How does one explain the phenomenon of Salafism? And what causes young Islamists the world over to take up jihad? Wolf Schmidt offers some answers in his insightful book "Young, German, Taliban". Albrecht Metzger has read the book
The recent riots in the Islamic world triggered by a crude film about the Prophet Mohammed once again demonstrates how deep the cultural divisions have become between the Islamic world and the West over the past decades.
Most Muslims regard it as taboo to ridicule religion, whereas most people in the USA and Europe have no problem with such insulting behaviour, even when directed against prophets, whether Christian or Muslim. These are differences that cannot be so easily bridged.
At the very least, non-Muslims should try to understand the nature of these religious sensibilities in the Islamic world and what can set them off. For many Muslims, the defence of religious honour is a way of challenging the political, cultural, and economic dominance of the West – even through the use of violence.
This disposition to violence is unsettling, particularly in a prosperous society like Germany, where most people appear to live well in comparison to other countries. Anxiety rises whenever religious motives are involved, as the notion of going to war for the sake of the cross is one that has been lost long ago.
The height of misunderstanding, however, is reached in cases where someone is prepared to sacrifice their life for a religion. Most people in Germany see this world-view as a relic from the Middle Ages.
In the service of Jihad
Yet, such is the reality in this country. Increasing numbers of young people are turning to Islam or discovering the religion for the first time. They get caught up in the clutches of religious zealots and end up in the mountains of Waziristan to train for jihad. Salafism, a particularly strict interpretation of Islam, is regarded as a breeding ground for extremism.
Until recently, hardly anyone in Germany knew of the movement. At the start of the millennium, there were perhaps a couple of hundred Salafists in Germany. Since then, there are a few thousand. By far not all of them are inclined towards violence, but some certainly are. They are known as jihadists.
Wolf Schmidt, editor for domestic security affairs at the taz newspaper, has written a book describing such individuals. As his starting point – also a burning issue for German security authorities – he asks, "What radicalized these people? Why do they want to conduct a Holy War against the West?"
Schmidt attempts to give an answer to this question by examining some quite diverse individual stories. He describes the personal background of young jihadists, speaks with their relatives and friends, cites investigative records, and attends court cases. The book is entertainingly written and the style is low-key, which is not something to be taken for granted considering the dramatic nature of the subject.
It is a good book that offers a comprehensive overview of the developments in recent years. However, Schmidt does not manage to deliver a truly satisfactory answer to the questions he has posed. The biographies of the individuals he examines are just too different. Some were outsiders as teenagers and were frequently teased, others were well-adjusted and loved American sports, some lived off welfare when they were radicalized, whereas others earned their own living.
Whenever Schmidt talks to the friends and relatives of the jihadists, the tone is similar – no one could have imagined that they would end up that way. No one even noticed signs of radicalization.
Such is the case for Arid Uka, a Muslim-born in Kosovo, who was responsible for the first Islamic motivated terrorist attack in Germany in March 2011. He shot two American soldiers at Frankfurt Airport as revenge against the supposed atrocities committed by the US army in Afghanistan. His radicalization took place via the Internet. Former friends could not believe their ears upon hearing the news of the attack.
Three phases of radicalization
Despite the diverse biographies of European jihadists, researchers into extremism have isolated three phases characteristic of the radicalization process. At the beginning, the individual experiences a deep-seated resentment over a real or supposed injustice, whether it be of a personal (discrimination, exclusion) or political nature (Palestine, Afghanistan).
The second step involves contact with an ideology that provides support and offers simple answers to difficult questions. In this case, it is Salafism, which clearly differentiates between good and evil, and gives its adherents the feeling of being on the side of truth.
Once the individual in question has become part of such a circle, then the third step ensues. Group dynamics result in a further radicalization. Together with fellow travellers, the new member watches videos of real or supposed atrocities committed by "unbelievers" and listens to sermons by jihadist ideologues. This hardens them in their dualistic world view and promotes hatred towards the "enemies" of Islam.
One risk among many
Whether or not they then turn to action, in this case take up jihad, depends for the most part on chance incidents. "There are so many ways to engage in terrorism as there are terrorists," says a high-ranking security officer quoted by Schmidt. Violence, according to Schmidt, always has many reasons. "Perhaps it is not even possible to give an explanation," he writes.
Hardly a satisfactory, but at least an honest answer. The fact is that every society has to live with a certain potential for violence. When Salafists turn to the streets in Germany to protest against defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, it is not necessarily such a bad thing – even if this results in confrontations with the police.
It is probably better that pent up rage be released in a more or less controlled form here than when German Salafists move to Pakistan or Egypt to become further radicalized, only returning to Germany as violent-prone, potential terrorists.
Finally, writes Schmidt, Islamic terrorism is but "one risk among many". Viewed statistically, it is not even the greatest risk. Since 1990, some 150 people have been killed in Germany as a result of far-right motivated violence, whereas Islamic terrorists have, until now, two deaths on their conscience.
© Qantara.de 2012
Wolf Schmidt: "Jung, deutsch, Taliban" (Young, German, Taliban), published by Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin 2012, 208 pages
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de