The largest parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, the faction of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has approved a wide-ranging strategy to contain the spread of political Islam in Germany. Pictured: Germany's Bundestag in session on May 6, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The largest parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, the faction of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has approved a wide-ranging strategy to contain the spread of political Islam in Germany.
The plan, outlined in a new policy paper, "Preserving Free Society, Promoting Social Cohesion, Fighting Political Islamism," warns that a growing number of areas in Germany, where German law is overruled by Sharia law, are in danger of becoming "parallel societies."
The document also warns that many mosques and Islamic associations in Germany are controlled by foreign governments and that they are producing a generation of German jihadists who extol martyrdom and threaten Germany's liberal democratic order.
The authors of the report argue that a recent wave of jihadist attacks in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — including the beheading of a schoolteacher in Paris, a crime celebrated by many Muslim pupils in Berlin — requires urgent measures to stop the "poison" of extremist ideology from gaining further ground on the continent.
The policy paper, which whole-heartedly commends law-abiding Muslims who respect Germany's democratic order, argues that the debate about Islamism in Germany is often reduced to violence and terror, but that it is necessary to focus more on ideology. The proposals include improving research and analysis of political Islam in Europe and the methods by which it spreads; banning the foreign funding of mosques; and reducing the number of foreign imams active in Germany.
Arguably the most important proposal involves reversing the German government's long-standing policy of supporting extremist groups in Germany, which, under the guise of promoting dialogue, has legitimized those groups and fueled the spread of political Islam in Germany.
The strategy has been greeted with a mix of approval, cynicism and skepticism. Some say the proposals are long overdue while others counter that the strategy is too little, too late. Some critics describe it as an electoral gimmick — federal elections are scheduled for September 22 — aimed at capturing the attention of supporters of the conservative party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has long called for a crackdown on political Islam.
An English translation of excerpts of the policy paper follows:
"In recent months, Islamist terrorism has returned with full force: A barbaric attack in Nice on October 29, 2020, in which several people were killed; the horrific murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb on October 16, 2020; and the bloody attack in Vienna on November 2, 2020. Germany has also been hit by Islamist terror, for example in an attack on the Berlin city motorway on August 18, 2020, and in a knife attack on a homosexual couple in Dresden on October 4, 2020.
"Investigations are being conducted into security failures in the run-up to each of these attacks and whether there is potential for improvement in security structures. Some of the attackers had criminal records and had already been classified as dangerous by security authorities. The investigations are important and necessary, but by no means sufficient. Islamism is not limited to a certain number of violent attacks. The ideology behind it is poison for our free society. It endangers integration and social cohesion by inciting Muslims against our democracy.
"When martyrdom is extolled in some German mosques; when Islamists meet in Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt to demonstrate against freedom of expression and freedom of the press and express solidarity with the murderer of the French teacher Paty; when children in Berlin schools dismiss this murder with the remark that the teacher got what he deserved; then we cannot accept that. In addition, it must be stated openly and clearly that the spread of Islamist-tinged nationalism, the agitation against Christians and Jews, the denial of Israel's right to exist and the glorification of war have long been a sad part of everyday life in Germany.
"In addition, there are increasing cases of direct influence of foreign governments on Muslims in our country, partly under the guise of religious freedom and with the spread of Islamist and Islamist-nationalist ideas. These include, for example, the influence of the Turkish right-wing extremist 'gray wolves' on young people in Germany; reporting to the Turkish governmental religious authority Diyanet on alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen in Germany; and DITIB's [the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, an arm of the Turkish government] support for the Turkish military operation in northern Syria in January 2018.
"Equally worrying are developments at the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), which is under the influence of the Islamic regime in Tehran and is the propaganda center for Shiite extremism in Germany, or at Salafist mosque associations, some of which are financed by donors from the Middle East. The abuse of Muslim stakeholders and structures in Germany by foreign governments and Islamist agents, often disguised with reference to constitutionally protected religious freedom, must come to an end.
