German researchers have analyzed a lengthy WhatsApp conversation written before an Islamist attack. It reveals that the participants construct a "Lego Islam" bearing little resemblance to the actual religion.
Young Muslims who become radicalized often invent a patchwork, imagined version of Islam that has little or nothing to do with the Koran. That's the conclusion drawn by scholars at the universities of Bielefeld and Osnabrück. They've just published a book analyzing 5,757 messages from a WhatsApp group of 12 young men ahead of a spring 2016 terrorist attack.
The messages came from a mobile phone, seized by police, that had belonged to one of the young men involved in the attack. The researchers say that the chat offers unique insights into the radicalization process and mindset of Islamists in Germany.
The messages also illustrate the enormous differences between Islamism and Islam. Many of the self-styled "true Muslims," the experts found, themselves have little valid knowledge of the Koran or the rest of their religion.
"The result is a kind of 'Lego Islam' that can be continually adapted to new requirements and in practice has nothing to do with the forms of traditional Islam practiced by the majority of mosque communities in Germany," write co-authors Becem Dziri and Michael Kiefer.
The authors omitted the names of those involved in the chat and didn't specify the attack, although the time reference strongly suggests that it was the bombing of a Sikh temple in Essen in April 2016. At the time it was reported that the young people involved in that attack were radicalized via social media, and three of them, all teenagers, were later convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy to murder.
Budding Islamists mix jihad and genies
The conversations leading up to that act of violence suggest that the youths were willing to kill for a faith of which they had only a rudimentary understanding.
"The religious education within the group is very scant," writes co-author Rauf Ceylan. "Often they didn't even know the simplest Islamic theological basics. The members of the group are laymen and autodidacts who pick and choose information from the internet and communicate it to the rest of the group."
Excerpts from the chats often seem like comedy sketches sprinkled with sometimes misused Arabic words and phrases and English slang. In one, a participant responds to a self-appointed leader's call for a meeting to discuss the jama'a (group) by saying he didn't have any Islamic clothing. The leader responds: "You can also were sweatpants or something like that. If you want I can loan you something for the day."
Another message reveals that the author doesn't even own a copy of Islam's main religious text.
"I need a Koran," he writes. "I'll get one soon from lies [a Salafist group that gives away Korans on the street in Germany]. If I see abu nagi, I'll tell him he's a kafir [infidel] because he thinks erdogan [sic] is a Muslim."
When asked what the most absurd detail of the chats was, Ceylan told DW that participants interwove the belief in magical genies in their pseudo-theology.
"Over the course of the chat protocol, you can see how a religious world gets invented in which supernatural beings can have real effects on the young men," Ceylan said. "They take fragments of the Koran and cobble them together. That's why we call it 'Lego Islam.'"
Careers as 'pop preachers'
Scholars also say that the chat illustrates the process by which young Muslims get radicalized. Key is the role of the "amir," the self-appointed leader, who "instructed" the others despite lacking any theological credentials himself.
"He's an alpha male like you have in school," Ceylan told Deutsche Welle. "The people who act as Salafist preachers aren't theologians. They're people who have sometimes failed in life, but if they have a gift for being alpha males, they can become superstars overnight. This shouldn't be underestimated. You can make a whole career of being a pop preacher."
The second ingredient in the making of a radical Islamist, the scholars explain, is a young person with the right biography. Emancipation from parents - becoming an adult - gets conflated with emancipation from the mainstream community as one of the "chosen ones." Ceylan cites the example of a young man who became radical after discovering that his father was having an affair and telling his mother, which led to a divorce.
"These are fundamentally young people who are trying to overcome a crisis in their lives or a biological ruptures," said Ceylan. "The timing is crucial. Who do I meet in this phase?"
The importance of language
Ceylan says that although bogus theology is part of the problem, religious instruction is not enough to combat radicalization. He calls for more money for German language imams, psychological therapists in prisons, where many young people get radicalized, and interventions in schools.
"These young people don't get radicalized secretly, as the chat protocols show," Ceylan said. "Their teachers see that something's not right. A kid grows his beard out or starts saying more and more radical things. And the parents see it before everyone else."
Above all, Ceylan says, those who do intervene with young people susceptible to Islamism need to speak the right language.
"The characteristics of the charismatic 'self-made' preachers…are that they speak German, use young people's slang, make a theatrical impression, display street credibility and present themselves cleverly. That, together with the simplicity of what they teach, makes them attractive to young people."