The article below, which was published last week in Der Tagesspiegel, was written by an Arab Muslim now living in Germany. He describes his recruitment by Salafists when he was a teenager, and how he managed to extricate himself before moving on to violent jihad.
Many thanks to JLH for the translation:
“I Was Once An Islamist”
by Ahmad Mansour
It all started with an imam who taught in his village. Ahmad Mansour was a shy boy and found security in the fundamentalist ideology. He relates in a guest essay how he turned away from the seductions of religious fundamentalism.
I was just 13 years old, a shy boy with unruly curly hair, when I became a young Islamist. I loved soccer and, because we made a lot of noise, I was always in trouble with my grandparents. The world as I knew it up to then ended at the edge of the dusty Arab village near Tel Aviv. That is 24 years ago now. I was good in school, but it was hard for me to make friends. My shyness often stood in the way. So I was that much more flattered when the local imam and religious teacher took an interest in me. He stopped me on the way to school and struck up a conversation with me.
He assured me that I was a good boy and had the potential for greatness in me. He told me: “Islam needs you, my son!” I listened with wide-open eyes and willing ears.
“Suddenly I was one of the chosen”
Soon after, he extended a promising invitation. I should attend his Koran instruction. I was only too happy to follow the impressive older man with the beard and bushy eyebrows, All of a sudden, I was one of the chosen. It is true that my parents were not too enthusiastic — they were more or less anti-religious. But they preferred for me to learn something than to join the village gang like the boys in our neighborhood.
Our local mosque was right in the area — a whitewashed building with a modest minaret and a turquoise door. Instruction took place in the cool cellar rooms, where we gathered every Thursday after evening prayer. I found it homey there, with all the carpets and framed sura verses, and I enjoyed the coolness on the hot days of our Israeli summer. I still remember those first hours fondly. New worlds opened up, and it was a kind of intellectual sport to practice saying the Arabic words of the Koran correctly. From our imam we all learned the complex grammar of High Arabic, and we listened attentively to his interpretations. I was especially fascinated by the tantalizing descriptions of Paradise, with its gardens of ecstasy, the fresh springs and many amenities. When I heard that I belonged to a people that had once been great and powerful, it unleashed an exhilaration in me. But best of all — I found friends! A common mission united us.
The Koran school also broadened my horizons. For the first time, I passed beyond the narrow bounds of the village. Our group traveled in a rattle-trap of a bus to Islam seminars in other towns, where we saw other imams who had superstar status. We went to weddings with our imam or went on excursions to a lake or a sacred site. My dull village life had come alive.
The character of the lessons changed
But after a while, the character of the lessons changed. Suddenly it was no longer about poetic Suras or Arab grammar, but ominous scenarios. The imam conjured up a worldwide, oppressed Umma — a community of the faithful who must fight for the liberation of Palestine. He spoke urgently of the curse that lay upon the Jews, of the inevitable reconquest of Spain — and thus the Islamization of Europe. Sin played a huge role now, and our imam hit his stride: Women! A dangerous business. Looking at women — forbidden. Shaking hands with them — forbidden. Unveiled women? Destined for Hell.
From that moment on, we could no longer look admiringly at our female schoolmates. They became enemies — creatures who wished to lure us to unclean things. Despising the good-looking women and girls was easier for me than admitting my interest in them — they seemed so unattainable anyway. And further, every neighbor who secretly drank alcohol was also damned.
Arab girls, Jews and drinking neighbors — we were familiar with all that. But the imam revealed that there were far more enemies out there in the world. Christians, Americans, Europeans, nationalists, communists! All our foes, all spawn of Satan. A gruesome death was in store for all of them — the worst tortures of Hell. That is what our imam preached. To maximize respect for his words, he put us Koran students to a drastic test one day.
Late at night, we went in his old car to our village graveyard. When we got out, we could see the low wall of the cemetery in the darkness. The whole group followed the imam, who was murmuring suras. Around us was nothing but silver moonlight to light the path between the graves, until we were standing before an open, freshly dug grave. The imam ordered us to form a half-circle around the grave.
Test of courage — a bizarre initiation ritual
Suddenly shouting, he drove the point home: “Think about your death! Think of meeting Allah! Think about the fact that all of you will end up here! Maybe even tomorrow, or in a month!” Then we all — one after the other, each one alone — had to climb into the dark hole and lie down on the ground. It was a test of courage, but also a bizarre initiation rite. As we climbed into the hole, one after the other, the imam fulminated: “All people who have not followed Allah in life are awaited by snakes and demons in the grave, who will beat and torment them! For eternity!”
For me, that was an almost traumatic experience. But none of us — myself included — broke away. We all remained true to the imam and his teaching. The closeness of the group, the uplifting aspiration of emulating the life of the Prophet Mohammed, the orientation and structure, were too attractive. I gained the impression that I was in possession of a superior truth that was hidden from others. My fear of Hell seemed sensible to me. It preserved me from sinful desires. I found security in the fundamentalist ideology, even if not self-confidence.
