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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.

He also says that the Muslim community needs to be watchful for signs of radicalization among its youth. “We have to create an early warning system in certain ghettoized urban areas, so that schools, clubs, mosques, can form a network. You have to train people who feel responsible, and intervene with radicalized young people at an early stage.”

One of the reason Salafists have been successful at influencing some young men, including a notably high proportion of converts, is the simplicity of their doctrine. “The problem is that religion and spirituality have to mature,” explains Ceylan. “If you don’t know your religion very well yet, then you can read the Salafist literature and within a few months, think you have learned Islam. That is fatal and very dangerous.”

The more militant Salafist groups here tend to politicize their religion. “These people read very selectively, and they don’t invest in their spirituality. They mix up religious and political terms.” 

Ceylan argues that an increasingly Islamophobic climate in Germany leads to many younger Muslims feeling excluded from society. The fact that this is increasingly socially acceptable was revealed by the popularity of a 2010 book by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin that was highly critical of Muslims in Germany. “When the Salafists come and say: Hey we will give you an identity, we won’t exclude you, you belong here; this makes these kinds of groups attractive.” 

Alexander Haeusler, an expert on far-right extremism at the Technical University of Dusseldorf, says that in this respect the Salafists are very similar to the far right. They also look to recruit disaffected young people, offering them a sense of belonging and a simple ideology to hold onto, in their case xenophobia and extreme nationalism. 

It’s not the only similarity, he argues. “They are two sides of the same coin.”

Both groups try to present themselves as victims and both feed off publicity. As such, the recent confrontation has served both well. 

Furthermore their totalitarian view of the world is extremely similar, and both are opposed to democracy. “They have the same sort of worldview,” Ceylan agrees. “Everything is black and white, them and us.”

“They need each other,” he says, arguing that they each provide a perfect target enemy for each other. “In the view of the radical Islamists, the West is against Islam, is Islamophobic and is bad. And the tiny Pro-NRW fits into this view. It represents the entire West for them, even though it doesn’t really. And on the other side, the fundamentalists match perfectly Pro-NRW’s image of Muslims. They say, we are against Muslims and that is Islam. Even though this is not Islam, it is a marginal group.”

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Haeusler says that the reaction by the Salafists, who were already unpopular in NRW due to their Koran campaign, was a “gift from heaven” for the far-right, serving to reconfirm all their prejudices about a violent dangerous Islam. “They don’t differentiate between Salafists and other Muslims,” says Haeusler. “They are all thrown into the same pot.” 

The danger is that the general public will also fail to differentiate between the tiny group of Salafists and the 4.5 million Muslims who live in Germany.
“This latest violence by a few Salafists, who are absolutely a tiny fringe group compared to the rest of Muslims who live here, is damaging the entire image of Islam and Muslims,” says Haeusler.

The vast majority of Muslims want to distance themselves from the Salafists and their actions. “Reacting to provocation with violence is not acceptable for peace-loving Muslims because it is un-Islamic and, more than anything plays into the hands of the right-wing,” the Central Council of Muslims said in a statement released earlier this week. 

Yet, once again, the community feels it is in the news for all the wrong reasons. 

“Throughout this whole debate, the Muslim community feels that everyone is speaking over their heads,” Ceylan says. “And once again Islam is being spoken about in a negative context in Germany.”