BERLIN, May 18 — There’s a thin line separating angry youth and the world of jihadists, one that underscores the risk European countries face from people they call their own.
It’s also one Berlin imam Mohamed Taha Sabri knows all too well. When the Arab-born mother of a 23-year-old German Muslim man noticed her son had started using the words “jihad” and “infidels,” it was Sabri she turned to.
“The difference between adopting an extremist opinion and terrorist extremism is sometimes a hair’s breadth,” Sabri, 50, said in an interview at his Dar Assalam Mosque in the German capital’s Neukoelln district.
The woman’s son would talk about a duty to help “our brothers” in Syria, she told the imam. She was worried his radicalisation would lead him to join the thousands of Europeans becoming foot soldiers with Islamic State.
Security services say it’s crucial that imams and Muslim families help combat extremism in a way they can’t, even if that means they are blamed inside their communities for selling out — while at the same time confronted by growing animosity toward Islam in their adopted homelands.
“If I had to learn about Islam from the movies and the media, I would be afraid of myself,” said Mohammed Matar, 25, a university student who attends the Dar Assalam Mosque.
“They see over there people claiming to speak for Islam. They see Muslims here and they lump us all together.”
From the bombing of London a decade ago to the slaughter at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, home-grown militants have long been on the radar of security forces. The rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq means it takes more to combat the extremism at its root.
The European Union last month set up the European Agenda on Security to unite efforts. The focus is also on risks posed by jihadists coming back home from the battlefield as hardened warriors with contacts in a global movement.
Places like Berlin, the largest city in Europe’s largest economy, are on the front line. The German government set up a hotline three years ago for citizens to report radical activity.
So far more than 650 Germans have traveled to Syria, according to a senior German security official. They’re among an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 European Muslims, many with Arab immigrant backgrounds, who have exchanged life in a stable country for a place where dissenters are killed.
The group attracts recruits by turning them into heroes, flying the black flag and fighting for a cause, albeit one that beheads or torches hostages.
“They’re hiding behind religious freedoms in Germany as they release their poison.”
Mosques in Germany play a role in radicalising Muslims, said the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Among the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US were Muslims who had been radicalized as students in the German city of Hamburg.
Many of the mosques are controlled by hard-liners who pass on their loathing of the west to worshipers, according to Berlin-based Islamic scholar Ralph Ghadban.
“They’re hiding behind religious freedoms in Germany as they release their poison,” said Ghadban.
One of those affected was a relative of Kamal al-Dawood, a 36-year-old Lebanese-born man who delivers pizzas in Hennigsdorf outside Berlin. When other family members heard he was planning to go to Syria, they went to the northwest city of Bremen to find him and stop him.
“They gave him a piece of their mind, forced him to shave his beard and told him he would be harming the clan if he went,” al-Dawood said on a subway ride in Berlin.
About 90 per cent of jihadists joining Islamic State are male, with an average age of 26 and rather poor education, the security official said. Women who go are much younger. About 200 jihadists have come back, with returnees facing trial.
In addition to mosques, radicalization also happens through peers and in jail more than the Internet, and the speed of it has quickened from as long as two years to just a few months, according to the official.
Radicals have stopped coming to Tunisian-born Sabri’s mosque. A worshiper who didn’t like his moderate tone assaulted him last year. His rejection of a sermon delivered by a visiting preacher that disparaged women triggered a string of calls on social media urging the faithful to avoid him.
“I don’t argue with them,” Sabri said with a shrug in an interview last month. “The mosque still gets so packed Fridays that people have to pray on the street.”
By reclaiming Islam from the extremists, Sabri also hopes to dispel misperceptions about it among Europeans who have come to equate the faith with Islamic State’s actions.
Matar, the student, said while there is Islamophobia in Germany, ignorance is also to blame.
He was on the subway a few months ago when a young German woman approached with some trepidation after her eyes fell on the word sharia, Islamic law, in a book on Muslim worship he was reading. The woman said the word, at least in her mind, was connected to Islamic State’s beheadings and killings.
Matar said he was happy the woman talked to him because he could explain to her that sharia isn’t a bad word.
“At the end she said, ‘ah, if it’s so, I have no problem,’” said Matar.
A center set up by the Interior Ministry to help combat radicalisation is also helping Germans better understand Islam.
The hotline established in 2012 at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has received about 1,500 calls since then, about 100 of them from teachers seeking information on radicalization and advice on dealing with students affected by it, manager Florian Endres said by phone from Nuremberg.
Family members concerned about the radicalization of relatives have also been in touch, he said. About 80 of the cases dealt with people who went to Syria, were planning to go there or had returned from the country, said Endres.
“Our much more important step is to get in touch with them before they go to Syria,” said Endres.
Why do they get radicalised?
“It’s an individual thing,” said Endres.
“Maybe, they feel like stars. They see themselves as elites and heroes.”
At his mosque near a bar with shisha water pipes and a store that sells Islamic literature and alcohol-free perfume, Sabri said he tries to protect the youth by explaining that Islamic State’s actions have nothing to do with the faith.
To deal with the 23-year-man who’s being lured by Syria, Sabri said he plans to introduce him to men his age who would befriend him.
“These guys often need to feel they belong to a clique,” said Sabri. “It’s better for them to be with a good one than to join a bad one.” — Bloomberg