A Salafist network distributed countless free copies of the Koran in German cities this weekend, sparking renewed fears about the ultraconservative Muslim group. DW takes a look at the campaign in Cologne and Bonn.
The stand in Bonn's city center was supposed to be up and running by 10 a.m., but it wasn't until noon that someone actually set up a large red sign in the pedestrian zone that aimed to grab people's attention, demanding that they "Read!"
At the start of the Koran give-away at Friedensplatz in Bonn, only journalists were present - pens poised and microphones ready to record the first words expressed by the radical group of Salafists. Just a few days before via YouTube videos, the Salafists had called for the killing of several journalists working for Germans newspapers reported critically about them. But apparently, radicals weren't awake yet on Saturday morning.
It's not the first time for the Koran give-away organized by the "True Religion" network of Salafists in Cologne. Led by Palestinian preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, himself based in Cologne, the group started the "Lies!" ("Read!") give-away project back in Fall 2011. Security officials in Germany say that the Salafists have been on a watch list because all known terrorists in Germany have had contact with Salafist groups.
The project was to see some 25 million copies of the Koran given away in Germany, but after printing some 300,000 copies, Ulm-based publisher Ebner&Spiegel has halted the printing presses, saying it would reassess the contract given the negative publicity of late.
"Religious and manipulable"
On Saturday, around 5 p.m., the Salafists in Bonn decide it's time to pack up shop. Just 600 copies of the Koran were handed out, but rather than opening up dialogue about Islam, the give-away project seems to have reaffirmed stereotypes and lines of division.
"Muslims are so religious that they can also be easily manipulated," said one person in the pedestrian zone. "I am speaking for many here: the people should be kicked out! I don't know which school I should send my daughter to because I want her to be among Germans." The daughter, who is becoming antsy in her arms, hides her face in her mother's neck.
"What am I supposed to do with the Koran, anyway?" the mother asks. "I don't even have a Bible at home."
An older lady, who had noticed the stand run by the "True Religion" members, has concern written all over her face. It only fuels "hate and hate in return," she believes. "Everyone should be able to enjoy his or her own faith, and anyone who wants to learn more about a religion can gather information themselves. But it shouldn't be forced on someone like this."
Active proclamation of Islam
The Rhineland region is considered a stronghold for Salafists, who form one of the most extremist currents in Sunni Islam. Their approach is often missionary-like. "Characteristic for Salafism is the extreme dichotomy of the believers' world view," said Islam expert Claudia Dantschke, of the Berlin-based Society for Democratic Culture. "Everything is divided into 'right and wrong' and 'black and white,' without seeing any of the gray areas in- between." Only those following this religious view have the possibility of entering Paradise, these believers say.
But even among Salafists there are three variants, Dantschke pointed out: The "purists, who live out their dogmatic religious views privately," she noted, but who do not preach violence or hate and distance themselves from political campaigns.
There is "mainstream Salafism," to which the majority of Salafists in Germany adhere. This group is concerned with political campaigns and "actively proclaiming Islam," Dantschke said, while also at times rejecting democracy as a cultural and political system. Subversion, however, is not legitimated in this view.
The third and most dangerous current of Salafism is reflected in the group organizing the Koran give-away campaigns in Germany. "They legitimate violence, actively partition themselves off from even moderate Salafists, all the while denouncing them, and promoting defamation and hate," Dantschke said. Their view is that, since Muslims are discriminated against around the world, a "true Muslim" is called to defend his faith, with "violence - armed jihad - presented as a legitimate means," said Dantschke.
This last current, the Islam expert said, "is the bridge to Salafist jihadists - those who don't just talk, but act."
Rhineland region a stronghold
Experts presume it's the tolerant asylum policy that was established in the 1980s and 90s in Germany's Rhineland that has made region a stronghold for Salafists. Religion expert Andreas Reitinger, of the University of Cologne, said it's a matter of structure and logistics. "In the Rhineland, there's a group that reinforces itself," he noted. "The Salafists believe they can find more followers here than elsewhere." Many Muslims settled in the area generations ago, with a much larger population here than in other major German cities.
Taking that more quantitative approach, one could assume a similar crowd of Salafists - a group which reinforces itself - in Berlin, but "Berlin is the most secular metropolis in Germany. Religion does not play a central role for people there," Reitinger said.
In Cologne on Saturday, the Salafists did not even appear. Nonetheless, pedestrians issued complaints at the public order office earlier in the morning about an "Islamic information stand." The banner at the table in the city said merely: "Islam means peace."
The few people standing in front of the table were boys barely 10 years old, who were pushing pamphlets into the hands of passers-by. But some pedestrians didn't seem bothered. "I'm interested in it," said one man, opening up the blue brochure. "I'd like to read it."
A saleswoman at a neighboring lingerie shop can only smirk. "They show up here only six times a year, yet now, with all the publicity, they're getting all sorts of attention," she says. She considers all the upset "completely overrated."
Another man said the public order office would take care of matters. "They can't just push informational flyers into people's hands," he pointed out.
Yet since the media has been reporting so intensively on the Koran give-aways, people are automatically associating every information stand about Islam with Salafism.
Samira, a 26-year-old student of religion interested in Islam, stood at the Cologne stand for quite a while. "I asked the group whether they were Sunnis or Shiites," she said. "They are actually part of the Ahmadiyya movement - it's a group that isn't even officially recognized by Muslims."
A 12-year-old boy at the stand also told her that recently a pictures of himself and his friends had often been printed in association with the Koran give-away - in the end an embarrassing mix-up on the part of uninformed journalists.
"Shouldn't lump people together"
A mainstream Muslim group expressed concern that the uproar this past week over the Koran give-aways could spark hate crimes toward moderate Muslims unlinked to Salafists.
The Salafists, for their part, achieved the visibility they were striving for, and German authorities confirmed that the Koran distribution is legal due to the constitutional right of freedom of religion. The next give-away campaign is scheduled in two weeks' time.
But, it's important to maintain perspective, Dantschke reminded. "Most of the criticism toward Ibrahim Abou- Nagie and his 'brothers' has come not from liberal Muslims, but from various Salafists themselves; that's why it's important not to lump all Salafists together."
Author: Johanna Schmeller / als
Editor: Andreas Illmer