Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

When Germans Convert
by Colin M. Adams

Germans recoiled in horror in September when police charged three suspects with planning a terrorist bombing attack on a U. S Army base in Hanau, near Frankfurt. Concern skyrocketed, not so much because of the threat of renewed terrorism in Germany, bad as that might be, but rather because two of those arrested were German converts to Islam.

The integration of Muslims into German society—or lack thereof—has long been an issue in Germany. But news of a growing cohort of converts to Islam, and the attachment of converts to radical, anti-Western strains of Islam, have been particularly unwelcome. What followed was a vigorous autumnal debate about how to balance security interests with concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry and the preservation of general liberty during the global “war on terror.”

Crystallizing this debate, perhaps coincidentally, was a remark made by one of the suspects arrested in September, who had been quoted in Stern, the German newsweekly, on the topic of Muslim radicalism a few weeks before his arrest. “Radicalism can be found anywhere,” Fritz Gelowicz told the magazine on July 13. “One does not have to go to Arabia to find it.”

Gelowicz and the two others charged (identified publicly only as Daniel S and Tolga D because German law prohibits the release of the last names of criminal suspects) had been observed by police keeping watch on the American barracks at Hanau on New Year’s Eve in 2006. For the next nine months, the men were kept under close surveillance.

They were observed by police officers purchasing 12 canisters of hydrogen peroxide in Hanover, storing them in a shed in the Black Forest, and eventually transferring them to their apartment in the small Saarland village of Oberschlehdorn. The police secretly switched the original peroxide with a much weaker, diluted form of the chemical.

Despite the exemplary cloak and dagger work of law enforcement, most of the early German press coverage focused on the fact that two of the three suspects (Fritz G and Daniel S) were Germans who had converted to Islam in their teens. Most articles then went on, inconclusively, to ask how severe the threat posed by radical Islam within Germany might be.

German Muslims then reacted defensively, as on September 6, when Michael Muhammad Abdu Pfaff, president of the German Muslim League, told Stern that he “would not call these men typical converts. They are clearly in the clutches of a radical ideology that, in my opinion, is not the preaching of Islam, but of an anti-West ideology.” Pfaff added that those Muslims who do become radicalized had fallen into the “wrong circle” and been “brainwashed” by others. “This group is for me not a Muslim group. Terror contradicts Islam.”

The same day, Goekalp Babayigit, a reporter for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung of Munich, directed attention toward a mosque, the Islamic Information Center, in Ulm in southern Germany. Both Fritz G and Tolga D belonged to the mosque, which had already been a target of federal investigation, and which officials described as a bastion of extremism.

“It is seen as a place of refuge for those converts who sympathize with extremism, and as an intersection for the unclear Islamic network around Ulm.” The center is seen as a “recruiting center” for young Muslims, particularly young converts who are sometimes more likely to radicalize in an attempt to “prove” themselves as good Muslims.

The next day, the same newspaper’s Annette Ramelsberger summed up the new threat of “home grown terrorists” in Germany: “The pictures of the blue containers and the police reports of the months-long observation of the suspects show without a doubt that the Holy War has come to Germany.”

What was lacking in the coverage was attention to the Islamic Jihad Union, the group that claimed responsibility for the planned attack but which was never clearly linked by German reporters to the Islamic Information Center. Articles from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Berliner Zeitung claimed that the group had close ties to Al-Qaida without going into any further detail.

The Islamic Jihad Union, according to a Sueddeutsche Zeitung article September 11, originated in Uzbekistan and is apparently motivated by its objection to German involvement in the war in Afghanistan:

“The planned attacks were aimed at combating the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan. The declaration named the air base at Termez in Uzbekistan, which the German air force uses, as a particular point of antagonism. The Islamic Jihad Union was hoping that the attacks would end the German presence at the base.”   

In the wake of the thwarted attack, a handful of German politicians, mostly connected to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), described radical converts as a real threat and proposed new security measures to constrain them. “One would think that those who grow up here and enjoy the many advantages of our free society would be immune from radicalism,” Wolfgang Schaeuble, federal interior minister,” told Das Bild. “But a few are still susceptible.”

Schaeuble led an effort in the weeks following the arrests to make changes to the German Constitution that, he argued, would protect the German people from future terror attacks. Along with the interior minister of the German state of Hessen, Volker Bouffier (also of the CDU), he proposed making it illegal to visit Islamic training camps in Pakistan and other areas in the Middle East.

