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How to talk about Islam in ISIS times?

The Western media paints a dark picture of Islam, equating the 1.6 billion followers to the few foulest parts, but our latest issue shows you many more faces of ISLAM IN BERLIN. On stands now!

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A few ‘uncomfortable truths’ and how to deal with them.

They can hardly pronounce the name of the Prophet in Arabic. They’ve spent more hours surfing the web for gore flicks and conspiracy videos than reading the Quran, which they quote in Twitter-length 140-character bites. They know how to use a smartphone better than an AK-47. De-radicalisation experts tell us they mostly stem from non-religious Muslim backgrounds; a growing number of them weren’t brought up Muslim at all. ISIS’ Western recruits are a greater problem for the West than we think. Not because of their numbers or the actual imminent threat they pose, but because of who they are: the children not of Islam, but of our societies.

The new recruits

Berlin is not such a hotbed of ISIS jihadists – 65 at most left the city for Syria and Iraq, according to intelligence reports (most come from Germany’s Ruhr; while Paris produced 350 recruits). Almost nothing is known about their identity or whereabouts. Unlike in the UK or France, where first-person testimonies from distraught parents abound on prime-time TV, very few stories have leaked into the German media. What we do know is that the German capital has bred one of ISIS’ highest-profile European recruits – and its best recruiter: Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, aka Abu Talha al-Amani. According to German-Egyptian politologist Asiem El Difraoui, nobody cares if Western recruits can read the Quran or handle a gun. “A couple of years ago, all that online propaganda was in Arabic or bad English. Now we have hundreds of Europeans who are very active in social media and who can directly address European audiences not only in European languages, but with trendy European slang,” he says, pointing to the Berlin ex-rapper’s gangsta-cool appeal to young audiences.

Whether hip hop singers converted to war-mongering anasheed (a cappella chanting) or cute black-veiled princesses posing next to trendy-looking jihadi Prince Charmings, they’re the poster children of the ‘cool jihad’ propaganda machine. And their numbers are rising. Although they shouldn’t be overstated (a couple of thousand for the whole of Europe, only 550 in Germany) everyone seems to agree that more and more Western youth are falling for jihad, be they thugs like Deso Dogg or ‘naïves’ truly eager to help build a ‘better world’.

Nicolas Hénin was held hostage by ISIS together with James Foley, Peter Kassig and all the other Westerners later executed between June 2013-April 2014. He says he saw both types: “Some were sincere guys, they’d come to help.” And there were the brutes, “people who found with ISIS the perfect vehicle to express a penchant for violence” – like Mehdi Nemmouche, a French convert who Hénin described as “singing, when he was not torturing” – or playing with his phone.

Either way, religion is the least of their motivations. “They’re very bad Muslims,” says the French former hostage. “Many are recent converts or born again. They’ve got a really weak ideological background. They’re brainwashed with some very basic Islam they’re told to repeat in loop. Exactly the same way as in a sect.”

“They don’t understand anything about the fundamentals of Islam!” says El Difraoui. Berlin’s anti-radicalisation specialist Claudia Dantschke concurs. “Political Salafisim and jihadism attract young people from all backgrounds – with and without a migration background, from Muslim and non-Muslim families. They’re mostly what I’d call religious illiterates.”

Children of the West

For El Difraoui, the case is clear: “They are the children of Western society, not the children of Islam.” They’ve developed what he calls an “anti-culture”, not just a subculture, but a total rejection of the dominant culture they live in, “mixed with some nihilism and a pathology of violence.” Much ink has been spilled about the deep malaise in the First World’s postmodern societies – a quest for meaning of new generations left bereft in a world they don’t identify with. “Western society doesn’t reach these young people anymore,” says El Difraoui. Add to that divorced parents, a lost girlfriend, psychological or geographical isolation. Recruits also come from remote, rural places – that’s the beauty of social media. “Twenty years ago they could have been punks or skinheads, now they go to new radical forms.”

