The 200 robed and bearded men gathered at dusk on the market square, rolled out their prayer rugs and intoned Allah’s praises as dismayed townspeople looked on.
It was Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and the group that calls itself “Invitation to Paradise” was mounting a defiant response to weeks of public protests against construction of a religious school to teach its austere, militant interpretation of Islam.
In Germany, where the racial crimes of the Nazis have bred extreme sensitivity toward the rights of minorities, such confrontations would until recently have been limited to the far-right margins. The weekly rallies in this city of 250,000 near the Dutch border these days look decidedly mainstream.
It’s part of a trend seen across Europe: Spooked by what many see as a terrorism threat, ordinary people are becoming increasingly vocal in opposing radical Muslims. They are ditching traditions of tolerance and saying no to cultures that do not share their democratic values. Some lament the decline of multiculturalism – “Utterly failed,” in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – while others say Europe is defending its way of life against those who would destroy it.
In the Netherlands, anti-immigrant sentiment has risen steadily since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic. In elections this year, the anti-Islam “Freedom Party” of Geert Wilders emerged as the country’s third-largest political force and is helping a conservative government keep campaign promises to ban the burqa, cut immigration and imprison illegal aliens.
Swiss voters have approved a ban on minarets, an anti-Islamic party has gotten into the Swedish parliament for the first time, and France’s ban on wearing face-covering veils in public has broad popular support.
Germans are even more negative toward Muslims than their European neighbors, according to a survey published Thursday.
While the majority of the Dutch (62 percent), French (56 percent), and Danes (55 percent) think positively of Muslims, compared with only 34 percent in western Germany and 26 percent in the formerly communist east, the poll by the University of Muenster said.
The pollsters said they questioned 1,000 people in western Germany, 1,000 in eastern Germany and 1,000 in each of the other European countries surveyed. They gave a margin of error of three percentage points.
The man leading the opposition to the religious school in Moenchengladbach is Wilfried Schultz, a 60-year-old Internet consultant. His group, “Citizens for Moenchengladbach,” points to online videos of groups that call for the execution of secular Muslims, demand women never leave their homes without male chaperones and say people who have sex before marriage will go to hell.
“We are not going to tolerate that these Islamists undermine our liberal German values,” said Schultz.
Some Muslims in Germany also are dismayed and are trying to recruit community leaders to blunt the hard-liners’ appeal.
“These extremists often fill a vacuum because they give very simple answers to extremely difficult questions in life,” said Mohammed Assila, a Moroccan-born municipal official in Hilden, a town next to Moenchengladbach which has a large Moroccan community.
The Invitation to Paradise group says it numbers about 400 adherents, a mere scattering among the 9,000 Turks in Moenchengladbach, some of whom have been here since the 1960s and are more likely to dress in Western clothing and speak good German.
Schultz said the hard-line group began arriving about five years ago, robed men and veiled women who stood out in sharp contrast to other Muslims of Moenchengladbach.
The problems began in July when news came of the planned school for 200 students not far from the city center.
“That’s when we decided we had to take action,” Schultz said. He and about 250 others staged weekly protests on the market square. They collected thousands of signatures and formed alliances with local lawmakers, church leaders and moderate Muslim imams.
A few weeks ago the city banned further construction on the school, citing security concerns. The congregation is suing to have the decision reversed.
Invitation to Paradise says its membership comprises immigrants and native German converts to Islam.
“We don’t belong to al-Qaida, we’re not terrorists and we don’t oppress women,” Adnan Beslija, a 29-year-old Bosnian, said at Zam Zam, the group’s shop in Moenchengladbach whose wares include caftans, veils and package pilgrimages to Mecca.
Beslija, who has a long brown beard and a dark prayer mark on his forehead, says his congregation has the right to practice its religion freely just like Christians, Buddhists or Jews.
German intelligence services, however, say they have an eye on Invitation to Paradise because it belongs to the Salafist movement, which often has been linked to terror plots and seeks to revive strict Muslim doctrine dating back to the era of the 6th century Prophet Muhammad.
“Not every Salafist turns into a terrorist, but we know that future terrorists have almost always visited Salafist workshops and schools,” writes the intelligence service of the state of Lower Saxony, where Invitation to Paradise also is active.
“Their indoctrination has a radicalizing influence, and that’s one reason why these schools are dangerous,” it says in its 2009 report.
So far, Germany has not been attacked by Islamic terrorists, but several plots have been foiled, and last month the government raised its security level nationwide.
German converts and young immigrants are considered a particular security threat by intelligence services. Germany’s Federal Criminal Police office says it has “concrete evidence” that 70 have traveled to Pakistan’s lawless border region for terrorism training in recent years, and about a third have returned to Germany.
Schultz is a soft-spoken, bespectacled man who studied theology and law, has three children and lives in a book-filled 19th-century town house. “We are not some far-right fringe movement against foreigners,” he said. “We are moderate Germans: businessmen, academics, store owners.” His group also has Italian and Spanish members, he said.
What his group is doing may once have seemed out of place in Germany, but today it reflects a broader trend.
A catalyst for protest has been a recent book by a pillar of the establishment, former central bank board member Thilo Sarrazin, which uses blunt, often harsh language to portray Muslim immigrants as welfare cases weakening German society and making it “dumber.” Although condemned by Merkel and other leading politicians, it is a best-seller that has struck a chord among many Germans who fear their language, culture and generosity are being abused.
Last month, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere attended a town hall meeting in Moenchengladbach organized by Schultz and said the government was checking whether Invitation to Paradise could be banned as unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the Muslims have set up a tent outside the building where they meet for daily prayers.
“We don’t give up,” Beslija said. “Young people will continue to join our group whether there is a Quran school in Moenchengladbach or not.”
It has no trouble getting out its message on the Internet and reaching web-savvy young immigrants who do not understand local Arabic-speaking imams.
The group has conducted several recruitment drives in Hilden, Moenchengladbach’s neighbor, according to Assila, the town’s intercultural adviser.
He said Hilden has reacted by bringing its immigrant leaders into a project to fight extremism. But in the long run, he said, the most important thing is for young immigrants not to feel excluded from mainstream German society.
“These kids get discriminated against every single day,” said Assila. “As long as they don’t belong to German society, they will continue to look for a different kind of community that makes them feel welcome.”
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