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Being German, Becoming MuslimRace, Religion, and Conversion in the New Europe$

Esra Özyürek

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780691162782

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691162782.001.0001

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Salafism as the Future of European Islam?

Salafism as the Future of European Islam?

(p.109) Chapter 5 Salafism as the Future of European Islam?
Being German, Becoming Muslim

Esra Özyürek

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter concentrates on the theological aspects of Salafism that attract non-Muslims in postunification Germany. It argues that certain characteristics of Salafism, particularly its conversionism, literalism, and anticulturalist, antinationalist stance, make it appealing to many Germans of diverse backgrounds. In these respects, it works in quite similar ways to Evangelism and Pentecostalism in fulfilling people spiritually and psychologically—aspects greatly ignored by most scholars of contemporary Islam and especially Salafism. The chapter contends that it is these characteristics of Salafism, which introduces itself as free of human interpretation and independent of national tradition, that works well in the anti-Muslim context of Germany.

Keywords:   Salafism, postunification Germany, European Islam, Salafis, conversionism, literalism, contemporary Islam, national tradition, Salafi Islam

To get to the notorious Salafi al-Nur mosque in Neukölln, allegedly the most radical in Berlin, I need to change trains twice. The first time I got off at the Neukölln stop, I encountered a wall of police officers with German shepherds trained to find drugs glaring at dark-haired, olive-skinned youths. I walked past them and waited too long for the S46 train to come. This less frequent line takes me to Königs Wusterhausen, an old industrial area in the eastern part of the city. By the time the train approaches my stop on a Sunday afternoon, it has filled up with groups of young men and women in their late teens and early twenties that seem to be heading in the same direction: to a lecture by the charismatic Abdul Adhim Kamouss. Colorful, glittery headscarves dot the train car. But there are also a number of women wearing long black dresses and oversize black headscarves. A few wear gloves and face covers. I notice big blue eyes shining from the thin slit of the black niqab leaves between the part that goes over the head and face. Men look sporty, wearing jeans and sneakers. A few wear skullcaps, fine mustaches, and full, long shiny beards treated with perfumed essential oils. Beards come in all colors: black, blond, and even red.

As we walk toward the mosque through the depressed, empty streets lined with defunct factories, suddenly the scene changes. Near the mosque, men loiter, greeting each other, while young ones steal looks at women. Groups of young women walk briskly, arm in arm, toward the entrance, trying—not always successfully—not to look back at the men and giggle. The small mosque store is busy with women buying halal gummi bears—made from beef gelatin from animals slaughtered in Turkey according to Islamic law—for their children as well as young men looking for energy drinks.

Like other buildings around it, the al-Nur mosque is an old factory with a bland cement facade. The only sign of its being a mosque is the green-on-white board on the outside that says Al-Nur Islamic Society in German (p.110) and Arabic. I follow the trail of women into our entrance. We climb to the second floor, reserved for women only and completely cut off from the men’s section by a separate entrance. There are more than a hundred women inside. They sit on the wall-to-wall carpet that features a pattern designating individual prayer spaces lined up in rows and pointing in the direction of Mecca. Long loose white skirts and oversize white headscarves line the walls. Young women in headscarves who come in with relatively tight clothes change into these before praying.

Volunteers work hard to keep the children contained in the playroom, but the kids end up running all over the hall, while babies roll around on the cushy floor. A couple of women patrol the space, reminding women not to feed their children or eat, not to talk on the phone, and to keep quiet, and also to welcome newcomers to the mosque. Heidi, a Slovenian convert to Islam, asks if I have come here to convert. “No,” I answer. “I am already a Muslim. I came here to do research.” Heidi’s smile freezes. She tells me that I must get permission from the administration. I nod and say “of course,” but the call to prayer is already being announced and women begin walking toward the front of the room to take their place for the group prayer. Some are hurrying to finish up their earlier devotions and prayers required to greet the mosque on arrival. Heidi makes sure everyone is lined up properly on the lines imprinted on the carpet. She gives instructions in German: “Foot to foot, shoulder to shoulder. Do not allow Satan to get between you.” Then she takes her place. When the imam’s call of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) is piped in from men’s section, the room becomes quiet, other than the yelping kids, who can now go wild, running around as their mothers’ attention is directed elsewhere. We all raise our hands to our ears in unison and set our intention for the afternoon ʿAsir (prayer).

