BERLIN — Once a fundamentalist Salafist, Ahmad Mansour has turned into one of Europe’s most outspoken critics of radical Islam.
Born and raised in the Israeli-Arab village of Tira (northeast of Kfar Saba), Mansour studied psychology at Tel Aviv University before moving to Berlin. In the German capital, he made it his mission to fight the radicalization of young Muslims in Germany.
“One of the reasons why the redemption offered by the Islamists is so attractive to people with a Muslim cultural background is that it rests on religious ideas and cultural motives they are familiar with,” Mansour told The Times of Israel in a recent Berlin interview.
“So the challenge to German society is not only to respond to the problems of these young people before the Salafists and Islamists catch them, but also to educate them in a Western attitude that will make them immune to Islamist incitement,” he said.
A frequent guest on German television talk shows and a regular newspaper contributor, Mansour argues that Europeans should not be overly tolerant of the outdated values prevalent in Muslim subcultures throughout the Continent. To do so, he says, would come at the expense of Western democratic ideals.
Mansour warns that these ghetto societies are breeding grounds from which jihadist organizations recruit terrorists that execute assaults inside and outside of Europe.
Indeed, many of the recent terror attacks on European targets were committed by locals — citizens of Great Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany — including the November 2015 Paris attacks, the March 2016 Brussels bombings, the April 2016 stabbing of a German police officer in Hannover, and this week, Manchester.
British-born Salman Abedi was identified as the suicide bomber who killed 22 people, including several children, on Monday at a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, northwest England.
What’s more, a significant number of Europeans travel to the Middle East to fight alongside IS, Al Qaeda and other Islamist militias in countries like Afghanistan, Syria or Pakistan. Therefore, Mansour insists, jihadism is not only a foreign policy problem but a domestic one as well, given the amount of European homegrown terrorism.
As a program director, counselor and educator, Mansour educates young people growing up in insular Muslim communities and tries to immunize them against inciters seeking to recruit them for jihadism.
He works with organizations such as the European Foundation for Democracy, HAYAT, which offers counseling to those at risk of influence by violent radicals, and the HEROES educational initiative for immigrants.
He also counsels families and peers of mostly young radical Muslims with the goal of helping them influence their loved ones for the better.
His recent book “Generation Allah,” which is a bestseller in Germany, has been celebrated as a wake-up call to German society and a courageous critique — not only of radical Islam, but also of German attitudes towards it.
Mansour is the recipient of a number of awards, but he is also the target of hostility by radical Muslims and actors on the political left who accuse him of Islamophobia. He requires heavy protection by police and personal bodyguards when appearing in public, but remains undeterred in spreading his message. He expounds on this in the following interview with The Times of Israel.
In your book “Generation Allah” you describe how you fell for Salafism and how you eventually left this radical ideology behind. You grew up in the Arab-Israeli village of Tira. Are the reasons for the radicalization of Muslims in Israel different from reasons why young Muslims in Germany become Islamists?
Essentially, no. The pattern is always the same. Young people experience an upbringing that combines family problems with an authoritarian education. This, along with exposure from a young age to certain forms of Islam, causes fear and insecurities that make people susceptible to the redemption-promises of Salafist and Islamist preachers if they experience some kind of emotional, moral, psychological or social crisis.
I think that similar to what is happening in Germany, Israeli society is also increasingly ignoring radicalization among Muslim Israelis and isn’t doing anything about it. Israel is focused on the conflict with Hamas, with Gaza and with the Palestinians, and forgets about the problems of Muslim civil society in Israel. Also, Israeli society has to understand that Islamism cannot only be fought on the battlefield.
You write that your high school graduation marked a crossroad in your life at which you began to turn your back on radical Islam. Does this mean that something can be done by Israel’s education system to fight radicalization?
What was decisive for me was not so much the Bagrut [Israeli high school diploma], but rather the experience that I created during that time and afterwards. I moved to Tel Aviv, I met new people, I encountered new ideas. I studied psychology at Tel Aviv University and widened my horizon. All this encouraged me to question my old convictions and to change them eventually.
In particular you write that the interaction with Jews was helpful to overcome anti-Semitic stereotypes.
This is certainly true.
So could it be a good idea to promote more Jewish-Arab coeducation in Israeli high schools in order to fight Muslim radicalization among Israeli Arabs?
Well… I haven’t lived in Israel for 10 years and my expertise is more on German society… but possibly this might be a promising approach.
How many Europeans are currently fighting for Islamist militias in the Middle East?
‘There is a whole subculture of Salafists and of Muslims who are not radical yet, but who are highly susceptible to Islamist incitements’
Intelligence services registered 1,960 Islamist fighters, but suggest that the true estimate is likely two or three times that. Given the number of inquiries I get from desperate peers and parents who call me when they suspect that their friends or children have disappeared to some Middle Eastern war zone, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were even much higher than that.
However, those who leave Europe are just the tip of the iceberg. The much bigger problem is that there is a whole subculture of Salafists and of Muslims who are not radical yet, but who are highly susceptible to Islamist incitements and who could potentially be recruited for jihadist activities. I think that we are a looking at tens of thousands of people in Germany alone. This is what I call the “generation Allah.” And these are the people who should be the focus of political attention and educational initiatives.