In short: ISIS didn’t create these kids’ malaise, it just ruthlessly takes advantage of it. Hénin calls jihad the ultimate rebellion. “It’s the best, easiest and most spectacular way to say ‘fuck off’ to the society you live in! Thirty years ago if you had a clash with your parents, you’d go and smoke weed in Kathmandu – today you dress in black and go fight in Kobani.” Just look at those selfies of jihadists raising their index fingers to the sky (a rallying gesture symbolising the concept of tawhid, unity between God and the Muslim community) as spread all over social media: something between a Facebook ‘like’ and giving the finger to the world you left behind.

Young recruits’ profile pages are also often filled with images of dying Palestinian kids, or women and babies gassed by Assad. This is no coincidence. We need to face the mistakes we’ve made, says Hénin, who points to the West’s culpability in creating ISIS as a result of years of foreign policy mistakes from Libya to Iraq to Syria. What he calls the “Islamic State Magic” is a “unique cross-pollination of frustrations, here in our societies and there on the ground.”

His stance got him accusations of suffering from Stockholm syndrome. “Strangely, my captivity didn’t change my beliefs. I have no vindictive feelings. I have not converted either. I haven’t become a jihadist!” Hénin believes we have a collective responsibility and we should face it.

Don’t polarise, inform!

So, responsibility lies in our societies, not just in Islam? That’s not what you’d believe from reading the Western media. Take the Focus magazine cover in November: a niqab-clad beauty along with the headline: “The dark side of Islam: Eight uncomfortable truths about the Muslim religion.” Inside, illustrations show convulsed faces of preachers giving inflammatory speeches in fantasised mosques. A more poised yet populist text spells out the ‘truths’ about Islam as obsolete, intolerant and potentially violent, equating a whole religion of 1.6 billion followers to a selection of its worst, foulest parts.

They think they’re selling more papers by playing with people’s fears, but in reality they’re creating stigma and polarisation, ultimately playing ISIS’ game.

“That Focus cover is a real scandal,” El Di-fraoui storms. “They think they’re selling more papers by playing with people’s fears, but in reality they’re creating stigma and polarisation, ultimately playing ISIS’ game. People need to understand that’s what they want!” El Difraoui adds that after a sabbatical on the topic of jihad and propaganda, he felt compelled to step back into the media ring. “When I saw the nonsense they were coming up with, I felt I didn’t have a choice! That equation ‘Islam equals Islamism equals Salafism equals terrorism’ is nonsense.” It’s a slippery slope – one that the German authorities are recklessly sliding down.

Are all of the 570 Berliners labelled as “Salafisten” by the Verfassungsschutz potentially dangerous? “You’ve got to be a lot more careful,” says El Difraoui. “Salafi is a huge current. You can’t generalise. It’s irresponsible.” Know the saying, he says: “Few Salafists are jihadists, but almost all jihadists are Salafists.”

Abdul Adhim Kamouss would readily agree. He is currently Germany’s most famous imam, thanks to his appearance in September on Günther Jauch’s talk show together with CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach, Neukölln mayor Heinz Buschkowsky and Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière. Kamouss says that he was invited to the programme to discuss radicalisa- tion. Little did he know he was meant to be the “radical” of the show, as the imam who preached at the ‘Salafist’ Al-Nur mosque in Neukölln, and who once had contact with Deso Dogg before he went underground. “I preach at 12 mosques in Berlin. But Al-Nur fits their picture. ‘Salafist’. Period. You’re branded. Most media sing the same tune. Zack. Copy, paste. Zack. Can we be factual? I just want to see one story where you ask me the questions and I hear or see my words as I said them,” says the man who qualifies the new zeitgeist as “Islamophobia times 10”.

The polarising effect of the show was as obvious as it was immediate. Whereas ARD viewers expressed outrage at seeing a ‘radical’ being given airtime on a public channel, Muslims and people who knew Kamouss were taken aback: why portray a clearly conservative but peaceful, pious and by no means radical man as a radical ‘Salafist’? “I personally saw how angry he got when he once heard someone say something in favour of ISIS – he calls them devils,” says an insider familiar with the imam. For Kamouss, Muslims’ duty is to fight the “greater jihad”, one’s own inner spiritual struggle – not military wars against infidels here or in faraway Syria. Another favourite talk show ‘expert’ is the Egyptian-German writer Hamed Abdel-Samad, author of the controversial bestseller Islamic Fascism. His uncompromising statements condemning Islam as an intolerant, backwards religion that is prone to extremism by its very nature only cause further provocation and don’t help bring sanity into an already overheated debate.

