The Salafist Muslim minority group has announced a plan to distribute 25 million copies of the Koran for free in Germany. The operation is expected to begin this weekend in 40 cities across the country.
"Of course we have nothing against the Koran," said the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency in a statement. But they point out that the group that intends to give out the Islamic holy texts for free in the pedestrian zones of Germany's cities are already under surveillance.
This is the organization "The True Religion," which belongs to the puritanical, literalist Islamic group the Salafists. The group, led in Germany by Cologne-based preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie has printed around 300,000 copies of the Koran in German since October 2011.
But Rauf Ceylan, professor of religion at the University of Osnabrück, dismisses the campaign to distribute millions of books as pure PR. "The group just wants to get attention and make new connections," he says.
Misused by extremists
But it's this proselytizing motive that concerns the security forces, who are afraid that hate preachers among the Salafists will use the campaign to target young people. "People who are insecure, or who are in search of a meaning to life are often easy targets," says Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
The simplification of religion through clear bans and commandments is particularly attractive, says one expert for Bremen's state constitutional protection agency. That is a point well illustrated by the case of the so-called "Sauerland Group," a radicalized cell of German terrorists. These young men, aged between 23 and 30, were working on building bombs for attacks in Germany before they were arrested in 2007.
Since then, some of the mosques and community centers of the around 2,500 Salafists in Germany have come under regular observation. According to the investigators, many Salafists hold views that contradict the German constitution.
The intelligence agency's reports contend that extremist Salafists do not believe in equality between men and women, reject democracy and human rights, and want western society to be converted into a religious state. As evidence for the threat posed by Salafism, security forces often point out that the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks were influenced by this strain of Islam. They consider Salafism as nothing short of a seedbed for international terrorism.
Not all Salafists are extremists
It is true that Salafism can be called "fundamentalist," since it orientates itself towards early Islam of the seventh century. Fundamentalist Salafists live their lives completely by the teachings of the Koran, and claim a monopoly on the interpretation of the Koran. "Anyone who studies the Koran and its language knows how problematic this is, because there are multiple interpretations," says Ceylan.
The Islamic community organization in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg often points out one quotation from the Koran that frequently leads to misunderstanding in the German population. In the oft-quoted verse 47,4, some read a call to violence – to strike infidels in the neck - while others see simply a contemporary document that refers to the despair of the Prophet Mohammed as he was forced to flee his home town of Mecca and got to Medina in the year 622 (of the Christian calendar).
"The Koran is not a hate-speech document," says Cevilia Demir-Schmitt of the community organization. "And the word "jihad" refers not to a war against others, but to the constant struggle within the individual to turn to good."
He also describes the Koran as a text that constantly calls on one to show goodness, mercy, justice and prayer. Indeed, he says, those who claim the sole "true" interpretation of the Koran for themselves and use it to justify radical action, violate the Koran and Islam.
The German intelligence agency keeps radical Islamic groups under surveillance
Thomas Bauer, professor for Arab studies at the University of Münster, confirms that the Salafists' missionary zeal puts them in a special position within Islam.
Koran distribution is legal
Germany's constitution enshrines religious freedom, and it also guarantees the right to advertise religious beliefs, as long as they do not include a call to violence. Distributing holy texts is certainly not a crime.
Indeed, "The True Religion" only intends to distribute copies of the Koran, without annotations or comment.
But the management of the German printer commissioned to produce the books has apparently begun to harbor doubts, although the first six orders of 50,000 copies have been paid punctually.
The company says it would use the fact that the next shipment is yet to be paid to re-think the order. The printing firm is apparently anxious not to be forced into a particular political or religious direction.
Some journalists from German papers who have criticized the free-Koran operation have been named and threatened in Islamic videos on the Internet, and Germany's Interior Ministry said that police investigations have been opened in some of these cases.
Author: Wolfgang Dick / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer