by Florian Flade
It is market-day in the streets of Eicken, West-Germany, about 50 kilometers north of Cologne. People are packing vegetables, fruits, flowers and other products into their cars, rolling in tents and sweeping away the trash that is left. The marketers hurry to leave the area. Soon the market place will be crowded with man with long, thick beards, wearing white, brown and green robes, their wives covered in black from head to toe.
Carpets are being rolled out, chairs brought in for the elderly and sick. The first TV camera crews arrive at the scene, positioning themselves. About 200 Muslim men and women, followers of the radical Salafi-branch of Islam, pray together on the marketplace of small town Eicken. They don´t want to worship here but they have been forced to because the city officials have closed their nearby mosque.
Now – since early September – they pray in the open, causing the emotions of local residents to boil. Scared by Islamization the people of Eicken rally against a new Islamic education center being build in the city. The construction was underway, when the municipals stopped it and destroyed the Salafi plan to establish an Islamic school.
Eicken has become a controversial case of integration and the freedom of religion in Germany. What happens if Salafis move into a neighborhood that had already been a multi-religious, multi-ethnical area? Is the building of an Islamic culture center only the excuse and final trigger to Anti-Islam behavior?
The story begins in a small suburb of the West-German city of Mönchengladbach, called Eicken. Earlier this year the leadership of the „Islam School“, an Online-based education center founded by the Turkish-German cleric Muhamed Ciftci (alias „Abu Anes“), decided to move its headquarter from Braunschweig to Mönchengladbach.
Donations were collected, funds raised and in late July Ciftci´s Islamic missionary organization „Einladung zum Paradies e.V.“ – EZP – (Invitation to Paradise), who is the umbrella organization for the Islam school, started construction at the new Islamic culture center in Eicken.
For years EZP operated a small mosque called „Masjid As Sunnah“ and a store selling religious items, books and Hajj vacations, in the quiet neighborhood of Eicken, Mönchengladbach. All together EZP occupied approximately 1,500 sq ft of the city. The number of worshippers was limited, bearded man in long robes lived here for years but had not become the common sight on the streets of Eicken. That was about to change.
In August news was spreading the Salafi missionary movement EZP had bought additional real estate, a former supermarket the size of about 10,750 sq ft, to enlarge the Masjid As Sunnah Mosque which should harbor the Islam School that was about to move over from Braunschweig.
Residents of Eicken expressed their anger and fear of a Salafi school being build in their neighborhood. Local newspapers reported about „Muslim fanatics“ coming to Eicken, ready to convert it´s residents to radical Islam. Members of the EZP-Organization were labeled as „hate-preachers“ and „supporters of Sharia“ who support cutting of heads of nonbelievers and intend to recruit young men and women for terrorist means.
In the light of growing anger and opposition, construction on the building at Eickener Street No.164 began. Then, early August, city council officials moved in. They had learned that since 2005 the organization EZP was lacking a permission to use the existing building including the mosque as an official gathering place. A Muslim Kindergarden run by EZP since 2008 was also regarded as illegal.
City officials said, the Islamic missionary movement had not requested a new permission for the use of the building´s rooms. As a consequence all activities must be stopped, as well as the construction of the new Islamic culture center.
During the holy month of Ramadan, EZP members did not stop worship at the As Sunnah Mosque and rooms of the nearby „ZamZam Shop“. They violated the city´s restrictions. On August 29th the police was called in and sealed the doors of the mosque.
On September 3th an urgent petition for a construction permit at Eickener Street 164 was rejected by the administrative court of Düsseldorf. In a statement released to EZP the Eicken municipality explained that there was no valid permission for the organization to use the building as a Islamic education or worship place. Therefore work at the construction sight has to stop immediately although the building is legally owned by EZP.
Since the court´s decision, Muslim worshippers took the streets of Eicken and turned the local market place into prayer grounds. Every Friday about 150-200 followers of the Salafi movement, long-bearded men in white robes, headscarfs, and women covered from head to toe join the EZP leadership in their Friday prayers under open skies.
It is a fairly ethnical mixed group of Turks, North Africans, Bosnians, Arabs, Russians and German converts who are not willing to give up their project of a religious school teaching virtues and theology of the Prophet´s era. For weeks now they occupy the public places of Eicken, demanding the city to allow the building of the school and worship center.
The leading figures of the the Salafi movement are known to German security and intelligence officials as promoters of a strict interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah. All of them are being monitored by German intelligence.