When this very imam refused his own sister her share of the inheritance after the death of their parents, all the while lecturing grandiloquently on the justice every good Muslim should support, skepticism grew in me. My impression of his moral double standard was confirmed more and more, and it dawned on me that our preacher was only using us so he would be elected again by the town assembly. With the inner distancing came a gradual withdrawal, aided by the fact that my interest in girls was triumphing over my fear of Hell. I was lucky that I managed to find my way out of this devastating ideology. Hardly anyone else from my Koran school had the chances I did. Most of them stayed with the ideology, usually as adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafism.
Freeing myself was a long process
During my years of studying psychology at the University of Tel Aviv, I began to read Freud, became interested in history and sociology and had discussions with other students. I gradually freed myself from the authority of the imams. This disengagement was a long process and even now guilt feelings pop up when I drink a glass of wine. Except now, I can smile about it.
I enrolled to study for a degree at Berlin’s Humboldt University in 2005. I have been working cooperatively here in the city on projects dedicated to resolutions and dialogue with Muslim fellow citizens. We discuss radicalization, anti-Semitism or violence in upbringing with both young people and adults. Sometimes, in conversation with someone, when the light dawns, I witness the beginning spark of thinking for oneself.
So I am that much more appalled at what is happening nowadays in Germany. With creeping effectiveness, radical variations of Islam are spreading in immigrant milieus and among many Germans. Here, too, Salafists like my former imam are on the hunt for children. Preachers like Abu Nagi or Pierre Vogel and their followers offer children and young people sanctuary, acceptance and orientation. Methods have changed technically, but not substantially. With a few clicks on the internet young people find the websites that offer them — in German — an Islam which promises purity. The design and sound of the videos are similar to video games. Bearded Salafists in long robes act as self-appointed street activists, fetching children and young people away from crack and alcohol to their communities, where they have religion as an ersatz drug: “You can make more of yourself with Allah!” In workshops, I hear complaints from parents of converts — young people are refusing to celebrate their birthdays because that is haram — unclean. They want nothing to do with family at Christmas and Easter.
To be sure, in the meantime, the Ministry of the Interior has banned and dissolved several Salafist organizations like “DawaFFM” and “Islamic Audios” for unconstitutionality. But the heads remain and new organizations are formed quickly. Organized Salafists in Germany are estimated to number 10,000 people; their sympathetic entourage must be ten times that many.
When young people have given themselves over to the Salafists, they become — as in a sect —puppets completely lacking in will, guided by an iron hand. Critical thinking is systematically undermined. The Allah who is presented to them cannot be personally addressed. Doubts are not allowed. Individual feelings are not allowed. It is useful to the perpetrators of this seduction that the common understanding of Islam of the “Mustafa-Normal-Muslim” exhibits authoritarian characteristics. An education oriented towards control, directed at collectivity and respect for authority, strengthens the susceptibility of young people to what they are told. You must act this way. You may do this. You may not do that. It goes so far with some Salafists that they tell the youth which foot must be the first into the toilet, because Mohammed allegedly always did it that way. To them, democracy is a tool of the Devil, leading to homosexual marriages and other sins. The passage from “normal” piety, through forced ideologizing, to violence-prone fundamentalism is fluid .
Beatings in the educational process sow the seeds of violence
On the strength of my experience, I plead for a much more exact scrutiny of Salafism and a clearer analysis of its ideologies. Society should not allow itself to be deluded into noting only whether Salafists and Islamists are interested in placing bombs. In point of fact, violence-ready jihadists are still an absolute minority, even among Salafists. But the fixation of security forces on the jargon of violence leads to the ignoring of other ideas hostile to democracy. Sometimes an imam who pays lip service to democracy is celebrated as its supporter — and that is where the mistake occurs. Violence does not just begin when people want to kill one another in the name of religion. Beatings in school and in marriage also sow the seeds of violence, as does propagating sexual apartheid, claiming the exclusivity of a religion, rejecting the constitutional state and democracy, or the belief that they must save others from a godless life. All of that represents facets of structural violence, which is the predecessor and qualifier of the physical.
Unfortunately, some Muslim organizations use the current debate to make the Salafists the sole scapegoats for radical tendencies in Islam. And often enough they also disguise how radical they themselves are. Salafism must be recognized as a phenomenon. This species of religiosity casts the widespread understanding of Islam in an extreme form and offers this variant in the marketplace of competing cults.
Anyone who wishes to combat the growing Salafism in Germany must deal with it critically and with nuance. Unfortunately, many Muslim organizations shy away from that — as if an extension of the spell had already gotten to them. Many of them secretly admire the “systematic and strong Muslims,” as they see the Salafists. Right-wing populists confine themselves to repressive deportation policy. The left is conflict-shy, and attributes the phenomenon of radical Muslims entirely to experienced discrimination and exclusion.
A debate about Salalfism has to be a debate abut values — communicating and strengthening democracy. It must be initiated free of fear and free of taboos, and internal to Islam. A democracy-capable interpretation of Islam with clear positions on our constitutional law. That is the only way Muslims in a democracy will find their way to the necessary freedom of interpretation of Islamic belief.
The author — born in Palestine in 1976 — is an accredited psychologist and has lived in Germany for eight years. Since September, 2010, Mansour has been working as a research assistant at the Center for Democratic Culture in Berlin. His concentration is on Salafism and Anti-Semitism, as well as psycho-social questions and problems concerning immigrants with a Muslim background. He is a member of the working group “Preventative Work with Youth” of the German Islam Conference and advises the European Foundation for Democracy.