“[F]oreigners who receive training in these camps must be refused re-entry into Germany,” Bouffier told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on September 7. “If they have already re-entered the country, we must create the opportunity to deport them.” 

Schaeuble’s proposed amendment was immediately opposed by leaders of other German political parties, and especially by federal Attorney General Brigitte Zypries, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Speaking to the Bild am Sonntag September 9, Zypries laid out her disagreement with Schaeuble’s proposed amendment: “It is customary in Germany to punish someone only when they have actually done something or at the very least, made preparations to do something.” A week later, she repeated her position to Stern:  “Mere ideology should not be punished.”

Zypries’ position was echoed by Sueddeutsche’s Heribert Prantl in a September 10 column: “Visits to a terror camp is of course the wrong word; it is not about criminalizing a journalistic visit to a camp, but about criminalizing the preparation of a crime. And the intent to commit a crime is already punishable today.”

Other opponents thought that the proposed legislation was too hastily drawn up and would not be effective in all situations. “I do not participate in the footrace for popular, yet not completely thought-out proposals, Schleswig-Holstein’s SPD interior minister, Ralf Stegner, told Die Welt September 13. “Thus if a Brit who has attended a foreign terror camp goes back to Britain and then comes to Germany, they will not be checked under this proposed law.”

But visits to terror camps abroad was not the only issue being debated in the Bundestag. Talking to the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger on September 8, Hans-Peter Uhl of the Christian Social Union (CSU) said, “The knowledge that led to the arrest of the suspects came from computer inspections by American intelligence agencies.”

Support for the government’s right to use online searches and to collaborate with American intelligence immediately came from members of both CDU and CSU. The interior minister of Niedersachsen, Uwe Schuenemann (CDU), told Sueddeutsche Zeitung, “There must not be any protected communication space for terrorists in our country.” Opponents of the resolution from the SPD were “not categorically against online searching, but would like to know what the technical details of the proposal look like first,” according to the paper.

The biggest outcry from the SPD and the media came after comments made by CDU politician Wolfgang Bosbach that seemed to propose a new register for all Germans who converted to Islam. In the September 12 Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Bernd Oswald complained in a column, “It is the same story every time: If a grave felony is foiled in Germany, one can bet that radical proposals will move into the discussion.”

Oswald explained that the convert registry “deals with people who change their religious affiliation; but of course it does not deal with people who convert to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Roman Catholicism. No, it deals only with those Germans who become Muslims.” Such extreme measures “stigmatize and segregate a section of the population. Such a register could further fuel the hate for our social order had by those who already hold radical beliefs.”

Bosbach’s idea was soundly rejected by members of the SPD and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). As Nordrhein-Westphalia interior minister Ingo Wolf (FDP) told Stern, “There is no purpose in lumping all converts together.” Even members of the CDU opposed the legislation. “We do not,” said Niedersachen’s interior minister Uwe Schuenemann (CDU), “need a new index for converts.”

But speaking to the Koelnische Rundschau, Bosbach denied ever making the suggestion. “I have neither called for a register for all converts, nor do I think that the introduction of such an index is reasonable,” he declared, claiming to have been speaking not about converts but “about the small group of agitators who are in contact with the militant Islamic scene.”

Whether or not Bosbach was misquoted, the damage had already been done. “Even if it is all a mere misunderstanding, many Muslims will take the feverish discussion as proof that the State is not concerned about the radical Muslims, Annette Ramelsberger wrote in a September 12 commentary in Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “It is rather about putting all Muslims under general suspicion, and that Christian society’s fear of Islamic terror is so great, that it prompts them to cower in fear.”

Bernd Oswald expressed similar sentiments in the same issue of Sueddeutsche: “The man from the party with the capital ‘C’ is putting the entire religious group of Muslims under general suspicion, even if Bosbach himself denies it.”

Although the measures proposed by Schaeuble and Bosbach were ultimately blocked, hostility towards Muslims in Germany remained palpable. Many commentators, indeed, saw the CDU as turning into an “Anti-Terror Party.” They themselves were persuaded that the urgent problem of how to move Muslims in from the periphery of German society—the “integration problem”—would not be advanced by aggressive online intelligence sweeps and convert registers.

At the end of his interview with Stern, Michael Muhammad Abduh Pfaff had this advice to offer: “Intensifying the laws and striking suspicion works in the favor of the extremists. If our society cannot show that it is better, freer, and more just than these fanatics, then our freedom itself will be constricted. If all Muslims are placed in a corner, integration will be hindered instead of enabled.”

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