The large, flat television screen flickers on, and everyone finds a comfortable spot for themselves where they can sit together with friends. We’ll be watching the lecture delivered downstairs in the men’s section. Sunday lectures are given by a young preacher of Moroccan origin, Abdul Adhim, who is also a student of electric engineering at the Technical University in Berlin and married to a converted German woman. The talks are video recorded in order to be transmitted to the women’s section, and are also posted on the mosque’s Web site.1

I am not the only observer in the mosque. Abdul Adhim announces with a charming smile that a CNN crew is there to document German converts to Islam. The television network had missed ten people converting together the previous week. This week, there are four men and two women who will publicly proclaim that there is one God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger.

Abdul Adhim was slightly more riled up than usual that day. After reciting from the Qurʾan, he launched directly into his subject: “I invite all of (p.111) you who are not Muslims here today to Islam, before it is too late. There are only two paths to take in this world. A person either believes or does not believe. Do you want to be the slave of human ideas or do you want to be the slave of God?”

As an experienced proselytizer in Germany, Abdul Adhim first takes into account the potential atheist tendencies among his listeners and tries to show how a belief in God can be rationally explained:

I can see you, but I cannot see what is behind this wall. I can smell what is next to me. But I cannot smell what is beyond this wall. My senses and understanding is limited. If you accept this, you can believe in a God that you cannot see or feel with your five senses. This is called belief. And this is the path that goes to God. Come to Islam.

Then he moves to target the potential Christians in the crowd, preaching about how Islam is inclusive of Christianity, at least in a rhetorical way. “Dear Brothers,” he says,

Islam is the final religion. With its arrival, all religions were invalidated. The concept of the Trinity is wrong according to Islam. This is a concept invented four centuries after Jesus’s death. It is a human invention. The Muslim perspective on Jesus is the correct one. We love and honor him as a prophet. But he is not God’s son. Many verses in the Qurʾan warn us against making an error, mistaking beings other than Allah as God. There can be no mediators between humankind and God. We Muslims honor him as a prophet, but do not exaggerate and call him son of God.

After making his basic points loud and clear, Abdul Adhim speaks directly to the topic of the spread of Islam in Europe, since that is what the CNN crew is most interested in. While explaining this, he draws parallels between the spread of Islam in Arabia and Europe, taking care to show that there is nothing different between Arabs and Europeans other than their belief:

The Prophet Muhammad had visions that Islam will spread worldwide. Nobody would imagine that a religion that came first to the wild barbarian Arabs, who were so poor, so stupid, would spread so far. Within thirty years, Islam educated and civilized them. Now can we say Islam is in Europe? The answer is yes! That is why they are writing about us all the time in the newspapers. That is why our guests from the CNN are here today. They are here because they recognize that we are here! Allah is present. Whether they like it or not, people recognize the light of Islam despite the lies about Islam being a religion of terrorism, a religion of violence. This is all propaganda because they are afraid of the powers of Islam (p.112) to recruit so many people. Dear brothers and sisters, it was the same way in the seventh century. In those days too the youth and the poor quickly adopted Islam. The older and richer people rejected a change of their habits. It is exactly the same today. So do not listen to the unbelievers who want to misguide you. We have a simple answer to give to them. Islam is a living and vibrant religion, it is part of everyday life. In Islam there is no difference among human beings, except in their piety.

Following Abdul Adhim’s sermon that day, six people declare the shahada publicly and convert to Islam. After finishing up with the conversion of men downstairs, Abdul Adhim comes to the women’s section and assists women converts. He tells them that they should feel lucky because not everyone is lucky enough to find this path. He recommends that they go home and take a shower, so that they are cleansed of all their sins, and that they should pray salat, the Islamic prayer. If they do not know how to, they should just talk to God openly and tell him that they have come to him. He says, “Now you are like a clean slate, like newborns without any sins,” adding,” “Today is your birthday. You should remember this day, not your real day of birth.” After that the women repeat Abdul Adhim’s words, first in German and then in Arabic, that there is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger. Unlike the men, who greeted their new brothers in faith with hearty screams of “Allahu Akbar,” the women quietly clap with the backs of their hands, according to proper Salafi conduct, and give the converts a round of teary hugs.