"Focusing only on the violent part of Islamism, Islamist terrorism, does not do justice to the overall problem. Islamism — like other extremisms — has an ideological basis and the aim must be to explore this ideological underground. This political Islamism, which ostensibly acts non-violently, but stirs up hatred, agitation and violence and strives for an Islamic order in which there is no equality, no freedom of opinion and religion and also no separation of religion and state, has spread far and wide in parts of our society.
"Political Islamism promotes a system of rule that is a fundamental alternative to democracy, pluralism and individual rights of freedom. Its representatives strive for the submission of society, politics, culture and law to norms that correspond to their Islamist ideas. This politicization of religion is expressed in a comprehensive regulation of the lifestyle of Muslims based on the categories of what is permitted (halal) and what is forbidden (haram). Every person is judged on submission to the do's and don'ts of Islam. Individual voluntariness falls by the wayside because of the high pressure to conform. At the center of political Islamism is the Islamist gender order with extensive gender segregation, extreme patriarchalism and the partial or complete exclusion of women from the public.
"We owe the fight against political Islamism not only to our free-democratic ideals and values, but also to most of the Muslims in Germany who share these ideals with us and want to live with us on their basis. Because it is precisely liberal, secular Muslims who are victims of this illiberal, anti-democratic ideology. Those who publicly oppose political Islamism and its strategies are particularly at risk. Prominent critics of political Islamism such as Seyran Ates, Ahmad Mansour and Mouhanad Khorchide have been threatened by Islamist circles for years and can only live under police protection. This situation is unacceptable.
"In some urban quarters and areas in Germany, but also in many of our neighboring countries such as France, Belgium and Austria, parallel societies influenced or shaped by Islamic influence have formed over the years and decades — often with the tolerance of society out of misunderstood tolerance: leading French Islamic scholars recently sounded the alarm that around 150 municipalities in France are now in the hands of Islamists. Anyone who identifies himself as a Jew or a homosexual there must fear for his life; women who dress according to Western fashion in public can expect attacks and abuse. Children and young people who grow up in these milieus are particularly at risk of being receptive to ideologies. The necessary integration work with the families is only possible with great difficulty. Such a development must be prevented in Germany by all means.
"There is currently a lack of a comprehensive systematic overview and linking of knowledge available in Germany and Europe about the activities, personnel and financial resources of Islamist groups active in Germany and Europe, as well as about their international networking, their strategic goals and the range of their ideologies. In this country, the focus is primarily on groups that openly call for violence. Representatives of political Islamism who are involved in politics and society are often perceived as legitimate religious representatives and not as followers of an extremist ideology. The present focus on groups prepared to use violence has led to disregarding the ideological justification of violence. These politically extremist, non-violent groups aim to establish an order based on their Islamist ideas by actively preventing integration, dividing Western societies into 'believers' and 'unbelievers,' rejecting equality and religious freedom, and alienating Muslim youth from Western societies. They use democratic structures to undermine and ultimately abolish democracy."
A Five-Point Action Plan
The policy paper outlines five broad measures aimed at understanding and fighting political Islam:
Supporting basic research on political Islamism in Germany and Europe. This includes: establishing academic chairs to focus on Islamism and its structures, networks and financing; providing federal authorities with financing for researching the structures of political Islamism; implementing a scientific study on the experiences and problems of school teachers with Islamist influences and forms of Islamist-motivated behavior to better understand the extent to which political Islamism is influencing children, young people and adolescents; establishing a "Political Islamism in Germany and Europe" documentation center; establishing a "Political Islamism in Germany" expert group in the Federal Ministry of the Interior that would develop recommendations in the fight against political Islamism in Germany and report to the Federal Government and the Bundestag once a year; networking and exchanging information on political Islamism at EU level, for example by strengthening the Helsinki-based "European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats."