Head of the EZP-Organization is the Saudi-educated Turkish Imam Sheikh Muhamed Ciftci called „Abu Anes“. He founded the Islam School in Braunschweig in 2007 and claims to have educated several hundred German Muslims in his sermons and classes. Ciftci denounces violence against Non-Muslims and says he is acted in accordance to the German constitution.
In some of his Online-sermons Ciftci shows a different face, defending death punishment for those Muslims who turn away from Islam.
In February German police raided Ciftci´s house and the buildings used by EZP because the group distributed a book titled „The Woman under the Protection of Islam“. Published based on statements of Saudi scholars, the book said beating the wife is permitted for a Muslim man. Later Muhamed Ciftci claims he did not know this kind of content in the book he sold. Police, he said, never asked him to stop the selling of this literature instead acted aggressively against him and his organization.
German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution have been following Ciftci´s activities for years. Still, banning the „Einladung zum Paradies“ (EZP) was not an option yet.
In the annual report on Islamic extremism in Germany, EZP is rated as a dangerous group of Salafi extremists promoting a version of Islam that sticks to Prophet-time laws and lifestyle of the 7th century. Its ideology does not harmonize with the German constitution and is opposed to democracy. Nevertheless, members of EZP have not been suspected or charged with acts of violence or aggression. Rather they use a form of brain-washing to call young people, also Muslims of other sects, to their cause.
Only a handful of people who have later turned up as Jihadi terrorists attended lectures held by Muhamed Ciftci and other scholars of EZP. Most famously German converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider were present at Ciftcis „Islam camps“ before they travelled to Pakistan, joined the „Islamic Jihad Union“ and returned to Germany to blow up US Military bases in 2007.
Local representative of EZP and resident of Eicken, Mönchengladbach, is the official spokesman for Ciftci´s organization Sven Lau (Abu Adam), a 29 year-old convert to Islam. Lau – who is married to a Moroccan woman and has three children – has positioned himself at the frontline in the ongoing dispute between the Salafi worshippers and the citizens of Eicken who oppose the EZP´s plan.
During Friday sermons Lau is urging the people of Eicken not to fear the Muslims in their neighborhood. „Nobody needs to be afraid“, the convert tells the crowd, „We are open for dialogue, we are open for all people to come to us and talk to us.“ EZP´s Islam school is not a terrorist training center, the group´s spokesman assures German TV. All his organization wants is a place of worship and learning about Islam.
Of course he cannot denounce Allah´s law written in the Quran, Lau admits, including stoning as the Sharia punishment for adultery and the beating of women. However these habits can only be practiced in a country ruled by Islamic Law, says Sven Lau. Does he wish Germany would be ruled by Sharia? His answer: „There is a difference between what the heart of the believer wants and what is reality“.
Eicken´s residents do not know what to make of the strange sect members who rushed into their city. Some accept their right for religious freedom, others see Germany´s future at risk by allowing the radicals to spread their ideology that is opposed to man-made law like democracy.
Most people feel afraid, fearing a slow but steady Islamization and predict there will be violence against all those who think different from the Salafi ideology.
„Up to today I had not problem with these people“, a 67year old man living next door to the „As Sunnah“ Mosque says, „But now this controversial Islam school is moving into our neigborhood – this is a new quality of integration difficulty.“
Less people visit the local shops when the Muslims are praying in the streets, Dirk Esker a shoe shop-owner tells. „In general I think everybody must be allowed to practice his or her belief“, a 54-year old Muslim resident of Eicken says, „But Eicken has always been a peaceful, friendly part of the city. It is okay for some people to use the law of religious freedom to promote their radical, intolerant world view.“
„I´m scared“, says a woman observing the praying Salafis on the market place in Eicken, „I´m sure something violent will happen at some time.“ Nobody feels comfortable having ultraconservative Muslims around, another resident argues – „This is Germany not Afghanistan.“
A few meters away from the men crowd of Muslims, the Salafi wives show up, some wearing Niqab, the black veil that covers all of the face except for the eyes. This unusual sighting causes controversy. The sceptical Non-Muslim bystanders look at the women afraid, even hateful. „I thought there was a ban for covering the face in public“, one local woman asks, „I don´t want them to wear these veils in Germany.“
Especially women´s rights are a huge concern for those opposing Muhamed Ciftci, Sven Lau and the others. Women make up a large percentage of the hundreds of protesters on the streets of Eicken, waving banners reading „NO TO SALAFISM“ or „Multiculturalism: YES – Radical Islam: NO“. Quoting verses from the Quran and throwing in world news events like the planned stoning of a woman in Iran, Eicken women attack the Islamic worshippers, calling their demand illegitimate.