Almost every week that I attended the popular Sunday sermons at the al-Nur mosque, two to six people responded to Abdul Adhim’s simple and direct invitation to convert to Islam. These new converts were indigenous Germans, immigrants from Russia, eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America, or people of mixed background of every imaginable combination. They were often quite young—from their late teens to late twenties—and had been initiated to Islam by Muslim friends or lovers.

Why do so many German speakers find the allegedly most conservative and most radical mosque in Berlin so attractive? Why are Salafis, purportedly the most isolationist Muslim group, so successful in attracting non-Muslims? What accounts for their ability to manage diversity in their mosques, in a society where ethnic Germans and Germans with immigrant backgrounds do not normally mix well? More important, what effect does this have on the practice of Islam in Germany?

An increasingly growing literature attempts to explain the rise of Salafism in Europe over the past decade. In the face of the difficulty of conducting ethnographic research with isolationist Salafi groups, especially militant ones (Hemmingsen 2011), most of the scholarship favors a functionalist logic that reduces adherence to Salafism to an outlet for individuals who (p.113) do not have strong ties of belonging to society. As Frazer Egerton (2010) convincingly demonstrates, the literature on contemporary Salafism relies heavily on the idea of alienation to account for adherence to Salafism. Scholars argue that the contemporary generation of European Muslims feels alienated because it is economically deprived and racially discriminated against (Kepel 1997; Sayyid 2003). As a result, these young people supposedly turn to Salafism, or other Islamist movements, that “deliberately play on their sense of being victims of racism, exclusion, and loneliness in the West” (Roy 2004, 309). In turn, scholars contend, Salafism provides youths with an outlet to rebel against the mainstream society that rejects them (Cesari 2007; Roy 2004; Coolsaet 2011). In the words of a French Muslim scholar, Salafism is “an exit strategy developed by young Muslims who are unable or unwilling to adjust to French society” (Adraoui 2009, 374). Other scholars maintain that the turn to Salafism offers a solution to the identity crisis that the current young European Muslims are assumed to experience, torn between the identities of their ethnic affiliation and country of residence. As Salafis, this reasoning goes, young European Muslims are able to bridge the divide they experience between being, say, Moroccan and Dutch (Koning 2009), Turkish and German, Algerian and French, or Pakistani and British. They feel themselves to be part of something bigger (Hamid 2009), and hence less marginal as adherents of the Ummah.

This is surely part of the explanation, especially for Muslims with immigrant backgrounds who turn to Salafism. Many of the born Muslims who do so are school dropouts, former criminals, or drug addicts, and I observed that after they joined Salafism, or turned to any interpretation of Islam for that matter, many were able to pull their lives together, get over their addictions, quit crime, and often go back to school, get degrees, establish families, and find jobs. In other words, Salafism not only gives one a sense of superiority in relation to non-Muslims as well as non-Salafi Muslims but also at times helps its members—at least men—improve their status in society. Still, I contend that this kind of functionalist thinking ends up pathologizing Salafis in that it depicts them as people who lack something that other members of the society have, and reduces engaging with Salafi morality to a simplistic instrumentalism. In that sense, these explanations are similar to earlier theories of religious conversion that pathologize individual converts. Scholars that focus on Salafism in Europe tend to expand the psychologism of conversion studies to an entire generation. The main problem with this kind of instrumentalist logic is that it “does not posit militant [and non-militant] Salafism as a coherent philosophical and political alternative” (Egerton 2010, 460).

More important, for our purposes here, the generational Muslim alienation thesis fails to grasp why converts choose this movement. Indigenous German or German-speaking converts, I estimate, make up at least (p.114) 30 percent of the al-Nur mosque’s congregation. Regardless of their German, Russian, or African backgrounds, these people were formerly Christians, and they did not have that much to gain sociologically, and in fact had much to lose, by converting to Islam. So why is Salafism, the form of Islam most suspected of radicalization and terrorism by the German authorities, and whose members are most isolated from mainstream society, the most attractive to newcomers to Islam in Germany?