Terminating state cooperation and contractual relationships with organizations of political Islamism. In the future, all financial donations, subsidies, contractual relationships and collaborations with Islamic clubs and associations that are being monitored by German security agencies must be discontinued at the federal and state levels. This includes rescinding statutory tax breaks and charitable status or groups that pursue anti-constitutional aims. Exceptions to this are necessary contacts between governments and federal and state authorities.
Training imams in Germany. Most of the imams working in Germany are posted from abroad. The proposal calls for providing academic and spiritual training for imams in Germany, while maintaining religious freedom and the separation of state and religious communities. The strategy aims to promote an Islamic practice of faith that respects German values.
Financing of mosques. Many mosques and Islamic religious communities in Germany receive funding from third countries. The plan calls for increased transparency of membership structures and financing flows, including a requirement to disclose every direct and indirect source of funding, including donations, subsidies, contracts and collaborations, to the federal tax office.
Preventing radicalization. The plan calls for improved cooperation between federal, state and local governments and civil society. It calls for expanding the National Prevention Program against Islamist Extremism; investigating the risk of radicalization processes in the penal system in Germany; and expanding information and awareness programs for specialists from the areas of police, justice, school and education, social work, youth welfare and refugee aid, among others.
The lead author of the paper, Bundestag Member Christoph de Vries, said:
"Religious extremism and its representatives must be met with the same distance and rejection as the political extremists from the left and right. Fundamental values such as equality, protection of minorities and the priority of our laws over religious rules are non-negotiable. There can be no religious exception to this. The enemies of our constitution and their ideologues cannot be partners of our state at the same time. That is the clear message of our position paper. Our goal is to understand the ideological breeding ground on which political Islamism thrives with broad scientific research and to tackle the problem with a comprehensive package of measures at the root level. It is precisely liberal, secular Muslims who are victims of this illiberal, anti-democratic ideology and are threatened by Islamists. Our aim is to promote social cohesion and to ensure that Muslims in Germany do not fall into the clutches of radical, intolerant ideologies."
The spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Mathias Middelberg, added:
"So far, when looking at Islamism, groups prone to violence have been in the foreground. With the package of measures that we adopted in the position paper, we are now focusing more on the ideological basis. In order to fight political Islamism in the long term, we will in particular strengthen basic research in this area and further advance imam training in Germany. On the other hand, we want to create more transparency with respect to the foreign financing of mosques in Germany and prevent possible state cooperation and contractual relationships with Islamist organizations and expand prevention work. With this comprehensive strategic approach, we have the means at hand to tackle Islamism at its roots."
The integration commissioner for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Nina Warken, said:
"Religious extremism doesn't come out of nowhere. On the contrary, it thrives in isolated parallel worlds that have nothing in common with our values. We urgently need to shed light on this and not only wake up when violence erupts."
The German-Moroccan author Sineb El Masrar, in an interview with the public radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur, said that the policy paper is clearly directed against "reactionary, Islamist organizations" and "that it is not aimed at all Muslims, but at those with a radical agenda." She added: "There are quite a lot of Muslims and mosque associations that are not affiliated with Islamist associations. Dialogue with them must be sought more intensively."
Mouhanad Khorchide, a Lebanese-Austrian Islamic theologian and sociologist who is a professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster in Germany, said that the policy paper reflects a growing awareness of the problem of political Islam in Germany: "It is important to implement concrete measures that put pressure on this misanthropic ideology to prevent situations as in France, where Islamists control entire city districts."
The renowned Frankfurt-based Islam scholar Susanne Schröter expressed skepticism about the new strategy. She said that secular states have a fundamental challenge when dealing with Islam, which is political by nature due to its law, Sharia.
