The number of Salafists in Germany is growing. Charismatic preachers successfully recruit young men. The ‘signpost’ project in North Rhine-Westphalia aims to prevent their radicalization.
Statistics are showing a clear tendency: there are currently some 5,500 Salafists in Germany, and their numbers are growing. In the western state North Rhine-Westphalia, their numbers have doubled in the course of a year to a 1,500, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The agency doesn't consider Salafism a militant ideology per se, but said it was a breeding ground for radicalization.
Salafists believe in the traditional version of Islam. Some Salafists want to change society to fit that traditional view, and the German internal agency has identified a minority of Salafists who seem ready to use violence to achieve their goals. It said young people in particular felt attracted to Salafism after hearing speeches by preachers or after attending rallies or other meetings. Recruitment also happens online with Salafists supporters on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In addition to their growing numbers, Salafists have been increasingly radicalized, said Burkhard Freier, the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North
Rhine-Westphalia. He said large-scale propaganda and the crisis in Syria are responsible for the growing numbers. More than 220 people from Germany are currently estimated to be in Syria. Some of them will probably return to Germany as violence-prone jihadists.
That's why state government in North Rhine-Westphalia launched the "Wegweiser," or "signpost," project. It's a prevention program that will be kicked off with pilot projects in the cities of Bonn, Bochum and Düsseldorf.
"We want to try to keep Salafists or young Islamists from entering the radical scene," said Freier.
The ideology rarely ever tips scale
But what gets the young people interested in the first place? Freier's agency has interviewed 130 converts to Salafism and studied their biographies.
"We discovered that they found their way into Salafist organizations in a multitude of ways and had many reasons for joining," he said. "The Salafist ideology, however, is very rarely the deciding factor."
Instead, said Freier, many young people join because they feel unappreciated, aimless, and isolated - the same reasons, incidentally, why young people join right-wing extremist groups.
"It probably also depends on who you meet at what time," said Islam researcher Michael Kiefer, adding that if young people who went off to Syria hadn't met Salafists, they would probably have joined a different group. They are most interested in belonging to something bigger than themselves.
"The Salafists tell them: if you join us you're on the right side, you follow God, and you don't belong to the infidels who end up in hell," Kiefer said. "Then there's a sense of camaraderie. You're not alone, you discuss all kinds of things, and you share the same views on the world."
Research not advanced
The "signpost" program brings together groups in charge of social, youth and education affairs as well as Muslim communities, and, if possible, sports clubs and religious organizations. Kiefer said the problem of violence-prone "neo-Salafism" is not a Muslim problem, but a problem that concerns German society as a whole.
The core figure of the preventative program is to be the "signpost" - a person who has a good network in the community and is well accepted, has a good intuition for dealing with young people and is capable of understanding whether young people have problems within their families, at school or in other spheres of life. The program will also maintain a telephone hotline that started in 2012. It has offered consultation and advice on the topic to parents and teachers, for example. Every week, five to ten callers seek help, said Freier.
He said he hopes the new preventative project can start in the selected pilot cities sometime next year. Freier said the process will consist largely of "learning by doing," since scientific research related to radicalization is not very advanced in Germany. Kiefer said Britain, for example, had made a lot more progress in the field. After the terror attacks in 2005, the government spent considerably more than 140 million pounds (167 million euros) on preventative measures between 2007 and 2008.
In Britain, the projects are being run in a fashion similar to Germany's planned "signpost" project. Whenever a young person displays radical tendencies, social workers or youth agencies will get involved and try to influence them. That requires the vigilance of parents, teachers, classmates and employers and their willingness to alert the people taking part in the project.
Exit programs in the future?
But what about those who are already radicalized? There are no exit programs for Salafists, which would work in a similar way to the ones for right-wing extremists. Kiefer said the phenomenon of violence-prone Salafism has only been existent for two to three years. And, he added, it's not easy to get the dropouts in touch with the people who are ready to help them.
"It would help if we had mentoring programs in place for prisoners," he said. "Young inmates are particularly prone to convert to radical Salafism. That's why we need better counseling programs for Muslims in prisons."
Kiefer said it's important to add that preventative projects should not be set up to keep anybody from choosing their religion freely.
"Of course, there are different varieties of Salafism, such as puritan Salafism, which has no connection to violence at all," he said. "It is covered by the freedom of religion, which, after all, is an important constitutional element."