Why are young Germans joining the ranks of Islamists and waging jihad? Islamic studies expert Lamya Kaddor explains why youth, Muslim or not, are particularly susceptible to the indoctrination of Salafist recruiters.
DW: Your book "Ready to Kill" [published in German: "Zum Töten bereit"] looks at why German youth are joining jihadist groups. As a teacher of Islamic religious studies in Dinslaken, you have lost five of your former students to Islamist efforts in Syria. In one passage you write that these people are "good-hearted." What is happening?
Lamya Kaddor: They do not see themselves as equals in this society. Lack of approval and acceptance during this phase when young people are searching for their identity is fatal. They are easy prey for recruiters. It gets really dangerous when youth cross paths with the wrong people who are charismatic and tell them they are appreciated and that they are not society's losers.
Radical Salafism stands for extreme violence. But you speak of good-hearted boys. How does this make sense?
That's what's schizophrenic about it. With my students, if you took the time to get to know them, you could tell they really were nice boys. They ended up becoming radicalized when they left school; I hadn't taught them in years. That they could imagine making such a decision is symptomatic of their inner conflict; it shows just how lost they feel between their Muslim identity and their German identity.
They were not very religious, more worldly-minded. They took on extreme beliefs later on. They had this facade of piety and a black-and-white world view that people are either their friends or their foes. The Internet has a lot to do with it as well. Many young people become radicalized on the net.
I also think fantasies of strength play a role as well; suddenly one is above the law. They think they can turn around what they see as injustice in Syria and Iraq. That might seem strange, but these youth are indoctrinated to believe that.
So extreme violence does not scare them, but attracts them instead?
Yes, especially when young people have known a life of discrimination and frustration. By the age of eight or nine, they already know that they will have it much more difficult in life because their parents are socially disadvantaged, and they are from poor neighborhoods. If their parents don't manage to improve their social standing, the state must find a way to compensate through youth and education programs and social work.
Salafists are simply the better social workers. They have a better connection to the youth. The state has to do more to ensure that all children have the same opportunities in education. And Muslims and the rest of society have to finally understand that today a German identity can go hand-in-hand very well with a Muslim identity as well. We have to focus more on prevention instead of only fighting symptoms by changing laws. Prevention includes giving young people more opportunities.
Four of the five came back from Syria. What did you say to them?
They seemed quite disturbed when I met them. They were ashamed. They said, "We thought it was the right thing to do because we wanted to defend Islam." But later on, they didn't understand this train of thought themselves anymore. Later, they all said it was wrong. That was a relief for me. They weren't in Syria for very long and they weren't engaged in combat.
You write about 'jihad romanticism.' What do you mean by that term?
Girls are much more susceptible to this jihad romanticism than boys. They are told, 'Over there, you will become respectable wives. You will marry jihadis who are great heroes and will some day become martyrs. That is the highest glory in the eyes of God.'
Some of the young women see this as an act of rebelling against their parents. This is nothing like what they experienced at home and their parents are shocked over their actions.
So the path to jihad is not a cultural war, but more of a youth protest in those cases?
Not according to the fathers of Salafism, but for the vast majority of new recruits, this is definitely the case. Political and even jihadi Salafism is perfect for young people. And what better way to provoke the German society they see as unjust? In this sense, it is quite obviously a protest movement. The movement draws people together with certain styles of dress and music, and the young men grow beards. Large parts of this ideology are geared toward young people. That is what makes Salafism so dangerous.
What can we do to protect young people from being seduced by extremism?
One thing could surely be religious education. There is not only "one true Islam," contrary to what the Salafists claim. As scholars of Islamic study, we know that from the very beginning there were a multitude of various interpretations of the Koran. We need to teach young people how the Salafists operate - what they really want when they approach and speak to young people. They need to know how important it is to not become victim to the kind of black-and-white thinking that categorizes everyone as friend or foe, believers or infidels. We have to teach them to think critically.
We often hear from the families of children who have succumbed to this that their families didn't suspect anything like this was going on. Are there any warning signs parents can look out for?
It is similar with young neo-Nazis when they become radicalized: first, the kids are isolated from their families, their social networks at school, and their friends. It is like with a cult. After the person has been brainwashed, he or she then confronts the world and says, "For me there are only believers and infidels. We Muslims are the victims and we are wronged by everyone else. We have to do something about that."
If the person goes so far as to participate in the so-called "jihad," then it's usually too late. We have to recognize the stages. If parents or teachers notice sudden changes in behavior or beliefs or if religion suddenly becomes really important, then it's time to have a talk with their child or student.
You have a lot of contact with Muslim youth who are recruited or who convert. You write that Muslims, too, convert to radical Salafism. Which differences do you see?
No difference at all. Every young person is at risk, boy or girl, Muslim or not. These recruiters don't pay any attention to religion. Instead they look at the emotional wellbeing of the kids and their social background. They scrutinize how susceptible a kid would be. And when they have picked out the most vulnerable ones, they are converted - not to Islam, but to Salafism. The less understanding the person has of Islam, the easier it is for the Salafists.
Is it possible to save kids who have already been targeted?
In the worst case, it's too late. If someone becomes fully indoctrinated, it is really very difficult to get them out. There are cases where kids were just about to leave for Syria or Iraq and their parents found out at the last minute because they needed passports. Desperate, some of the parents then turned their own children into the authorities to save them.
Authorities are worried about those returning from Syria and Iraq. What should be done with these people?
Authorities have to investigate them, follow them, to see if they are indoctrinated young men who are willing to use violence and carry out attacks here. The disillusioned can be re-socialized relatively well, especially if they weren't in Syria for very long. But those who have been indoctrinated need special programs to de-radicalize them. We have to watch out for the youth and teach them of the dangers of these things.
What would you like to see from the Muslim community?
I wish the Muslim community and organizations would distance themselves more from Salafism and fundamentalism and say that's not our understanding of Islam, and it's not the majority of Muslims, but a fringe group.
Lamya Kaddor is a teacher of religious studies, a scholar of Islamic studies and is the chairwoman of Germany's Liberal-Islamic Association. She was born to Syrian immigrants in Germany. Her book, under the German title "Zum Töten bereit. Warum deutsche Jugendliche in den Dschihad ziehen" [Ready to kill. Why German youth wage jihad] was published in February, 2015. She is known for introducing Islam studies as a subject in German public schools.
Interview conducted by Andrea Grunau / sb