English version of "Schluss mit Dschihad"
This is the story of 22-year-old Peter, who a year ago was determined to move to Syria and join the jihad. And it is the story of the 45-year-old Leipzig imam Hesham Shashaa, called Abu Adam, who has been working for eight months to make Peter a peace-loving Muslim.
They’re an unlikely pair. Abu Adam is big, loud and strong; he wears a floor-length robe and a red-patterned headscarf. The imam looks like Osama bin Laden. Peter, however, is very quiet and so skinny you’d think a breeze could knock him over. He wears jeans and a shirt, and has rather long hair and blue eyes. DIE ZEIT visited them twice: last fall in Leipzig and then early February this year in Spain, where Peter, whose name has been changed by the author, is today going to high school.
"I got 86 percent on the biology test," Peter says and takes one of the stewed tomatoes on the table in the house on the Costa Blanca.
"I expected better," replies Abu Adam. "You want to study medicine, don’t you?"
"I know, I have to work harder," says Peter.
Peter’s not alone. Thousands of young Muslims in Germany have been radicalized in recent years. More than 600 have travelled to Syria, joined terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS), and learned shooting or bomb-making. About 190 have returned, some of whom are considered dangerous. Peter could have been one of them. Imam Abu Adam wants to prevent just that.
Leipzig, last September. For the last two months, Peter has been living in the house of Abu Adam, a slightly run-down suburban villa. They eat together, pray together, and when Abu Adam has appointments in or outside of Germany, Peter travels with him. "We’ve put thousands of miles behind us in the car," says the imam. "Peter constantly bombarded me with questions until my head almost burst."
Peter is not his first case. Abu Adam has developed his own de-radicalization strategy and Peter, he says, is in phase one: "He has to learn to love me."
This means that a personal relationship be forged. So they talk: about family, food, friendship - nothing is off limits. The authority of Abu Adams as a scholar of Islam is one cornerstone. "We've discussed every detail of Peter’s extremism, every misinterpreted Sura of the Quran, every misunderstood word of the prophet," says the imam. Peter nods: "Abu Adam knocked me off my feet. He has so much more knowledge than those people I had been following." But Peter knows that he is not out of the woods yet. "If I were to lose Abu Adam now and go back to such people, I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to defend myself."
"O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends." You can translate Sura 5, verse 51 of the Quran this way. Extremists regularly rely on this quote to isolate Muslims from believers of other faiths, and to sow hostility. "But they’re uneducated," says Abu Adam. The Sure refer to a concrete historical situation, therefore it contains no general provisions. More radical schools see this otherwise, but Abu Adam calls upon the example of the Prophet in his interpretation: "He had a Coptic and Jewish wife. Because they hated him? Because he hated them? That's absurd!" The Prophet also expressed his love for unconverted dead relatives.
So: a Muslim may be friends with non-Muslims. That was one of the first lessons that Abu Adam gave Peter, who had been afraid to associate with unbelievers.
Peter is intelligent, polite, but has "little to show on paper," he says, referring to his unsuccessful school career. He is an unstable personality. Nothing should be written about his family to protect their anonymity. He didn’t grow up a Muslim. His conversion happened at school.
In 2012, he sat next to a guy in physics class who said to him: "Everything we learn here is already in the Quran." Peter was impressed. He had been looking for God for a long time. Was this the sign he was looking for?, he asked himself.
He accompanied his friend to the mosque. "There I experienced how warmly Muslims treat each other. I felt like I was part of it," he says today. He was sure he had found the truth. He converted at his second Friday prayer. "I couldn’t wait. I thought: What if I die without being a Muslim?"
As a newly converted Muslim Peter was content. But soon he began to doubt his friend: Is he really that religious himself? Peter wanted to experience Islam with more devotion than this guy – more zealously, more stringent. In a western German city Peter easily made contact with radical Islamists. This is where religion is taken seriously, he concluded. Soon after meeting them, the discussions revolved around the war in Syria. Shouldn’t we be supporting our brothers there?, they asked.
Peter is a dreamer -- and hot-tempered. At one point, Peter beat up a person close to him – which cost three months in detention awaiting trial. In prison his urge to join the war only grew stronger: "I had cellmates who were for jihad," he says today. One of them had been with terrorist groups in Pakistan and Somalia. "I talked to them a lot -- until I was determined to go himself."
When he was released in spring 2014, Peter has a plan. He wants to do medical training in order to increase his chances of survival in the war. "I dreamed that I wanted to be able to say: I’ve been on the battlefield for thirty years!" And he knows who to talk to in order to get smuggled to Syria.
At that point, his mother realized that something was wrong. She read his Facebook postings with the IS flag on them, and understood that her son had become a radical. But who should she ask for help?, she wondered.
Peter's mother asked around until she learned of Abu Adam. Even though he has no office and no official mandate, the social services and counseling centers know about his work with radicals. Peter’s mother arranged a meeting. She hoped that her son would take the imam seriously, open up to him. And indeed this happened: "And now I 'm in rehab," Peter says.
When Abu Adam walks around Leipzig, people look at him. When he sits down in a pizzeria, his sons and Peter in tow with him, some guests move a step away. Abu Adam knows that. "I smile," he says and does so. "The Prophet always smiled." Then the imam orders pizza with chicken.
