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Muslim protests

Michael Gessat / aiSeptember 24, 2012

The agitation over the anti-Islam video and the new Muhammad caricatures has left many people in Germany worried. Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, has called for calm.

Salafist demonstration (picture: Henning Kaiser dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There are around 4,000 Salafists in Germany, a number of them converts to the religion. For those radical Islamists, some of whom don't hesitate to use violence, insulting the prophet Muhammad crosses the line. For right-wing populists, it's a welcome chance for intentional provocation. DW spoke with Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, about how Muslims in Germany see the controversy.

DW: How should Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany react to the activities of Salafists?

Aiman Mazyek: We should be much more relaxed. We must be careful that we don't provide a forum for extremists from both sides of society by granting them more attention in the public sphere than necessary. Salafists are clearly in the minority. And we simply have to live our faith in a true and authentic way. That's the best way to counter extremism in religion. There's a nice saying by the prophet, where he warns of religious extremism. And he said that with a clear idea that extremism can eventually lead to fanaticism, which will destroy the religion.

Do you think that dialogue with a convinced Salafist is at all possible?

It's difficult, because the chance for dialogue is gone once the other side thinks you're fair game. This inquisition-like behavior, like there's a religion police, is unfortunately a phenomenon that we find not only in Islam but also in other religions. In the end this is not about preserving the faith but about power. And that can go so far that people not only misuse religion, but pervert it so it becomes its opposite. In the end, people do things that are explicitly banned by Islam but declare they are in the right.

Aiman Mazyek (picture: dpa)
Mazyek warns that extremists can corrupt religious valuesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Many Germans are perplexed about the intensity of the protests among Muslims about the anti-Islam film, the US-made "Innocence of Muslims." And not just by the violent attacks on embassies, but also reactions like the countrywide day of protest in Pakistan. Can you understand this puzzlement among non-Muslims?

Of course I can understand that, and that's certainly why I don't want to excuse that – we have criticized these reactions in every respect. Instead, I try to explain the situations and societies and that can be a way to get a step ahead.

In Pakistan, for instance, we have a people that have experienced much humiliation in recent years, under a corrupt government that is very difficult or dangerous to deal with. And when there's a chance for people to vent their anger and frustration, then they do exactly that. It's less about this movie, but more about having an opportunity to express anger and frustration.

But even if it's just that, it's not how a good Muslim should behave. And that's why Muslim scholars say this is not correct. What they say is that even if you live in a condition that is unjust, you can peacefully protest against it with demonstrations or other means – but not with violence and certainly not with violence against innocent people. The fact that this is happening is an indication of the fragility of these societies.

You've spoken of the necessity of living together in a respectful way, and said that it was permitted to criticize religion or religious values in a respectful way. But Western democracies also allow disrespectful criticism, which is covered by the freedom of expression or the freedom of art. How much understanding does an "average Muslim" in Germany have for that?

It's a very general question: an "average Muslim." I don't want to portray myself as a victim here, but almost every three months we have another case where this question comes up. And again and again we have to take a position on that, condemn something and explain our position on something. That, of course, can sidetrack us entirely from our actual daily work: assistance, counseling, spiritual guidance, the upkeep of mosques – all that isn't easy.

Interview by Michael Gessat