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Germany’s Salafists clash with the radical right

Ahead of a key vote, Germany’s extremist groups vent their mutual hatred. Here’s why they actually need each other.

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Salafist supporters pray as they counter-protest against a demonstration by right-wing pro NRW supporters outside the new Central Mosque (Zentralmoschee) in Ehrenfeld district, on May 8, 2012 in Cologne, Germany. (Mathis Wienand/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN, Germany — Two tiny radical groups in German society have been profiting in recent weeks from their mutual hatred. The far-right Pro-NRW and a group of radical Islamists, known as Salafists, have attracted huge media attention by clashing with each other.

Experts say that though the two groups may at first glance seem diametrically opposed, in fact they have a lot in common.

The two fringe groups have been on a confrontation course in the run up to a big regional vote in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) this Sunday. The far-right Pro-NRW, which is only around 250 strong and attracted just 1.4 percent of the vote in the last state election, had been running a provocatively Islamophobic campaign which has culminated in a competition to find the best anti-Muslim cartoon.

The group has been holding a series of 25 demonstrations outside Muslim facilities such as schools and mosques in various cities, brandishing the “winning” images as well as the highly controversial caricature of Muhammad by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. 

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And a number of Salafists have risen to the bait. There were violent clashes both on May 1 in the town of Solingen and again last weekend in Bonn. On Saturday around 600 Salafists showed up to demonstrate against a group of 25 Pro-NRW members holding up the cartoons outside the King Fahd Academy, a Saudi school. Some Salafists began to throw rocks and bottles and 29 police officers were injured, including two who suffered serious stab wounds. Over 100 arrests were made and a 25-year-old man has since been charged with attempted murder. 

When the state’s interior minister tried to ban the cartoons in the aftermath of the violence, his decision was overruled by two courts, citing freedom of expression. Another event on Tuesday in Cologne passed without violence due to the massive police presence. 

While there has been condemnation of the far-right group’s actions, the public debate has quickly turned to a focus on the Salafists and their violent reaction. “Salafism’s fanatical members represent a special danger to German security,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich this week, adding: “The Salafists deliver the ideological basis for many who then become violent.”

In fact the Interior Ministry confirmed this week that it is now looking at ways to ban Salafist groups in Germany, following recent incidents.

In all there are thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000 Salafists in Germany. The group, whose roots are in Saudi Arabia, propagate what they say is an original form of Islam. “They claim the authentic Islam for themselves. They feel they have a monopoly on interpreting their religion,” explains Rauf Ceylan, professor of Islamic Studies at Osnabrueck University.

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German politicians and security officials had already voiced unease about a recent campaign by a group of Salafists to distribute Qurans to every household in the country. Backed by Ibrahim Abou Nagie, a Cologne-based businessman and preacher with Palastinian roots, they pledged to hand out 25 million copies of the holy text. In the end they only distributed around 300,000 copies, in what has since been dismissed as a PR stunt to attract maximum attention in the media. 

While many Salafists are extremely conservative when it comes to their religion but are not generally politically active, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country’s domestic intelligence agency, estimates that there are around 1,000 militant Salafists in Germany. Around 200 are thought to be potential jihadists who would be prepared to carry out terrorist attacks. The agency has stated that it has noted increased levels of travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan from people who come from “milieus influenced by Salafist ideology.”

Ceylan argues that there are great difficulties in combating the influence of Salafist preachers, who tend to target young socially alienated Muslims.
For one thing, unlike most moderate imams in Germany who come from abroad, many of the radical preachers speak German fluently, and connect well with young people, particularly using the internet and posting propaganda videos to recruit new converts.

“We need German-speaking imams, who we train here. We have started doing so this year in Osnabrueck,” he says, referring to a new course at the university aimed at educating imams.