What caused this Islamist ideology to become so influential in Europe?
I don’t think that we are talking about a particularly European problem here. Islamism and jihadism are global phenomena that have finally reached Europe as well. But while Europe didn’t do anything in particular to create the problem, it is exacerbating it by its inaction.
What exactly do you mean?
Islamism cannot be explained solely as a reaction to racism or discrimination against Muslim minorities, which certainly exists here in Germany, as it does elsewhere. Yet a lack of effort to integrate migrants and the children of migrant families who have lived in Germany for two or three generations means that we are missing the opportunity to spread Western values to people who were been born in this country but that we leave their socialization to Muslim subcultures, where they are often educated in a spirit contrary to German democratic ideals. That alone does not necessarily turn them into radicals. But it makes them more susceptible to Islamist propaganda once they experience a personal crisis.
You write that Salafists are better social workers?
People who subscribe to Islamism don’t explicitly look for a religious ideology from the beginning. Instead, they seek redemption from all kinds of social and psychological problems. The Salafists and Islamists approach these people, they listen to them, they invite them to their mosques and integrate them into communities, where they experience a sense of solidarity and belonging that they are desperate for. They also give them the feeling that they are part of an elite that understands a divine revelation others are ignorant of. In doing so, they give them a sense of superiority that compensates for experiences of marginality often encountered by members of the Muslim minority in Western societies.
German society needs to integrate these young people and provide them a sense of identity based on Western values, rather than one based on an anti-Western counter-culture and patriarchal, archaic values that, regrettably, are often tolerated by Germans in the name of multiculturalism.
We just saw in the recent referendum on Turkey’s constitution, in which Turkish expats in Germany were allowed to vote, that 450,000 Turkish people living in Germany voted for the establishment of a dictatorship. Is that a sign of failed integration?
Most certainly. These voters displayed their disregard for the democratic values of the German constitution. Moreover, they were also attracted by Erdogan’s Islamist rhetoric that presents the West as an enemy of the Muslim world. This proves their susceptibility for Islamist world views.
What can be done to improve the integration of Muslims into German society?
First of all, the job starts with the Muslim community itself. Muslims have to accept the values of the society in which they chose to live. And that is what I am dedicating my all my efforts to. However, such endeavors are often undermined by the German government and by the dominant forces in Germany society who sideline liberal Muslims and cooperate with Islamists instead.
I’ll give you two examples: At the commemoration service for the victims of last December’s Berlin Christmas market terror attack, Islamist imam Ferid Heider preached, surrounded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, former German president Joachim Gauk, and other high ranking officials from the German government and Church.
Heider disseminates anti-Western and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. On his Facebook page he recommends a book by the Egyptian-Qatari theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is one of the leading voices of Islamism worldwide and who condones Palestinian suicide bombing. Not only is this a slap in the face of the victims of the terror attack, it lends legitimacy to an Islamist who preaches anti-Western values. Think about what must be going on in the head of a young Muslim in Germany who sees on TV that this Islamist preacher is promoted by the German chancellor and the German president.
‘Think about what must be going on in the head of a young Muslim in Germany who sees on TV that this Islamist preacher is promoted by the German chancellor and the German president’
In another incident in 2015, today’s German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who back then served as the German government’s minister for economy, was joined by Aiman Mayzyek, the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, on his trip to the Gulf states. Mayzyek’s association, like the other established Islamic organizations in Germany, promotes Islamism. Sadly, the German government prefers to speak with them rather than with representatives of Germany’s liberal Muslim community.
But how come that Salafists and Islamists in Germany are organized so well, while liberal Muslims aren’t?
First of all, liberal Muslims don’t have such a desire to congregate, because for them religion is a private matter and they don’t pursue a political agenda as the Islamists do. Second, we liberal Muslims lack funds, since we don’t get any money from Saudi Arabia or Turkey, who sponsor the established Muslim organizations in Germany to influence German policy and to promote their Islamist agenda.
What role does the Middle East conflict play in the radicalization of young Muslims?
‘People don’t subscribe to the ideology of Islamism because they grieve the experience of Palestinians in Gaza’
None at all. People don’t subscribe to the ideology of Islamism because they grieve the experience of Palestinians in Gaza.
Demonization of Israel and Jews is an expression of anti-Semitism deeply intertwined with Islamists ideas. It has very little to do with the actual Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You also criticize German society’s inaction in regard to Muslim anti-Semitism.
Muslim anti-Semitism is a real problem in German society. In many schoolyards the term “Jew” is used as a curse word. Just a few weeks ago a student at a Berlin high school was beaten by his classmates after he revealed that he was Jewish. But while there are strong efforts to fight anti-Semitism from the political right, many Germans are cynically inclined to accept Muslim anti-Semitism in the name of a problematic understanding of multicultural tolerance.
It is unacceptable that a German principal, when informed about anti-Semitic acts committed by Muslims students at his school, says something like, “Don’t be so upset. This is just normal among these folks.”
This is not just a slap in the face of the Jewish victims, but also of liberal Muslims who are equated with Islamists and radicals.