Abu Adam is an enigmatic figure. As a stateless Palestinian, he grew up in Egypt, and studied the Quran studies and Islamic law in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. He later made his way to Romania and then Munich, where he built a mosque. Since 2012 he has lived in Leipzig. The theologian with multiple degrees holds lectures across the world, trains imams, and is working on an Islamic Encyclopedia, which adds up to a basic income. He is currently also an imam and preacher for the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Kuwait. He has four wives (three of them under Islamic law), is conservative and orthodox. "But faith must not be a ghetto," he says. When Abu Adam delivers ten children at once to school in the morning, he speaks at ease with other parents – including women and non-Muslims.
In 2012, one of Germany's State Office for the Protection of the Constitution – Germany’s domestic intellgence service -- labeled Abu Adam as a Salafist. It claimed that he reject pluralistic society, has repeatedly stated that a woman should not leave the house without her husband's permission, and during the Gaza War in a 2009 held a sermon that was derogatory about Jews. He wants a theocracy, which would be inconsistent with the separation of powers, the rule of law and the parliamentary system. He had posted three videos with extremist content. His distancing himself from extremism, it was stated in view of the 2012 findings was "questionable."
"Lies," says Abu Adam, "at best misunderstandings." For years, he has railed publicly against Al Qaeda and the IS, and has been threatened with death for it. And he denies the accusations. Women can't leave the house only with the consent of the husband? "This applies to both spouses! They should confer with one another before going anywhere." The Jews? "I talked about Israeli soldiers murdering the children - that yes. But I never bad-mouth Christians or Jews, never!" And theocracy? Abu Adam laughs. "I was at conferences in government ministries, with police officers and politicians, in order to fight against extremism! When the Social Democrats invite me - I come. Would I do this if I hate this state?" The videos he posted as a provocation in order to" lure the extremists out of their holes," he says.
Abu Adam's thinking is not easy to understand. The city-state of Medina in the 7th century is an ideal for him. At the same time, he says: "Islam is not against a system, it is against the bad in a system." As far as he’s concerned, there’s no contradiction here. But for others there is. But be that as it may, he is somebody who can reach out to radicals and change their minds.
"I’ve known Abu Adam for a long time and believe the charges are a misinterpretation," says Claudia Dantschke, one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Muslim community in Germany and director of the counseling center Hayat, which helps families whose children have radicalized. Abu Hayat supports Adam’s work, financially, through fees. Peter, says Claudia Dantschke, had to get out of the scene, physically. His radical mentor had to be replaced -- by Abu Adam."
"We have created a network around him," says Dantschke. The city's youth support program is involved, too. Although Abu Adam is the primary contact person for Peter, others organize Peter’s social welfare or look for donors because the de-radicalization projects always lack money.
Directly in front of Abu Adams house, an accident happened on the day of my visit. In a cruiser two policemen were sitting and securing the crash site. In the evening, Abu Adam stepped up to the car door and offered the officers biscuits and water. "You haven’t eaten or drank anything all day," he says. The police initially resist, obviously confused. Then they acquiesce.
Four months later, in a village on the Costa Blanca. Heavy winds from off the sea blow and shake the palm trees. Abu Adam has rented a big house here because some of his children currently attend a international school nearby where they learn Spanish and English. He puts up Peter in an apartment a few kilometers away. Two more years, then Peter can re-take his high school exams.
How is Peter today? "Phase two," says Abu Adam, "He now has to become self-reliant. Now he needs to learn that it’s wrong just to imitate. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s why one shouldn’t follow someone else so easily." The two see less of one another now. This hurts Peter but he understands it. "Pray, sleep, learn, lots of routine," is how describes his new life.
The school wasn’t the only reason for the move to Spain. In Germany Peter was too close to the radical scene. It tugged at him. Old friends contacted him and a relapse wasn’t out of the question. "He's in quarantine," says Abu Adam.
Today Peter looks back at his plan to go to Syria as "naïve". What motivated him then? "Compassion for Syria’s Muslims," he says. Armed struggle looked like the only way to him. And, of course, there was the matter of the Islamic state, which would be built there: an ideal seemingly close enough to touch. Abu Adam says that many young radicals suffer from the gap between ideals and reality. "You have to teach them: Allah has told us that there will be evil forever. Learn to live with the fact that the world isn’t perfect. "
When recruiters look for reinforcements for the front, they declare fighting a duty for every Muslim. Peter believed this, too. How does Abu Adam counter this idea? The imam lets it rip: According to orthodox doctrine, the governments of the countries concerned would have to agree in order for there to be an obligation to fight. This is because "Jihad is not a private decision." Thus the authorities in this case would be the German and Syrian governments, namely Merkel and Assad. This may sound absurd. But it is an original Muslim argument. Second, parents must consent before a fighter can leave. Third, the Syrians hardly need the help of a few hundred Germans. Fourth, this is a conflict between Muslims, or "Fitna", which innocent Muslims should avoid. And fifth, God did not create man so that he would throw his life away.
"What Abu Adam does, this is like helping a smoker quit by giving him electronic cigarettes", one intelligence service officer noted critically. "There is no other option but to work with religious knowledge," is Abu Adam's answer. "This drove them there, and only this can bring them back."
Peter admits that some of the old thoughts revisit him from time to visit. "What if they’re not all evil?", for example. But he also says: "I wouldn’t go anymore."
Abu Adam comments: "Peter is no longer infected. But he still has a long way to go." At the end of this path in phase six: Peter should actively engage against extremists.
Translation: Paul Hockenos