In this chapter, I offer an alternative to the generation-specific alienation and deprivation thesis by concentrating on the theological aspects of Salafism that attract non-Muslims in postunification Germany. I argue that certain characteristics of Salafism, particularly its conversionism, literalism, and anticulturalist, antinationalist stance, make it appealing to many Germans of diverse backgrounds. In these respects, it works in quite similar ways to Evangelism and Pentecostalism in fulfilling people spiritually and psychologically—aspects greatly ignored by most scholars of contemporary Islam and especially Salafism. I contend that it is these characteristics of Salafism, which introduces itself as free of human interpretation and independent of national tradition, that works well in the anti-Muslim context of Germany. Converts to Salafism learn that they are much better Muslims than all those who follow national traditions, and Salafis do not need to associate with traditional Muslims in order to embrace their new spiritual path.

Salafism in Germany

Those labeled Salafis by outsiders do not call themselves Salafis but rather followers of the Qurʾan and Sunnah (Ahlu Sunnah). One can trace contemporary Salafism back to the eighteenth-century Islamic puritanism of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), which became the official ideology of the Saudi monarchy in the early twentieth century. Modern Salafis are also influenced by thinkers such as the Egyptian Muhammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) and Iranian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97) as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.2 As Salafism moves to newer contexts and grows by including many converts, it takes on new and sometimes-contradictory qualities. The attacks of 9/11 led to further divisions within the group, with a great majority of followers positioning themselves against such violence. Today, this global movement is only loosely connected. It has different branches and interpretations, such as apolitical quietism or jihadism, and more recently the Salafi political party al-Nur in Egypt.3

Despite its popularity among new Muslims, Salafism is quite a small movement in Germany. It is estimated that 30 out of 2,500 mosques and prayer houses in Germany are Salafi oriented. They represent from 2,000 (p.115) to 5,000 Salafi-oriented Muslims.4 I contend that an overwhelming majority of the individuals who attend these mosques have an orientation that is not jihadist. Some jihadis also attend some of the mosques, such as the small group caught collecting explosives in order to plan a terrorist attack in the Sauerland in 2007 (Özyürek 2009). The most radical jihadi Salafis find one another on the Internet and meet in private homes. Al-Nur’s leaders, notably Abdul Adhim, make their antiviolence position clear. But al-Nur, the oldest Salafi mosque in Berlin, which once had an imam accused of being a radical, is easily the Berlin mosque most mentioned in the press. As with all other mosques in Germany, one does not need to be a formal member of the al-Nur mosque to attend. Both members of congregations and imams engage in “mosque hopping” among German-speaking mosques. Even though the most devoted Salafis only attend Salafi mosques, I observed quite a high degree of flexibility.

In reaching out to its new members, Salafism is not that different from other fundamentalist movements spreading around the globe, and especially Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. First and foremost, like all other globally spreading religions, Salafism benefits from “missions and migrations” (Beyer 2006). Non-Muslim Germans encounter Islam first through a meaningful relationship with a born Muslim and then learn about Salafi mosques while doing research on the Internet. All the converts I met at Salafi mosques discovered the al-Nur mosque and Salafism after they had become Muslim or developed an interest in becoming Muslim. After proselytizing for years, a German convert to Islam told me that in the past fifteen years of her life as a Muslim, she had never met a single person who converted to Islam as a result of Salafi proselytizing. Salafis are known for setting up information stands in areas of heavy foot traffic, and distributing free Qurʾans or giving passersby pamphlets that explain the religion. My research shows that they owe their success not to random missionizing such as this but rather to their investment in creating accessible Web sites in the German language and providing German-language activities in their mosques—still a rarity. Salafism does not necessarily succeed in recruiting ethnic Germans to Islam in the first place; instead, it meets their needs as German Muslims after they convert.

