The Influence of Radicalism

The majority of Muslim youths in Germany feel integrated. Nevertheless, several political and social factors have led to increasing alienation. Martina Sabra seeks answers

Praying Muslims in a mosque in Berlin (photo dpa)
Experts agree that the overwhelming majority of young Muslims don't want to have anything to do with Islamism, says Martina Sabra

​​When Youness (name changed by the editor) was ten years old, at the Koranic school in Cologne they wanted to drum it into him that he should not wear either short pants or silk shirts and should not get together with "unbelievers."

It was soon clear to the boy and his parents that he was not going to stay there much longer. "I preferred to play soccer and join a breakdance group," recalls Youness, now 23 years old and a trained auto mechanic.

All the same, he does care about Islam, he emphasizes. "Although I rarely pray, pork is taboo for me, and I observe Ramadan, too – when I can."

With his rather unpolitical mosaic identity, Youness is no exception. He represents the majority of Muslim youth in Germany, a majority that often drops out of the picture too quickly in discussions on Islamic terrorism and juvenile violence.

Danger of marginalization

Experts agree that the overwhelming majority of young Muslims don't want to have anything to do with Islamism, a totalitarian political ideology that seeks to supplant the sovereignty of the people with a theocracy.

Therefore, it would be a serious mistake to put Muslim youth under general suspicion. Nonetheless, it is also clear that more and more young men with a Muslim background run the risk of being taken in by Islamic fanatics' promises of salvation.

"In my opinion, the threat must be taken very seriously," declares the Berlin social scientist Eberhard Seidel, who has dealt with the subject in numerous dialogue projects. "A significant number of Muslim youths are marginalized and see no chance of integrating themselves into this society."

Dramatic scenarios, little factual knowledge

Violence in schools, Islamic glorification of violence in the Internet, new anti-Semitism, attempts to recruit for terrorist attacks in mosques – the disturbing reports are increasing.

Meanwhile, thus far there has not been a single representative study on the exact number of Muslim youths in Germany, their participation in religious, social, and political organizations, and their political views.

Unemployment, poverty, and anxiety about the future characterize the everyday lives of many of the estimated 1.5 million young people between the ages of 12 and 25 with a Muslim background in Germany.

Increasing ghettoization in lower-class neighborhoods and a lack of educational opportunities result in the fact that only half as many immigrant children as German children go on to the Gymnasium (university preparatory school).

Instead, almost three times as many immigrant children as Germans attend the Hauptschule (secondary general school) – a form of education that offers hardly any prospects for an occupational future. Twenty percent of immigrant children, more than twice as many as German pupils, leave school without a certificate.

Furthermore, many young Muslims struggle with conflicting values within the family and in day-to-day life in Germany. Whereas at home they must be obedient or are pampered by their mothers, in school and on the job they are expected to act responsibly. Young males, in particular, are unable to cope with this conflict.

Islamic Ersatz identities instead of integration

Especially in densely populated urban areas, more and more Muslim youths seek refuge from a feeling of powerlessness in religious-tinged fantasies of superiority or ersatz identities. "For these youths, Islam is the only resource that cannot be taken away from them from birth," explains Eberhard Seidel.

"In this respect, there is scarcely any difference between radical Islamic youths and young right-wing extremists. Right-wing radicals also fall back on resources that no one can take away from them – racial ideologies or supposedly purer blood."

Nevertheless, social and economic problems are not a satisfactory explanation for the spread of Islamic ideas. Many young Muslims dissociate themselves from totalitarian ideologies, despite social problems and poverty. On the other hand, there are educated middle-class Muslims who regard Islam as an important part of their identities.

Although there have been no Islamic attacks in Germany thus far, the German government sees in Islamic extremism "the greatest threat to security, domestic and worldwide." An intelligence agency report from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest federal state, of March 2006 refers to an "abstractly high risk" of terrorist attacks in Germany.

Thread of 'homegrown' terrorist networks?

"Germany has been mentioned in the Al Qaeda circle," reports press spokeswoman Dagmar Pelzer. "And since the London attacks in July 2005, we have paid particular attention to signs that could point to so-called 'homegrown' terrorist networks."

The NRW security agency also reports that "in several mosques nationwide, young people were and occasionally still are systematically approached in order to recruit them for violent struggle."

In its attempt to stem the spread of Islamic ideas in Germany, security agency authorities have set their sights on both "legalistic" and "militant" Islamic organizations, although the former declare their support for the constitution and for nonviolence in achieving their political goals, at least outwardly, whereas the latter propagate violence and terrorism as political means.

According to the intelligence agency, nationwide approximately 27,000 adults and young people are reported to be active in Germany's largest legalistic Islamic organization, Milli Görüs (IGMG: Islamic Association Milli Görüs, National Vision), which supports a theocracy in Turkey.

Smaller organizations described as legalistic, such as Muslim Youth in Germany (MJD), are said to number around 250 adherents and sympathizers. So-called "militant" Islamic organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, reportedly have a total of approximately 2,400 followers in Germany, including young people and adults.

The Internet as a recruiting tool

Intelligence officials and researchers, such as the Bielefeld social researcher Wilhelm Heitmeyer, warn against the methods of Islamic organizations: young people are lured with free recreational activities like sports, computer courses, and children's entertainment.

Once they are involved, they are indoctrinated with Islamic ideas. Nevertheless, the organizations work openly and are within reach. Islamism in the World Wide Web is a far greater cause for concern.

"The Internet is the most important outlet for Islamists of all stripes, particularly Jihadists," according to the NRW security agency. Press officer Dagmar Pelzer is not able to estimate how many sympathizers are active in the Net, however. "Given the nature of the Internet, hit rates cannot be reliably determined."

Instead of repression and threats, strengthen young people

In order to prevent Islamic groups from extending their influence on young Muslims in Germany or, at worst, recruiting new terrorists, an efficient intelligence service with well-trained experts is necessary. On the other hand, it is essential to systematically strengthen young people against totalitarian influences.

That will work only if a) both parents and the youths themselves are allowed more political participation, b) patriarchal, violent child-rearing practices are eliminated, c) dialogue projects are more actively promoted, and d) educational opportunities for young Muslim immigrants are significantly improved.

Language screening, not only when children start school, but two years earlier, and established immigrant quotas for all primary schools are essential, in order to avoid a concentration of children with language problems at individual schools.

The introduction of open-minded, progressive Islamic classes in the German language at German schools will certainly not do any harm, but priority should be given to systematic education in democracy and human rights that is available to all young people.

After all, it is not only Muslim youth that are vulnerable to extremism. For years, the most brutal politically motivated acts of violence in Germany have not been committed by Islamists, but by right-wing extremists.

Martina Sabra

© 2006

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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