When the EZP members began praying in the streets under police protection, the residents of Eicken started their own campaign against the Salafi school. Supported by right-wing groups like „Pro NRW“ and the ultranationalist party NPD, the people of Eicken express rejection to the Islamic culture center.
Wilfried Schultz is the leader of the Anti-Salafi rally in Mönchengladbach´s suburb. In front of TV cameras he engages with the Muslim activists telling them „Eicken does not want Sharia“.
There were all kinds of religions in the neighborhood, Schultz says, „Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhist, and they all lived together in peace. Now there are the extremists and we reject them.“
Monday evening about 200 Eicken residents came together in a townhall meeting at the local theatre. A civil rights group named „Bürger für Mönchengladbach“ was founded, declaring its goal: Getting rid of the Salafis in town.
The opposition´s toughest enemy is a 31-year old former Boxer from Cologne who converted to Islam about ten years ago. Pierre Vogel (known as „Abu Hamza“) is EZP´s most charismatic supporter and without any doubt one of the most famous Muslim preachers and converts in the country. For many he is the symbol of radical Islam in Germany today.
With his read beard, the wide smile on his face and his loose tongue in the Cologne-accent, Vogel has managed to turn his personal story of turning Muslim into a successful missionary business.
He went to Saudi-Arabia to learn Arabic and study Islam, returned to Germany months later because his baby daughter suffered from a heart failure. Back in Germany he decided to convert the nation to Islam via the internet. Vogel´s website „DieWahreReligion“ (TheTrueReligion) became Germany´s first Salafi missionary movement reaching out especially to teenagers and young man who were seeking a meaning and purpose in their lives. Today it almost merged with the EZP.
Within a few years Pierre Vogel´s online center transformed into an organization financed by donations and with ties to other countries. Supporters of Vogel organize information campaigns on the streets, in front of shopping centers and churches, handing out leaflets and books about Prophet Muhammed and the equality of men and women in Islam, for free.
Now Vogel is eager to convince the Eicken residents about the harmlessness and peaceful agenda of the planned Islam school. In order to speak at the EZP´s rally in Mönchengladbach, Vogel flew in from his Ramadan vacation in Qatar, grabing the microphone to face the „liars and haters of the media“.
„We are the only ones preaching against terror“, Vogel says, „Now we are accused of supporting terror.“ Islam is the religion of Jesus and Moses as well as the religion of Abraham, the convert explains to the resident´s of Eicken. His wish for all the people of this city and the whole country is to accept Islam and save themselves from hellfire. „Islam is the true religion of God“ , Vogel claims, „We don´t hide from anybody. We say very clearly: Yes we are fundamentalists based on Quran and Sunnah.“
Then the self-proclaimed preacher turns to the media, accusing them of stirring up hatred and Islamophobia. As a prime example Vogel calls a reporter for German private TV channel RTL onto the stage. In a Question & Answer debate Vogel exposes the alleged „media liar“ and makes his point by showing he is only acting according to German law even if that causes the majority of people to hate him.
In a Youtube video, Vogel lists the names of journalist who have reported about the Eicken event and criticized the EZP or a person affiliated with it. „We know who you are“, Pierre Vogel says in the video threat, „You should be ashmed of yourself for telling these lies!“ His supporters turn the words of the online preacher into action, threatening journalists on the streets and using their own cameras to document the news coverage and interviews.
German politicians have been rather calm on the issue of the Islam school in Eicken. Minister for Integration in German federal state of Northrhine-Westphalia Guntram Schneider (Social-Democratic Party) says: „Radical minorities do not deserve any tolerance, be they Muslim or any other religion.“ He does not wish for an Islam school to come to Mönchengladbach, Schneider tells a local newspaper, „their image of women´s rights is scary.“
Member of Parliament Dr.Günter Krings (Christian-Democratic Party) warned radical institutions like the Eicken Islam school are the breeding ground for terrorism. „We must oppose this with all resolutness“, Krings says.
The reason for the political silence on Eicken might be rooted in the fact that just a short while ago former politician Thilo Sarrazin published a controversial book criticizing German immigrant policy. No book has ever caused such hate and debate in Germany in the past 50 oder 60 years. While the government is trying to shut Sarrazin up, the people on the streets are applauding his statements and theories about foreigners, especially Muslims, living in the country.
No wonder in the streets of Eicken Sarrazin´s book will soon become the weapon of choice for those who want to turn the event into an Anti-Islam-protest. As in so many other areas of Europe since 9/11, in Eicken the rise of native political extremists lays in the rejection of foreign religious extremists.