More and more young Muslims are being radicalized and coaxed into fighting in Syria by Salafists. Both teachers and parents have reasons for concern, because there is currently a lack of strategies to protect teenagers.
Women with children, as well as strict Muslims and young teenagers are in the audience at the unusual performance taking place this afternoon: under the close watch of his bodyguards, the Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel has stepped up onto a small stage in Bonn and is making a speech. His aim, he says, is to clear up misunderstandings about Islam. Passers-by stop to listen and get involved, surprised by the preacher's attempts to convert the audience. The 'highlight' of the afternoon comes after about twenty minutes: it is a public conversion to Islam.
Since then, a week has passed and many teachers and parents are extremely worried: Salafists have been advertising their events on schoolyards - and some of their recruiting is successful. "It's not only one school where Salafists are trying to recruit teenagers," said Saloua Mohammed, a 32-year-old social worker who has been working in Bonn for many years. She has a good idea of what is going on in the Salafist scene: Young Muslims as well as pupils from educationally disadvantaged background have been a particular focus in her work. Her explanation for that focus is that she is "afraid that disadvantaged teenagers in particular will fall into radicalism."
Disadvantaged teenagers at particular risk
Islam expert Michael Kiefer believes that around 250 young German Muslims have joined the fighting in Syria
Islam experts Rauf Ceylan and Michael Kiefer have written about Salafism in their newest book. "What we have seen is that a whole group of very, very young men left Frankfurt last summer. All of them could be seen as coming from an educationally disadvantaged background," said Michael Kiefer. He thinks that they probably went to join Islamist forces Syria, where around 250 Jihadists from Germany have so far joined the fighting. According to Kiefer, "people whose lives have hardly been a walk in the park, who have experienced discrimination" are particularly susceptible to radicalization. And they are the perfect targets for Salafist recruiters.
Saloua Mohammed agrees. Concerned parents often turn to her when they notice something wrong with their children. "Recently, several parents have gotten in touch and told me that their daughters or suns have vanished," said the social worker. Many of them had expressed their desire to go to Syria. Two of her patients have simply disappeared and she is conducting serious conversations with some of the others about their wishes. "These teenagers want to go to war because they simply believe in this cause," said Saloua Mohammed.
A choice of hell or paradise
Michael Kiefer explains that it becomes obvious why the Salafists get through to teenagers when you analyze their message. "They tell these young men: 'If you join us, you will be on the right side. If you act according to the will of God, if you go to Syria and fight for Him, then you are sure to get into paradise. All the others will go to hell."
Kiefer adds that Salafism provides young people with a series of positive experiences. "It begins with the camaraderie the Salafists enjoy and goes on to the self-aggrandizement that the ideology permits - their very simple interpretation of the world removes the need for any further independent thought," said the Islam expert.
Saloua Mohammed knows from her work how teenagers think. She believes the lifestyle associated with Salafism also attracts them. The fact that a preacher is accompanied by bodyguards, for example - that is fascinating to teenagers.
She also thinks that the language used in recruitment plays a significant role. "The Salafists speak German and they use slang. That makes them a 'cool' alternative to the traditional, usually Arabic-speaking Imams in Mosques," said Mohammed.
British strategy as a model
Michael Kiefer explains that it becomes hard to reach teenagers who have been radicalized. "What we need is a sensitized environment for the teenagers and moderated networks, which are able to react in a reasonable and pedagogically appropriate way."
That kind of environment doesn't yet exist in Germany, according to Kiefer. Instead, he points to Great Britain, where there are effective strategies for preventing radicalization. He explains that the people involved in the teenagers' social environment are in touch and pool important information in Britain. If a teenager shows suspicious behaviour, joint decisions can be made about how to prevent the teenager's radicalization. British 'intervention conversations' have been proven to be effective in preventing radicalization, and are a model that Germany could benefit from as well.