Salafism in the Context of Global Fundamentalisms

Over the past few decades, a number of scholars have attempted to define the central aspects of different fundamentalisms growing across the globe (Lawrence 1989; Keddie 1998; Lehmann 1998; Riesebrodt 1998; Nagata 2001). Several have pointed out structural similarities between Christian fundamentalist and Salafi discourses (Zeidan 2003; Henson and Wasserman 2011). (p.116) There are a number of possible ways to make this comparison. For the purpose of explaining the attraction of non-Muslim Germans to Salafism, the following four aspects that Salafism shares with Christian fundamentalisms are most powerfully operative: conversionism; a rejection of tradition; literalism; and the breaking of traditional religious hierarchies. All these aspects, I argue, make Salafism welcoming to new Muslims, especially in a country where Islam is increasingly racialized. In particular, the emphasis in Salafi theology on an antitraditionalist understanding of Islamic teachings makes it easier for nontraditional individuals to embrace Islam and allows them to feel themselves to be better Muslims than born Muslims.


Salafis follow the example of the first Muslims in calling people to Islam. Even though this is a position shared by all other Muslims, Salafis seem to be the ones who take it as the central message. Almost all other Sunni mosques in Germany represent a national Muslim group. Even if they are in theory open to Muslims from other nationalities, mosques based on nationality exclude other groups in everyday practice, especially when they use a national language such as Turkish. Salafis, on the other hand, reach out to new Muslims in Germany in the German language. In 2012, Salafis kicked off a campaign to distribute free Qurʾans in German translation on busy street corners—not a practice other Muslim groups had ever engaged in, but one that evangelical Christians commonly use around the world by distributing free Bibles. Salafis keep their message simple and inviting at Web sites such as Die wahre Religion (True religion) and Facebook groups such as Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to paradise).5 These sites host German-language sermons by preachers of both Arab and German origin. The most important part of these Web sites are the numerous videos of Germans converting to Islam in Salafi mosques.

Rejection of Tradition

Salafis’ success in attracting new Muslims is not only an issue of language. Their rejection of tradition and especially nationalism is also crucial in making new Muslims from nontraditional groups feel at home. Other groups discussed in this book are antitraditionalist too, but Salafism is the most extreme in this approach and also negates the idea of an Islam fitting the realities of life in Germany. Salafis promote an understanding of Islam that they believe is purified of any bidʾa, or innovation, which is to say, a cultural or traditional change introduced after the first three generations of Muslims. Salafism shares a specific approach to time with other fundamentalisms, (p.117) which Susan Harding (2001) defines as paying attention only to what happened at the beginning of time, the present, and the end of time. Everything that happened between the beginning and now is unimportant. For Salafis, most of what Muslims have done since the idealized time of the first three generations of Muslims is not only irrelevant but also bad, or at least not preferable. In that sense, according to Salafis, Muslim communities since that third generation have actually harmed Islam, and their practices are problematic from the perspective of a pure Islam.

A result of this principle is that Salafis reject blind imitation (taqlid) of the four legal schools (madhab) developed after the first three generations of Muslims. In the contemporary Muslim world, each of these legal schools is dominant in certain regions, and hence associated with nationalities. For example, the Hanafi school is commonly followed in Turkey, the Turkic republics of Central Asia, and the Balkans; the Maliki school is common in most of North Africa; the Hanbali school is the dominant one in Saudi Arabia; and the Shafiʾi school is observed in East Africa, Indonesia, and Kurdistan. Ethnic or national mosques operating in Germany also follow these legal schools accepted in their respective countries of origin. They even have imams come from these countries who are trained only in one of these legal schools.

Salafis argue that rather than blindly following the four legal schools, Muslims should rely only on the Qurʾan and Hadith, and apply their individual interpretations, ijtihad—of course, only within the strict and literalist Salafi methodology called manhaj. In their rejection of the madhabs, Salafis break the connection between ethnic or national groups and legal schools. It does not matter, then, if one is a Turk, an Arab, Japanese, or German to be a good Salafi. On the contrary, having been a good Turkish Muslim can impede being a good Muslim, since people who grow up with traditions established by the legal schools have to unlearn much of what they know.


