A female journalist reading a report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (photo: dpa)
Hotline for Islamists

Unsuccessful Anti-Terrorism Number

It may sound paradoxical, but Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is running a hotline for those who want to put Islamist extremism behind them. The only problem is: what violence-prone Islamist is going to seek help from the very institution that has been fighting him? Florian Fuchs reports

All the Islamists have to do is call; just pick up the phone if they want to renounce violence. In July 2010, Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution set up a hotline by the name of 'Hatif' for this very purpose. The secret service has described the hotline as a programme for those who want to leave the Islamist scene and lauded it as an additional weapon in its fight against violent-prone Islamism.

However, there was criticism of the project before it even got underway. Experts on Islam and on security matters complained that Hatif did not go far enough and that it should not be rooted in the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Today, just under a year later, things are not looking any better. For this reason, the programme is being extended. The hope is that imams will help encourage violence-prone Islamists to turn their backs on the scene.

Civil servants from the Federal Criminal Police Office search the Islamic Centre in Munich (photo: AP)
Germany's domestic secret service would like to offer a helping hand to Islamist extremists who want to turn over a new leaf; however, a similar programme for right-wing extremists has thus far borne little fruit

​​Hatif is the Arabic word for telephone. Friends of violence-prone Islamists who call the hotline will be given advice if they fear that someone they know could drift into Islamist circles. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has made much of the fact that Islam experts who speak German, Turkish, and Arabic are on hand to provide assistance. The secret service also says that it will put callers in touch with authorities and provide support for those who are being threatened by former associates in the Islamist scene.

According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, there are just under 30 Islamist associations with a total 36,000 members in Germany. Only a fraction of these members, explains a spokeswoman, is considered to have a propensity to violence. The only problem is: what violence-prone Islamist is going to seek help from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the very institution that has been fighting him?

Even the Bavarian Ministry for the Interior is critical of Hatif. In a study about Islamism in Bavaria dating from autumn 2010, it says: "Islamist fanatics do not see a state authority run by non-believers as an institution to which they would turn."

Based on a similar programme for right-wing extremists

Harry M. is a good example of this kind of fanatic. He is in his early twenties and converted to Islam in his youth. At the moment, the public prosecutor's department is investigating him because he referred to the chairman of the Jewish community in Pinneberg in the state of Schleswig-Holstein as a "dirty Jew" and is said to have threatened him when he accused the local mosque of radical tendencies.

The Berlin-Based Zentrum Demokratische Kultur (ZDK, Centre for Democratic Culture), which has been focussing on Islamism for years, is certain that somebody like Harry M. would never cooperate with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution for the simple reason that he rejects state-run institutions.

The ZDK is critical of the fact that Hatif is based on the principle of a programme for extremists who want to leave the right-wing scene set up by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in 2001. Here too, neo-Nazis can just pick up the phone, dial a number, and get advice from one of the secret service's experts.

Seeking to glean information

Bernd Wagner would not advise anyone to use the hotline. Wagner is head of Exit, an advisory programme funded by the government and run by the ZDK for those want to leave the extreme right-wing scene. "I would not turn to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution," he says, "because they often only want to glean information about the scene."

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, at a press conference (photo: dpa)
Together with Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims, the programme is being amended to allow imams to help those who want to turn their back on Islamist extremism: "Extremists are more willing to be drawn back into the heart of society by Muslims," says Mazyek

​​According to Wagner, those who want out first have to fill in a form and sign a declaration pledging to stay away from extreme right-wing organisations in the future. "After that, they may be helped to make contact with the authorities," says Wagner, "but in many cases, that's all." He has already advised so-called "drop-outs" who slipped back into the scene after they got in touch with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution "because they weren't given enough help to integrate themselves back into normal social structures." So if the programme fails even in this area, how can a hotline for Islamists expect to be successful?

It is not possible to determine on the basis of hard data whether Hatif is working or not. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution does not provide any statistics about the number and type of people who call the hotline and blocks any queries relating to the project. This explains why Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, has no data. However, after he consulted both the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Criminal Police Office about the project, Mazyek concluded that the success of Hatif has been "rather modest".

For this reason, Mazyek suggested that imams should be involved more. "Extremists are more willing to be drawn back into the heart of society by Muslims," he says. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution took this advice to heart and decided to extend the programme. A working group is currently investigating what role selected spiritual leaders could play in Hatif. It is as yet unclear when the concept will be ready.

Florian Fuchs

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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