I used to be an Islamist

Ahmad Mansour tells of how he turned his back on the allure of religious fundamentalism

Can Islam learn to accept democracy?
Ahmad Mansour
On 4 April 2013 14:51

With this inner alienation, I slowly found my interest in girls started to exceed my fear of hell and I was on my way out of this ideological grip. But hardly anyone else in the Islamic school had the same experience, and most of them remained true to their beliefs and became followers of either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists.

Finding relief was a long process

At the University of Tel Aviv as a psychology student, I began to read Freud and learn about history and sociology and discussed these topics with other students. Gradually I broke away from the imam and other religious authorities. Liberation came after a lengthy process and to this day, it sometimes causes me guilt to have a glass of wine. But nowadays at least I can smile about it.

To complete my studies, I went to Berlin’s Humboldt University in 2005. Since then, I have collaborated on projects with the aim of sparking dialogue with fellow Muslim citizens. With both adolescents and adults, we discuss radicalisation, anti-Semitism and violence in education. In many conversations I experienced how somebody could start finally to think for himself.

But I am becoming more frightened when I see what is happening in Germany today. Radical varieties of Islam are not only gaining currency in migrant communities, but also among Germans. Salafists, just like my former imam, are trying to win children and young people over. Preachers like Abu Nagi or Pierre Vogel and their followers provide refuge, acceptance and guidance to children and adolescents.

While the setting has changed, the content remains the same. With just a few clicks of a mouse, young people can find websites on the Internet in German, advertising a type of Islam that seems pure and full of promise, which uses enticing design, sounds and video games. Bearded Salafists acting as self-appointed street workers seek to gather young people away from drugs and alcohol and instead offer religion as a substitute:

At workshops I hear complaints from the parents of German converts, who say that their children refuse to celebrate their birthdays as they call it haram or impure and at Christmas and Easter time they don’t want to have anything to do with the family.

Meanwhile the (German) Interior Ministry has since broken up several Salafist associations like DawaFFM and Islamische Audios. But its ideologues remain and new associations have since sprung up. About 10,000 people are classed as organised Salafists and their sympathisers are estimated to be ten times that figure.

Once adolescents come under the spell of Salafist preachers they begin to act as cult members: limp marionettes held by an iron hand. Critical thinking is not tolerated. They learn about a God who does not listen to reason; doubts and individual feelings are taboo.

It benefits the religious leaders that the average Muslim’s comprehension of Islam is composed of authoritarian features. Adolescents are left vulnerable to those who tell them what to do and how to behave. In some cases, it goes to the lengths of telling youths which foot to use when entering the bathroom, because they must follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed. In their eyes democracy is an abominable system, which leads to gay marriage and social ills.

School day knocks can lead to violence

Against the backdrop of my experience I ask people to monitor carefully Salafism and analyse its ideologies more clearly. Society shouldn’t allow itself to be misled and to only pay attention when Salafists and Islamists are preaching about the use of bombs. Indeed the jihadists, inspired by Salafists who are ready to use violence, are still a minority. But the security forces focus on just the incitement to violence, while ignoring other anti-democratic rhetoric.

Sometimes an imam who pays lip service to democracy is even celebrated as progressive and this is where the delusion begins. Violence doesn’t only occur when people are ready to kill in the name of religion. Problems in education and marriage also lead to violence, as does propaganda about gender-discrimination, the claim of exclusivity of one’s religion, the declining state of democracy, or the belief of having to save others from a godless life – all represent facets that can incite violence.

Unfortunately, some Muslim organisations use the current debate to scapegoat Salafists for all radical tendencies inside Islam. They try to disprove some of their own extremist views. Salafism has to be acknowledged as a phenomenon, which propagates an extreme version of Islam with cultish aspects.

Anybody who wants to combat Salafism in Germany has to grapple with it critically and differentiate it from Islam. Unfortunately many Muslim organisations shy away from this, as they are fearful of being tainted by association. Yet many still harbour admiration for Salafists as they consider them to be truly devout Muslims.

Right-wing populists are bent on implementing expulsion policies. On the left, there is a clear tendency to shy away from conflict and attribute the phenomenon of radicalised Muslims to discrimination in society.

To debate Salafism, one has to discuss the values and strengths of democracy. It has to be done without anxiety, judgment or taboos and must be undertaken within Muslim communities. There is a need for a re-interpretation of Islam, which accepts democracy and has clear positions with respect to a country’s constitution. Only via this route can Muslims find freedom of interpretation in Islam and democracy.

Ahmad Mansour, EFD Policy Advisor, is an Arab-Israeli who has been living in Berlin since 2004. In addition, he is a Research Associate at the Centre for Democratic Culture, part of the Astiu Project (Conflict with Islamic extremism and ultra-nationalism) and is a member of the Prevention Work with Youths working group at the German Islam Conference

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