The "Sharia Police" in Wuppertal

Playing on a widespread fear of Islam in Germany

Eleven young Salafists in bright orange vests with the words "Shariah Police" written on the back patrolled the city of Wuppertal in early September, triggering outrage across Germany. Both politicians and leading Islamic associations have criticised their actions as "illegal parallel justice" and have warned of repercussions. By Stefan Dege

Was it a harmless joke or a serious threat? On 3 September 2014, a group of young men marched up to young people at the doors of Turkish discotheques, cafes and amusement arcades in the city of Wuppertal in north-western Germany and called on them to refrain from drinking alcohol and playing games for money. These self-proclaimed guardians of public morals are Salafists, the fastest-growing group of radical Muslims in Germany. The head of the Wuppertal group is German convert Sven Lau, alias Abu Adam.

Real police officers soon intervened and took down the Salafists' personal data. A wave of outrage swept across Germany, and a debate has been raging ever since. "Sharia is not tolerated on German soil," said Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, while Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned that Germany would not tolerate any form of illegal parallel justice. Even Chancellor Merkel waded into the debate, telling the television channel Sat1 that "no one else is permitted to slip into the role of the police."

They certainly achieved maximum attention with minimal effort. "These fellows really achieved what they set out to do," says Mathias Rohe, Islam expert from the German city of Erlangen, "they anticipated the outrage." Stefan Lau openly rejoiced on his Facebook page, presenting German media coverage of the incident from tabloids and conservative papers alike and appreciative comments from his supporters.

Mathias Rohe (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Islam expert Mathias Rohe (pictured above) calls for a debate within the Muslim community: "Muslims and Muslim organisations must take a stand and state unequivocally, 'That's not what we are about!'"

Setting alarm bells ringing

Quite obviously, the small group of Salafists successfully played on the widespread fear of Islam in Germany. "The majority of the population isn't sceptical about Muslims who live here," points out Rohe. Instead, he says, they are wary of Islam as such. People feel an "abstract threat" that takes on a more concrete form as a result of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, he adds. The word "Sharia" sets alarm bells ringing - "regardless of whether it's about awful things like hacking off hands or about banning alcohol and gambling."

Sharia, Islamic law, is the body of religious duties and legal codes that regulates life as God wants humans to live it in accordance with Islamic teachings. The Arab term, which means "way to the watering place", is found in the Koran.

Developed by Islamic legal experts in the eighth and ninth centuries, Sharia is the legal framework that determines many aspects of day-to-day life for individuals and the community. In theory, it also applies to non-Muslims.

Liberal society

According to Mathias Rohe, German society should respond to the incident in Wuppertal on three levels. Firstly, the crime should be prosecuted. Secondly, society must make it abundantly clear that "we live in a liberal society that we want to defend," he says. Thirdly, Muslims and Muslim organisations must take a stand and state unequivocally that "This is not what we are about!" Rohe also says that the debate among Muslims should be covered by the media too. "Muslims are constantly making public statements, but in many cases, the statements are not relayed," he says.

As in this case, German Muslim organisations regularly dissociate themselves from extremist incidents. "Assuming police work is inacceptable," declared Ali Kizilkaya of the Cologne-based national Muslim Co-ordination Council (KRK). "It harms the reputation of Muslims, even if the majority of Muslims don't identify with such acts in the first place" he said, adding that in German society, everyone can live according to their faith.

Aiman Mazyek (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
According to Aiman Mazyek (pictured above), head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, "the PR gag by a group of young hooligans has blurred the clear distinction between extremism and religion"

Combat Islamism with Islam

The "PR gag by a group of young hooligans" has blurred the "clear distinction between extremism and religion," warns Aiman Mazyek, head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). The activists are doing all Muslims in Germany a disservice, he says, adding that many young extremists have long withdrawn from the Muslim community: "They say, this is Islam Light, we want to go the hard way," says Mazyek.

Mazyek suggests fighting Islamism with Islam by strengthening the mainstream and supporting Muslim organisations. "Unfortunately," he says, "the current political climate is such that I don't think that this message has been understood. Instead, we're being marginalised, which in turn strengthens the radical fringes."

Muslims across Germany have decided to come together on 19 September to demonstrate for peace and against extremism. Under the motto "Muslims stand up against hatred and injustice", the four leading Muslim organisations in Germany (the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, the Islam Council, the Association of Islamic Culture Centres, and the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs) are calling for solemn vigils and peace demonstrations in seven German cities.

Stefan Dege
© Deutsche Welle/ 2014

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