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'True religion:' How Salafists lure supporters

Nina Niebergall cl
November 15, 2016

German authorities have stepped up pressure on the "True Religion" Salafist group. Abou Nagie, a Cologne-based, Palestinian-born Salafist preacher, activist and businessman, is one of the group's leading figures.

Ibrahim Abou Nagie vholds Koran
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/R. Harde

"Islam is presented as though it is all about violence, hate, forced marriage and terror" - that's how a video on the internet site of the  "True Religion" group starts off. Now banned by the German Interior Ministry, the organization was founded by Ibrahim, a German Muslim with a Palestinian background.

He is one Germany's most prominent Salafists. His declared aim: to improve the public image of Muslims and Islam.

In an interview with DW three years ago, the preacher from Cologne clarified that he wants to present the "true Islam". He described himself simply as Muslim. Salafist, he argued, is a term used by the media and politicians to divide Muslims - adding that the term has been whispered into the ears of government by "Zionist advisors."

"Only Muslims"

"Salafist, Islamist - we are only Muslims," explain the friendly young men and at least one woman in the video on the "True Religion's" website, which was still accessible even after the movement was banned.

The opening of the video comes across like a commercial, with its projection of a special atmosphere, and oriental-sounding music. It is as if they are trying to sell something. And indeed, after a few seconds, there is a cut to a pedestrian street in a large German city, where Abou Nagie sits behind a counter stacked with copies of the Koran he wants not to sell, but give away - namely to infidels.

Screenshot - http://www.diewahrereligion.de/
Abou Nagie's supporters feel misunderstood Image: diewahrereligion.de

When the campaign with the commanding name of "Read!" began in 2012, the idea was to give away copies of the Koran so people could form their own opinion about Islam. At the time, the organizers explained that their goal was to distribute a total of 25 million copies. Or as Abou Nagie put it: a Koran for every German household.

The campaign to distribute the Koran spread to 15 other countries, amongst them, France, Great Britain, Sweden, Austria, Bahrain and, since June 2016, also Brazil.

Abou Nagie, 52, came to Germany when he was 18 to study electrical engineering. But instead of completing his studies, he started a business selling self-adhesive film. Nine years ago he was forced to declare bankruptcy - retroactive tax demands of 70,000 euros ($US 75,500) ruined him financially.

From then on, he dedicated his life the Salafist scene and to converting non-Muslims.

This scene included well-known Salafists such as the recently arrested Abu Walaa as well as Sven Lau, currently on trial for allegedly supporting the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS). Abou Nagie taught Islam at various mosques, gave advice to converts on YouTube and made public appearances with Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel. The Cologne businessman preached an extremely repressive interpretation of the Koran.

Nationwide campaign

According to intelligence authorities, Abou Nagie is not only thoroughly Salafist, he is also one of the most influential Salafists in Germany.

By definition, this means he belongs to one of the most conservative branches of the religion, a branch that looks to the bygone days of early Islam, the times of the Prophet Mohammed. The Salafist movement rejects later judicial decisions and interpretations. Intelligence authorities estimate there were 3,800 Salafists in Germany in 2011 - and 7,500 supporters just four years later. Only a minority support violence, but experts say there is often a smooth transition from being politically active to become a jihadist, and adopting violence-prone Salafism.

Salafists pray
Salafism is on the rise in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Abou Nagie teaches "the full spectrum of Salafist ideology" in his regular lectures and seminars, domestic intelligence authorities in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia noted in 2011. An intelligence report described Abou Nagie as not only offering religious instruction, but also discussing and supporting martyrdom and jihad, including using violence to defend Islamic belief.

Simple approach 

A series of criminal charges followed: he was charged with inciting punishable acts, including murder. In June 2012, then Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich initiated legal proceedings to have the "True Religion" group banned. Yet all attempts to attribute crimes to Abou Nagie or his organization remained unsuccessful. His tirades against the immoral life in the West and homosexuality, and for Sharia law, may have violated accepted ethical standards in Germany - but they did not break criminal laws.

Many people see distributing the Koran as too zealous, the "True Religion" spokesman's rhetoric seems too radical to pass it off as a harmless initiative.

The Interior Ministry came to the same conclusion in its 2015 annual report, saying that people participated in the campaign with the purpose of "disseminating radical Islam and recruiting jihadists." There is increasing evidence that people took part in the campaign to distribute the Koran so that they could later take part in the struggles in Syria, the ministry said. Several of the group's members were arrested before the current crackdown and ban of the organization.

But for Abou Nagie.

Earlier this year, the Cologne district court convicted him of professional social security fraud, saying he had pocketed the benefits but had declined to declared an income of 50,000 euros from his "Read!" campaign. He was handed a 13-month suspended sentence, but not forbidden to distribute the Koran on the streets in Germany.

Abu Nagie was also not arrested during the crackdowns on Tuesday morning. Investigators believe he may be in Malaysia - supposedly the next country to be added to the list of nations where Salafists hand out the Koran for free.