Salafists are looking to lure followers at an event in Frankfurt this weekend. In response, right-wing groups plan to hold anti-Islam rallies. Do both sides need each other?
Shaved head, long red beard, Rhineland dialect: This is Pierre Vogel, Germany's self-proclaimed "Islam Preacher" who has made his presence known on the internet and through public speeches like the one coming up this weekend.
"On September 7 is the next session of the radical Islamic Peace Congress!" - Vogel announced on a web video, quickly correcting himself with a smile. "I mean, of course, the Islamic Peace Congress. We want to invite you to show up in Frankfurt."
The congress is officially about the establishment of freedom, but it will also focus on collecting donations for Islamist forces in Egypt and Syria. Vogel and the Salafists are looking to get 100,000 euros in donations in a bid to help the Syrian opposition topple Assad's regime.
Vogel - a 2011 convert to Islam - has a strong following in Germany, due in most part to his abilities as a public speaker. During the last Islamic Peace Congress in Frankfurt, some 1500 people showed up to hear him speak. Last year, he made waves with a Koran giveaway day.
On that day, the Salafists say they handed out some 25 million free copies of the Koran in cities around Germany. Media outlets covered the event extensively, making it a "successful campaign" in the eyes of the Salafists. It garnered above all the interest of young people.
"The Salafists are a minority among Muslims; however, they have the most attention," said Rauf Ceylan, professor of religious studies at Osnabrück University. Their allure is due in part to their unadorned ideology, but also to the fact that they speak German in a bid to lure Germans to their faith. They speak in very simple terms and use vocabulary that the youth uses.
Even non-Muslim German youths feel a certain connection to the Salafists. "They dwell on being seen as outsiders by society; they know how to connect with kids who are dealing with crisis, and they can offer a kind of home to them."
The Salafists say they follow the "true" Islam in emulation of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Many want Germany to submit to Islam and Islamic law. Some are also willing to use violence to bring this about.
For a long time, the Salafist presence in Germany was only in the western Rhineland and Ruhr area, and also the capital Berlin. In the past few months, however, they have also been observed in Frankfurt.
Rauf Ceylan told DW that there are many disillusioned young men in and around Frankfurt, and that the Salafists have attempted to offer these people a place in society. German intelligence says there are some 700 Salafist members in Hesse, the state where Frankfurt is located, and that there are some 3,800 in all of Germany.
But due to the fact that no official data exists on the Salafists - because the movement consists of a loose network of followers - the real numbers aren't known. "This is the problem when it comes to observing the Salafists. We don't have any hard facts," laments Ceylan.
German security authorities are following the spread of Salafism with concern, for there is no real way to tell which members are willing to use violence to achieve their goals. The city of Frankfurt had initially prohibited this weekend's Peace Congress, citing a disturbance of the peace and the supposition that the Salafists were pursuing non-constitutional aims. In response, the Salafists took their case to court and won the right to go through with the event.
But the concerns of Frankfurt were more than justified: last year, several Salafist events in the Rhineland turned violent - after the right-wing group Pro NRW handed out Islam-critical materials. Dozens of police officers were injured in the clashes.
This time around, too, a right-wing group has announced intentions to protest the Salafists. "Pax Europa is one part of a right-wing current that is looking to fight against what they call a 'creeping Islamization' in Europe," Alexander Häusler, sociologist and right-wing extremism expert at the Düsseldorf community college, told DW. "These are people from the extreme right who are looking to profit from the fear of Islam. They are looking to win votes this way."
Authorities are thus concerned about an escalation: "They are both instigating a conflict that they hope the media will cover, and both sides will attempt to use this conflict to portray themselves as victims."
According to Häusler, the "extreme difference" between the two factions is only on the surface.
"The Salafists and the extremists against them are two sides of the same coin. They both need each other to get the attention they desire, and they both need each other as reciprocal enemies to establish a sense of identity."
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