her, though, to deal with criticism coming from people close to her. A number of friends fell away, she sadly remembers, because she was too liberal for them. Even though she was hurt, Mohammed is still convinced she's doing the right thing. She says she feels German — German with a "migration background," as it is referred to in the German language.

"I fully identify with my country," Mohammed says.

When your child becomes a stranger

When youths radicalize, the whole family is often put to the test, Mohammed tells DW.

"The reactions differ a lot. Some parents literally disowned their children when they went to Syria to join the IS caliphate. Others fight desperately to bring their children back. They say: 'I know my child. She wouldn't want something like that, I didn't raise her that way.'"

The Muslim street worker experiences a lot of despair during her assignments: Parents are literally sick with concern for their sons or daughters who have disappeared. On top of that, they find themselves ostracized and shunned because of their children's religious radicalization.

"Sometimes neighbors or friends distance themselves and the family suddenly finds itself utterly alone," Mohammed says.

Listening, over and over again

Regardless at which point Mohammed meets "her" youths, her work is all about trust, help and respect, not judgement.

"Young people quickly realize whether or not you take them seriously," she says. "I always tell them: 'I don't have to agree with what you say. But I am going to listen to you.' Then we can talk and see if we can find some common ground."

But Mohammed knows that radical Salafists have their own ways to bond with the youths. They talk to them about topics like discrimination or about the feeling of not belonging in Germany — problems that especially youths with a migration background often know from personal experience.

"The Salafists take a strategic approach: For example, they search for people with serious problems in their families. They check who could be a follower and who has what it takes to become a leader."

Salafism and the flag of the so-called Islamic State
Many youth first encounter the Salafist movement onlineImage: picture-alliance/chromorange/R. Peters

Online radicalization

Until two years ago, Salafist preachers were openly recruiting in Bonn. They even blatantly tried to find new followers in front of schools. But things have changed. Today, according to Mohammed, many teenagers radicalize at home, in front of their computers. The first contact often happens via Facebook or open chat forums with names like "Muslim Market" or "Islam House." There, every newcomer is scanned for his attitude and seriousness, Mohammed says.

"The communication channels have developed further, because the pressure on Salafist structures has increased," the street worker explains.

Only tested and approved newcomers are added to encrypted WhatsApp groups. There they get information on upcoming events, seminars or — in the case of women — "sister meetings."

Read more: Number of Salafists in Germany has doubled in five years

A cry for attention 

One case is very vivid in Mohammed's memory, even though it happened some time ago. A very young girl she knew from her work in local Bonn schools was having trouble.

"One morning I got a call from her friends, who told me: 'Saloua, she went underground. We don't know where she is.' Shortly before that, the girls had found out that she had met a much older man from the Salafist scene on Facebook and was planning to marry him."

The girl ran away in the dark of night to meet with him. Fortunately, with the help of her parents and police, Mohammed managed to track her down and bring her back within a few hours. She then had long conversations with the girl.

"It turned out that she only did all this in order to bring her parents back together. They were splitting up and getting a divorce. She was acting out of sheer desperation."

Traumatized after 'Islamic State'

More and more often, the street worker has to deal with returnees. These young women, inspired by their extreme religious beliefs, went to Syria and Iraq in order to live their dream of being part of the so-called Islamic State's "caliphate." More than anything else, Mohammed sees those women as highly traumatized people — who are starting to come back in considerable numbers.

"Some returnees describe their experience as sheer hell," Mohammed says. "They have experienced violence. And quite often they were constantly on the run, all the while feeling there was no place where they would be safe."

Women wearing full Islamic face veils in Germany
Women play a growing role in Germany's Salafist sceneImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Some are so highly traumatized they just want to repress their experiences and prefer not to talk about them at all, the social worker says. In some cases, however, silence could also be an indication that the women still cling to IS ideology, Mohammed suspects.

Germany's domestic security service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, came to the same conclusion. According to the spy agency, many women returning to Germany are highly ideologized, radicalized and probably ready for violence. Many return directly into their old Salafist environment.

Figures from the latest official report of the domestic security service for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia point to the growing role of women in the radical Salafist scene: Only 12 percent of the 3,000 supporters of the Salafist scene in NRW are female. But with 28 percent, the number of women who left Germany to join the self-proclaimed Caliphate was more than double that.

Read more: Germany's rapid deportations of Salafist suspects ruled lawful

Much help needed

Mohammed has seen that returnees need a lot of help in all areas of life. One example she cites is that of dealing with bureaucracy when birth certificates or identity papers for children born in the "Islamic State" are missing.

"Then, of course, the officials say: 'Sorry, without those papers we can do nothing at all.' That causes a lot of frustration," Mohammed says.

"On the other hand, it makes some of the women face the bitter truth and realize: 'Okay, this might be part of the price I have to pay for my decision to join the Caliphate.' Those are the people who reflect and are open to talk about their actions."

In counselling, Mohammed experiences a broad spectrum of feelings among her clients:

"There is despair, hatred of everything and everyone, moments of remorse. But during the consultation process, we also reflect on achievements they reach after their return, no matter how small. That makes my heart rejoice."

Returnees who completely shut themselves off very often are victims of violence, including sexualized violence, Mohammed explains.

Young Salafists rally in Frankfurt in 2011
Before Salafists moved most of their efforts online, their preachers were celebrated like rock stars at public rallies, like here in Frankfurt in 2011.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Returnees more vulnerable than ever

Saloua Mohammed is convinced that no matter in which state of mind the women come back to Germany, they should be closely supervised and guided. Being left alone with feelings of powerlessness and disappointment, without help for a new start in Germany would make these women susceptible to extremist influences again.

"It literally makes me sick, when I think about extremists intercepting and addressing those disappointed and disillusioned women at the right moment," Mohammed says.

If that happens, she says, there's a threat of even greater radicalization.

Read part I of our series on SalafismInvisible and dangerous: The Salafist scene in North Rhine-Westphalia

Read part II of our series on Salafism: From Germany to 'Islamic State': Christian's journey

Read part III of our series on Salafism: Abu Dujana: The Salafi preacher

Read part IV of our series on Salafism: The German who went from left-wing terrorist to Salafist sympathizer