Muslim radicals have begun enforcing Islamic Sharia law on the streets of Wuppertal, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state with the largest Muslim population in Germany.
In what government officials say is a blatant challenge to the rule of law and the democratic order in Germany, groups of young bearded Islamists — some wearing orange traffic safety vests emblazoned with the words "Sharia Police" — have declared parts of downtown Wuppertal to be a "Sharia Controlled Zone."
The self-appointed guardians of public morals have been distributing yellow leaflets that explain the Islamist code of conduct in the city's Sharia zones. They have urged both Muslim and non-Muslim passersby to listen to Salafist sermons and to refrain from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling, listening to music, pornography or prostitution.
A seven-minute propaganda video in German, entitled "Sharia Police: Coming Soon to Your City," shows a group of men led by a German convert to Islam, Sven Lau, roaming the streets of Wuppertal at night and pressing wayward youth to embrace radical Islam. In some instances, the men physically attempted to prevent young people from entering bars, casinos and discotheques; those who resisted were pursued and intimidated.
After local residents alerted German authorities, police stepped up their presence in downtown Wuppertal and also established a telephone hotline to enable citizens to report any possible criminal activity.
Local authorities, however, appear uncertain about how to proceed.
Wuppertal Police Chief Birgitta Radermacher said the "pseudo police" represent a threat to the rule of law and that only police appointed and employed by the state have the legitimate right to act as police in Germany. She added:
"The monopoly of power lies exclusively with the State. Behavior that intimidates, threatens or provokes will not be tolerated. These 'Sharia Police' are not legitimate. Call 110 [police] when you meet these people."
Wuppertal Mayor Peter Jung said he hoped the police would take a hard line against the Islamists. "The intention of these people is to provoke and intimidate and force their ideology upon others," Jung said. "We will not permit this."
More than a dozen Islamists between the ages of 19 and 30 are now being investigated on charges of illegal assembly. But the men have not been arrested and police say they have no legal authority to confiscate the orange vests, even though impersonating a police officer is a crime. Wuppertal's Public Prosecutor, Wolf-Tilman Baumert, says it remains unclear whether the men have done anything illegal. "The mere explaining of religious rules is not a crime," he said.
The vigilantes are followers of Salafism, a radically anti-Western ideology that openly seeks to replace democracy in Germany (and the rest of the world) with an Islamic government based on Sharia law.
Salafist ideology posits that Sharia law is superior to all secular laws because it emanates from Allah, the only legitimate lawgiver, and thus is legally binding for all of humanity. According to the Salafist worldview, democracy is an effort to elevate the will of human beings above the will of Allah. As such, participation in the democratic process is polytheism (shirk in Arabic) and must be rejected.
The number of Salafists in Germany has spiked in recent years, and German authorities have been issuing increasingly dire warnings about the threat posed by the relentless encroachment of Salafist ideology there and in the rest of Europe.
Many of those attracted to Salafi ideology are impressionable young Muslims who, authorities say, are especially susceptible to perpetrating terrorist acts in the name of Islam.
In an interview with the German public television broadcaster ZDF, the director of domestic intelligence for North Rhine-Westphalia, Burkhard Freier, said that German Salafists are increasingly inclined to use violence to achieve their aims, and that many have travelled to Iraq or Syria to obtain combat training.
In June 2014, approximately 400 Salafists met for a barbecue "grill fest" in the Tannenbusch district of Bonn to listen to sermons by some of the most radical Salafist preachers in Germany. Police say the purpose of the gathering was to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the jihad in Syria. But after the event, groups of young Salafists began enforcing Sharia law in Bonn by forcing women to wear veils. In one instance, they beat a teenager for drinking alcohol at a party.
The audacity of the Salafists' actions in Wuppertal, however, has shocked the German public.
German politicians have responded by roundly denouncing the Sharia Police, although it remains unclear what they can and will do about the Salafist threat to Germany. "The Sharia will not be tolerated on German soil," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said. "No one shall presume to abuse the good name of the German police."
According to German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, Germany is a constitutional state: "The state alone — and not the self-proclaimed Sharia police — is responsible for the enforcement of laws," he said. "This much is sure: We will not tolerate an illegal parallel justice system."
The center-right politician Wolfgang Bosbach said:
"The Sharia Police is a very deliberate provocation by the Salafists, who want to challenge the rule of law. The police must act forcefully against such actions. We cannot accept that the population is provoked, confused or intimidated in this way."
A senior politician with the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Volker Kauder, said:
"We cannot tolerate under any circumstances that self-appointed Sharia police are patrolling our streets and want to dictate to people what they can and cannot do. In Germany, German law is determinative, not Sharia law."
The general secretary of the CDU, Peter Tauber, said:
"We must confront such Salafist machinations with all severity. We need to enact a ban on their activities as quickly as possible. It was a big mistake of the Red-Green coalition [a coalition of left and center-left parties that governed Germany from 1998 to 2005] to change the law so that anti-democratic propaganda is no longer a criminal offense. We must quickly correct this. The state must show that there is zero tolerance for ideologies and organizations in Germany that are aimed at abolishing our Basic Law."
Meanwhile, the trial of four Salafists — accused of planting a bomb at the main train station in Bonn in December 2012 and for plotting to murder an anti-Islam activist in Leverkusen in March 2013 — is set to begin in Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Authorities are worried that the trial, which could take up to two years, will provoke violent confrontations between Salafists and the many members of the different neo-Nazi groups based in North Rhine-Westphalia.
One such group, Die Rechte (The Right), has just founded its own vigilante group called Stadtschutz Wuppertal (Wuppertal City Guard), aimed at fighting the Sharia Police. In a statement, the group explained:
"Wuppertal activists from Die Rechte immediately agreed: If in our city Salafists are allowed to patrol the city's pedestrian zones as 'Sharia Police' and if police allow far left-wing criminal squatters to perpetrate their mischief in the Nordstadt district, then a counter pole must be created as soon as possible. Inspired by the successful model of the Stadtschutz in Dortmund, it was quickly agreed to take this form of action.
"After a very spontaneous legal training (thanks again to the party comrades from Dortmund!), the Stadtschutz Wuppertal was brought to life in less than 48 hours! New radios and red T-Shirts were purchased at personal expense. Several thousand leaflets presenting the new Stadtschutz Wuppertal are being printed and will soon be distributed.
"Together for more security, law and order in our city—DIE RECHTE 'Stadtschutz Wuppertal.'"
The implicit message to German authorities is that if they fail to stop the Salafist vigilantes, neo-Nazi vigilantes will do the job for them. No wonder many Germans have a strong sense of foreboding about what the future holds.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.