The literalism that is embraced fully by Salafism is one crucial aspect of fundamentalism that makes it possible to break the link between culture and religion in bringing nontraditional people to the religion. All Sunnis would agree that what is written in the Qurʾan and Hadith constitute the basics of their religion, and that these texts have the highest level of authority over anything else. Salafis differ from other Sunnis in that they believe that everything is explicitly stated in the Qurʾan and Hadith, and should be taken literally. Scholars such as Roel Meijer contend that the real power of Salafism lies in this strict focus on doctrinal purity rather than politics. This focus, Meijer (2009, 13) asserts, “has been able to empower individuals (p.118) by providing a universal alternative model of truth and social action even in its passive form of rejecting existing religious, cultural, and political systems.”

Literalism and doctrinal purity promise that questions asked at any time, any place, and by any Muslim will be answered from an Islamic perspective with absolute certainty. Bernard Heykel (2009, 36) maintains that “Salafism’s claims to religious certainty … explain a good deal of its appeal and its seemingly limitless ability to cite scripture to back these up. A typical Salafi argument is that Salafis, unlike other Muslims, rely exclusively on sound proof texts from revelation as the basis for their views, and they adduce the relevant verses or traditions every time they issue a judgment or opinion.”

Such certainty seems to be especially valuable to many newcomers to Islam in Germany. Most new Muslims report the experience of a deeply felt inner peace following their conversion. Spending time with new converts, I observed that they also experience much anxiety in their daily lives in trying to fulfill their newly learned religious obligations in a society not organized around them. The many rules and rituals to learn, numerous prayers to memorize in Arabic, and desire to quickly master the Arabic language, at least well enough to recite the Qurʾan, is often overwhelming for many new Muslims. They frequently say that the worst part of being a new convert in Germany is the sensation of being bombarded with competing sources of information and a simultaneous scarcity of systematic information in the German language.

Most of the older converts to Islam recalled the intensity of their belief and overwhelming experience of being faced with so much information. A woman who had converted eight years earlier said with a nostalgic smile, “I forced so much into my head that I could not remember a single thing when I went to bed.” Right after conversion, converts often desire to completely transform their lives and purify themselves of all non-Islamic elements. Many, but clearly not all, new converts adopt a new Islamic name, change their clothes, abandon old friends, and erase all or inappropriate music from their iPods. I observed that Salafism is most attractive to new Muslims exactly at this early phase of conversion. Many friends who converted in the 1990s told me that when they first did so, they Salafism appealed to them because of the clear-cut worldview it presented and way it accommodated new Muslims. Some of them later moved on to less strict interpretations of Islam. A number of converted men and women mentioned that after several years of being Muslim, they relaxed and realized not everything had to be so rigid. Iman, for example, reflected on how she would never shake a man’s hand when she first converted. “Now, after years of being a Muslim,” she explained to me, “when I cannot avoid shaking a man’s hand without being rude, I do not lose sleep over it. Now I have a better (p.119) sense of the things I cannot compromise and the things I can compromise when I have to. Knowing that my intention is in the right place is the most important thing.”

Aamal gave me a window on to the anxieties of new Muslims. I met her only a few months after she had converted, just before she married her Afghani husband. Previously, she had been married to a Thai man and was a practicing Buddhist. We met at the Saturday lecture of the DMK, which she had found on the Internet. Aamal looked a little confused and stressed, and had a long list of questions. She had been going to many mosques in her neighborhood, asking for German-language activities and materials. Her purse was full of pamphlets in different languages and scripts she had collected from different mosques.

The first break for the Saturday lecture was timed according to the noon Dhuhr prayer. As we lined up for the prayer, Aamal kept looking at women on either side of her. Afterward, she walked up to the prayer leader and asked her the right place to put her hands during ruku (bending down). She had been told to put her hands on her upper leg, but had noticed that here and in some other mosques, women put their hands on their knees. The prayer leader, an older convert to Islam, smiled understandingly. She tried to calm Aamal by assuring her that she should not be anxious about such details, that her intention was the most significant thing. “But,” she added, “on top of your knees is the right place for your hands during ruku.” Aamal nodded seriously. Then she asked how to place her feet during the sitting between the two sujuds (prostrations). The prayer leader responded, “There are different traditions on this issue, and God willing, they are all acceptable.” Aamal listened to her carefully, but the anxious look remained on her face.