In an interview with Die Tagespost, a Würzburg-based Catholic national weekly newspaper, Schröter noted the difficulty in finding the dividing line between an Islam that threatens the democratic order and permitted political participation based on the Islamic faith. The popular comparison between "Political Islam" and Christian Democracy is misleading, she said, because the representatives of political Islam are not interested in political participation, but with system change:
"Islamists are not interested in democracy. On the contrary. They reject democracy because they only consider politics to be legitimate if it follows regulations that adhere to the politics of Mohammed in the 7th century. They are striving to establish an Islamic normative order in which Sharia rules and politics is dominated by religious leaders."
The political editor of Die Tagespost, Sebastian Sasse asked if the CDU's renewed focus on internal security has to do with the upcoming federal election:
"It is interesting that the proposals are being published right now and in this condensed form. The signal is clear: 'We have understood' is the message to the electorate. The fight against political Islamism is intended to show that the CDU still sees itself as a 'Law and Order' party....
"Whether this catalog of measures is the starting point of a line that will run through the entire election campaign or will soon disappear into the drawer again — that will determine whether the Union manages to reinvent itself as a people's party of the center-right."
In an essay, "The CDU Discovers the Problem of Islamism," published by the German blog Tichys Einblick, commentator Zara Riffler also expressed skepticism of the new strategy to combat Islamism, which has long been a taboo topic in Germany. She predicted that any serious crackdown on Islamism would be met with charges of 'Islamophobia':
"It must be assumed that German MPs will fear being labeled as hostile to Muslims if they support tough measures against political Islam. The effect here is that Islamist actors have long been manipulating the discourse in Germany: Liberal scholars and publicists who criticize political Islam are branded as 'Islamophobic' and thus as pathological. Such battle concepts have an impact on top-level politics....
"It is conspicuous that only the term 'political Islamism' is used throughout the policy paper, no longer the term 'political Islam.' Is that the trick with which the proposals are supposed to be sold more easily — because 'Islamism' is conceptually further removed from 'Islam'? Islamist actors in Germany are agitating against the term 'political Islam,' which is preferred by liberal scholars and renowned experts. The goal behind it: to block research by manipulating discourse. They try to portray the use of the term 'Political Islam' as hostile to Muslims. Many politicians are intimidated by this and therefore mostly speak of 'Islamism' — also because they do not understand that the critics are mostly Islamic extremists, not ordinary Muslims.
"MP Christoph de Vries said: 'The choice of the term 'political Islamism' is primarily about remaining consistent in the designation of the different extremisms — left-wing extremism, right-wing extremism, Islamism — and at the same time expressing the political instrumentalization.' It is not the terms that are decisive, he said, but rather the content, research and awareness-raising."
Bundestag Member Hans-Jürgen Irmer, member of the Interior Committee for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, concluded:
"The representatives of Islam must emulate the Enlightenment and its influence on Christianity, because if, for example, German imam training is to be promoted, the basis of all theological considerations remains the work of the prophet Mohammed and the Koran, which has 200 passages calling for the annihilation of unbelievers. The decisive question is to what extent imams are willing and able to explain that these warlike verses and suras are only to be considered in their historical context and that they no longer have any meaning today, i.e. in principle could be deleted.
"As long as this is not the case, there can be no real understanding between religions in the long run. It should be added that the implementation of the strategy is only possible if, for example, mosque communities or Muslims as a whole are willing to actively contribute, because they understandably know the segregation efforts of many association representatives much better and more closely than most German observers."
A recent poll revealed that three-quarters of Germans are in favor of more resolute action against Islamism. The survey, conducted by the Erfurt-based opinion research institute INSA Consulere on behalf of Die Tagespost, found that 74% of Germans agreed that the government should combat radical Islam. Only 8% of those surveyed opposed taking a harder line; 12% did not have an opinion.
The poll found that 90% of supporters of the conservative party Alternative for Germany stated that they would like more decisive action against radical Islam in Germany. This was followed by 84% of CDU/CSU voters; 83% of Social Democrats (SPD); 73% of Greens voters; and 71% of Free Democrats (FDP) who agreed that Germany should act more forcefully against radical Islam.