BERLIN—Ferid Heider, a young and popular imam in Berlin, began hearing stories of threats and intimidation after three radical gunmen killed 17 people in Paris in a series of attacks last month. They continued as a new attack in Copenhagen raised fears about Islam, again, and anti-terror police raided homes and mosques across Europe.
One young woman, who wears a headscarf, told him that after the Paris shootings, a stranger hissed at her on the street that she “should be killed.” Other congregants tell him they feel they have to answer for crimes they didn’t commit.
“We feel this pressure every day,” Heider said. “The public wants the Muslims to explain themselves or say sorry.”
While Germany has not see the sort of retaliatory violence that left mosques in France charred, the latest terrorist attacks in Europe have surfaced undercurrents of hostility toward Muslims that make them feel like outsiders in their own homes.
Heider—a former radical-turned-jovial youth group leader—isn’t bothered by a little scrutiny of his community. In fact, over the years, he has come to see openness as a way forward amid rising tensions in Europe.
“We have to open our mosques and talk to people to take the fear and prejudice away,” says Heider, who posts his sermons on Facebook and welcomes anyone into his mosque who are curious to hear him preach.
He encourages those he works with to embrace a similar attitude but occasionally encounters protests. Why is the burden always on Muslims, they want to know. And some—out of anger and frustration—edge closer to justifying the attacks, he says. Perhaps the killings in Paris and Copenhagen were wrong, but surely they happened for a reason, they argue.
Heider responds that the Prophet Mohammad himself would not condone the violence carried out in his name.
Yet even as he cites verses from the Koran that supports his position, he isn’t able to convince everyone that violence is not the answer to insult—and he understands why. As the son of a Polish mother and Iraqi father growing up in Germany, Heider knows what it feels like to be an outsider, looking for a place to belong.
His own search led him to Cairo where, as a teenager, he encountered a radical version of Islam. He says he never took up violence but that, for a time, he saw the world in dangerous black-and-white terms.
Eventually he was drawn to more moderate forms of Islam.
Now, at 34 and as a father of two, he preaches tolerance while keenly aware that Europe has become increasingly polarized.
Many trace the divisions to the 9/11 attacks, which were plotted in the German city of Hamburg. Besides revealing the vulnerability of Western cities to terrorist attacks, they also ignited fears of Muslim communities within those cities. Since then, reports of radical imams, German-born jihadis and terror cells crisscrossing Europe have become fixtures in the German news.
Against this backdrop, blogs like ‘Politically Incorrect,’ which bills itself as the “digital cheerleader of Islamophobia,” gained traction while a somewhat more nuanced book about the threat Muslim immigration poses to German identity became a nationwide bestseller.
Late last year, tensions spilled onto the streets of Germany in a series of ugly demonstrations against Muslims in the West organized by a group known as Pegida, or the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
Between 25,000 and 40,000 people marched at one rally in the eastern city of Dresden last month, with young men wearing armbands that called Nazi uniforms to mind.
Crowds growing, flags going up at pegida “anti-Islamization of Europe” rally in Dresden. pic.twitter.com/ohJ56srwZd
— Emily Feldman (@Emily_Feldman) January 12, 2015
Some protesters held signs depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who has spoken out against Pegida — in a headscarf.
One Pegida marcher’s answer: “Mrs Merkel: the people are here.” pic.twitter.com/136luRpIJ5
— Derek Scally (@DerekinBerlin) January 12, 2015
Pegida, which was launched on Facebook in October, has spread to other countries. A rally is planned this Saturday to be held in the United Kingdom.
“I’m not optimistic,” Heider says of the current tension in German society. “We are a global world. Everything in Syria and Iraq will have consequences in Europe.”
Indeed, conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other Muslim countries have fueled tensions. Instability throughout the region has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe, with many of them settling in Germany.
At the same time, thousands of Muslims from the West — including some 500 from Germany — have left home to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the group’s blood-soaked campaign to restore the caliphate.
Though the number of German Muslims who have joined ISIS represents just a tiny fraction of the country’s estimated 4.8 million Muslims — the second largest Muslim population in Western Europe per capita after France — it has spread fears that the next terrorist might be lurking next door.
Caught in the middle are the majority of Muslims — from secular to pious, third-generation to refugees — who, amid all the tension and scrutiny, feel pushed farther toward the margins of German society.
Ozlem Topuz, a 38-year-old secular Muslim from Turkey, moved to Germany as a child.
As a child, she hoped that she would eventually feel more welcomed in her adopted country. Instead, she says, things got worse.
“When I was 10 or 11 I would think to myself, Germany will grow up with me,” she says. “But it doesn’t change.”
It’s a vicious circle as the marginalization of Muslims fuels radicalization, says Cornelia Lotthammer, who works for The Violence Prevention Network, an anti-extremism organization originally founded to counter right-wing groups which is now also monitoring “violent Islamists””
“Two years ago we didn’t talk about ‘returnees'” Lotthammer said, referring to German Muslims who have traveled to Syria to fight alongside radical groups like ISIS before attempting to return home to Germany. “Here and there problems with Islamists popped up, but not like now.”
Recruits — most of whom are not from particularly religious Muslim families — want to feel a sense of belonging, Lotthammer says. “It’s what everyone wants — and these terror groups offer it.”
Within the Muslim community, people are fearful of radicalization, too.
“Mothers and fathers are afraid of their kids joining ISIS,” says Turan Hilmi Kaya, a Turkish-born activist in Germany. “And it’s a fact that some of them do.”
While these are dark days, Kaya is pleased that people have at least begun to talk about the dangers of radical interpretations of Islam. “Everyone must confront, read and talk about it and not be silent,” he said.
He thinks that the German government is doing a lot to acknowledge and crack down on discrimination.
But members of the Muslim community are also speaking up.
After police raided several apartments in Berlin last month, arresting two Turkish men believed to be part of a cell that plotting an attack in Syria, Muslim leaders hit the streets to denounce terror. Just days earlier they were joined by other religious leaders as well as Chancellor Merkel, who confronted intolerance at a rally beneath Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate.
Heider, the imam, was there and thrilled to hear Merkel not only denounce racism and hate, but declare, boldly, that “Islam is part of Germany.”
“That is a very important sentence for us all,” he said.
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