German Muslims call mosque ID checks "humiliating"

BRAUNSCHWEIG, Germany — In the wake of the Christmas Day terror attempt aboard an American airplane, countries on both sides of the Atlantic have turned their attention to places within their borders where potential terrorists may be radicalized or recruited. But in one part of Germany, heavy monitoring of mosques and Muslim-frequented cafes is not just a matter of public debate. It is standard police procedure, and has been for years — a policy that has increasingly outraged German Muslims while failing to yield a single terrorism-related arrest.

In Lower Saxony, a state in northwestern Germany, Muslim worshippers heading to Friday services routinely arrive to find the street in front of the mosque cordoned off and armed police at the entrance. Those entering or leaving the mosque must show their identification papers. Sometimes the police search bags, ask questions, or bring those who cannot show ID to the precinct station. In one city, officers stamped Muslims on the arm after checking them.

In these controls, known as “unmotivated mosque checks,” the police are not seeking any specific person or investigating any particular crime. Rather, they are acting under a 2003 state law that empowers them to question and search individuals in public places regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing in the interest of preventing crimes of "grave and international concern."

“The police say they’re protecting us from terrorists,” said Avni Altiner, regional head of the umbrella Muslim advocacy organization Shura. “But we don’t feel protected. We feel discriminated against and degraded.” Muslims’ anger over the mosque checks had by August of last year become vocal enough to attract coverage from newspapers in Berlin and Turkey. Then in December 2009, the Green Party introduced into the Lower Saxon parliament legislation to revoke the statute legalizing the checks.

“Muslims are being placed under general suspicion here,” said Green Party representative Filiz Polat, one of the bill’s backers. She is among a growing chorus of critics who argue that the checks infringe upon freedom of religion, damage efforts to integrate immigrants into German society and foster feelings of persecution that could radicalize Muslim youth — all without any visible results in the fight against terrorism. Information released on Polat’s request shows that six years of regularly occurring mosque controls have yielded charges and arrests for expired residence visas, traffic violations and unauthorized weapons — but no connections to terrorism. Hardly the stuff of grave international crime, say Muslim and Green Party leaders.

But the push to end the checks is meeting strong resistance from officials who call them necessary and effective counterterrorism. Regional Interior Minister Uwe Schuenemann of the center-right Christan Democratic Union, who oversees the mosque checks, said they have “proven themselves a worthwhile means of gaining knowledge about Islamic terrorism.” According to Schuenemann, the list of charges is secondary to the “pre-emptive” effect of mosque checks: They have delivered intelligence about potential terrorist activity and reduced the prevalence of hate preaching by imams.

Schuenemann is convinced that international terrorist groups are active in Lower Saxony. A group of Muslims arrested for planned bombings in the nearby Sauerland region in 2007 had ties to Lower Saxony, said a ministry spokesperson. The interior minister is especially concerned about the imams who preach to the state’s estimated 200,000 Muslims. In 2008 he proposed that imams be trained by universities and “liberal” advisory panels rather than Muslim religious organizations, and called for imams to preach only in German.

At one of the mosques most frequently checked by police in Braunschweig, members say they are are fed up with being treated like criminals for simply attending religious services. “We’re in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Amra Dumanjic. “It’s humiliating," she said, when the neighbors see patrol cars blocking the street and more than a dozen police officers at the mosque’s entrance.

The members of the mosque pray in Arabic but converse with each other mostly in German. Many among the mosque’s faithful are highly educated professionals — teachers, engineers, doctors — who came to Braunschweig to attend its university. In a country that tends to view immigrants as poorly educated, chronically unemployed, and unwilling to learn German, the congregation is proud to defy stereotypes. They describe themselves as “hardworking, taxpaying, normal members of German society.” But as the checks go on, they have begun to worry. They have done what Germany asked of them — learned the language, worked hard — and are still running up against the limits of a society’s willingness to make space for their faith.

“We tell our children this is their country, that everyone is equal here,” said mosque leader Adel el Domiaty. “But then they find themselves treated in a way that doesn’t confirm that, and they begin to think otherwise. Integration has to be a mutual effort, both sides have to take part.”

The legislation currently under consideration in the Lower Saxon parliament would repeal the 2003 law authorizing unmotivated mosque checks. As Shura leader Altiner sees it, nothing less than the future of integration is at stake in the decision. Lower Saxony “has to decide,” Altiner said. “Do they want to integrate Muslims or do they want these controls to make young Muslims lose their trust in the state and the police?”