Back to facts: Muslims in Berlin

One thing is for sure: whereas the press from yellow to mainstream has been busy painting a one-size-fits-all picture of scary, potentially violent beard and hijab wearers, Muslims are in reality a wildly heterogeneous bunch with as many languages, social backgrounds and political creeds as ‘Christians’.

A few simple facts would help: Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding are not populated by ‘Turks’. Many are ethnic Kurds and not happy to be confused with those countrymen they see as oppressors. Falafel is Arabic and döner kebab Turkish. Wearing a hijab can be a sign of oppression – or self-assertion. There are 80 ‘official’ mosques in Berlin (about 100 total), but few have minarets and many are nothing more than a simple prayer room. Mosque-goers are not necessarily radicals, and ‘conservative’ doesn’t mean violent. A few more surprising facts? It is disarmingly easy to convert to Islam and more and more Germans are doing so – but they’re rather the peaceful, grounded sort, light years away from the emotional raptures of extremism. Or perhaps they belong to the Sufis, the singing, dancing hippies amongst the Muslims. And, believe it or not, some Muslims are ready to give their blood in Syria or Iraq to fight against ISIS, which they call ISID – the Turkish name for the organisation.

Semantic jihad

How should we in the media refer to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Sunni jihadists waging a bloody campaign to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria? Pointing to the fact that the organisation was neither Islamic nor a state, some started to put the contentious ‘State’ between quotation marks or, less subtly, to add the prefix “so-called” to it. In a much-publicised coup, the French government officially decided to opt for the Arabic-derived pejorative term “Daesh” – and encouraged all media to follow suit. Nicolas Hénin was outraged. “This is just responding to propaganda with more propaganda. It’s not the place of journalists to decide whether or not an organisation deserves to be called by its name.”

As for us, we thought Daesh would sound savvy, but few readers would ever understand it. ISIS felt like a forgivable compromise (who remembers what acronyms stand for anyway?), with “Islamic State” only acceptable if derived from an article – making clear it is the ‘proper’ name of an organisation, but not a real state.

So, a few “uncomfortable truths”, as Focus would call them…

More Westerners are joining ISIS than ever. Yes, it is an alarming phenomenon, but still a relatively marginal one.

Western recruits are not the children of Islam, but of our Western societies. Branding ISIS recruits as the logical consequence of an intrinsically intolerant, violent religion is as inept as it is counter-productive and only fuels Islamophobia.

Islamophobia and jihadism feed each other – and need one another to survive. Hénin had the opportunity to see first-hand that Islamophobia was fuelling the jihadi engine: “It was a motivation in their engagement.”

Ultimately, the first victims of radical jihad are not Westerners, but Muslims. Theirs were the first heads to roll on the battleground in Syria, and still more are killed by drones in the name of the fight against terrorism. But here, in the Western world, they are the victims of stigmatisation – by media more prone to fear-mongering campaigns than informative coverage.

In working on this issue, we tried to avoid all-too-easy stigmatisation and polarisation. We hope we’ve been able to contribute to a more factual, rational debate on Islam in Berlin and Germany. 

The Facts

  • There are about 4 million Muslims in Germany – about 5 percent of the country’s population. 45 percent of them have German citizenship.
  • Most Muslims in Germany are Sunni (2.64 million).
  • There are 249,000 Muslims in Berlin, of which 73 percent have a Turkish background and one-third are German citizens. 110,000 are Kurdish.
  • There are 550 Germans who have left for Syria and Iraq with ‘Islamist motivations’, including some 65 Berliners. 90 percent of recruits are under age 30; 61 percent of them were born in Germany; 10 to 15 percent of them are women.* 
  • 60 Germans have been killed fighting for ISIS; 180 have returned to Germany.*

*Source: Verfassungsschutz

Originally published in issue #133, December 2014.