After the lecture, Selda, who had converted to Islam as a young girl more than fifteen years earlier, invited Aamal and me to her home for tea. Just as we settled down in Selda’s small but tidy living room, Aamal said she had almost died when she heard today that one cannot pray with food in their mouth. The other day, she had put a piece of chocolate in her mouth right before she began her prayer. After a brief second of tense silence, she added daringly, “And you know what, I did not die!”

Aamal informed us that she was not going to just believe in everything anybody told her. “I need to see something in writing before I can believe in it.” She pulled out her pamphlet stash from her bag, went through them quickly, and found the one she was looking for. It was a sheet from a Pakistani mosque, with Urdu writing on one page and German on the corresponding page, along with Arabic scattered in between. It announced that it is haram (forbidden) for women to put henna on their hands. She said, “This woman who gave the lecture to us today had henna in her hands. And you tell me to believe in everything she says?” Selda said she heard (p.120) that it is OK to apply henna but not nail polish, even though she could not show it to Aamal in writing. She said, “I believe it is because you can still take ablutions with henna on, since the water touches the skin. But you cannot do it with the nail polish. But you can put nail polish on if you are willing to take it off before you take each ablution. But you cannot wear acrylic fingernails because you cannot take them off.” After sharing her knowledge on matters regarding hand decorations, Selda continued,

But we cannot always know the reasoning behind everything we are told. It might be the case that some things are more important for us converts. Take the chocolate thing. Maybe people who grew up praying five times a day find it easy to concentrate on their prayer, and maybe as converts we need to be extra careful so that we are not distracted. I personally sometimes find it difficult to concentrate.

Even fifteen years after her conversion, Selda said, she still does not know which information is more critical.

Some people will tell you that it is haram to watch TV, haram to sit on a sofa, haram to wear a dress that you like, haram to buy something for yourself. They will tell you so many things are haram that you will not be able to do anything! I personally try to go with [the] iman’s advice. What she says makes sense to me and stays in my mind.

Aamal and Selda agreed that one should not take born Muslims, especially Turks, too seriously. “As a Muslim for only a few months, I already know so much more than my Turkish friends,” Aamal noted. “They do not read anything. All they know is hearsay.” To congratulate her on her conversion, a Turkish friend had given Aamal a pendant with the word Allah on it in Arabic. Aamal was furious. “Why doesn’t a Muslim know that you are not supposed to wear anything that has God’s name on your body?” Selda agreed enthusiastically, telling us about many Turkish friends who knew nothing or, worse, clung to wrong information. She told us about a Turkish friend who did not know how to pray despite the fact that she was wearing a headscarf. Selda claimed she is the one who had taught her how to pray. Selma said, “Yes, most of the time you cannot rely on Turks for Islamic knowledge.”

Seeing how stressed out she looked, I felt an urge to comfort Aamal. I told her that I was not the best person to give advice—for one thing, I was one of those ignorant Turks, and raised in a nonpracticing Muslim family, I had never been formally trained in Islamic practices—but it made sense to me to go slowly, without worrying herself too much. I told her that I had heard about new Muslims who were so overwhelmed that they quit (p.121) Islam altogether. Aamal disagreed with me. She said she wanted to learn about all the rules right away and follow them precisely. “Because,” she said, “the Satan in me is very strong.” She told us that she used to wear sexy, skimpy clothes and heavy makeup, and went out to nightclubs. Her body still bore the residues of her pre-Islamic life. She had a nose ring and rhinestone implanted in one of her front teeth as well as permanent makeup on her eyebrows, around her lip line, and on her eyelash line. She rubbed her hand on her face and then showed us her clean palms to demonstrate that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. She said she was easily tempted. About a month ago, her brother had come to visit her. All day long he told her that there is no God and that she was being ridiculous. He kept drinking beer after beer. Aamal, who had once enjoyed drinking beer herself, decided that if she drank only half a bottle without getting drunk, it would not be a big deal. So she did. But then all night she had horrible nightmares and saw herself going to hell.

When I met Aamal, she was attending activities at the DMK and was not going to a Salafi mosque. Salafi mosques, however, offer satisfactory answers along with welcoming contexts for converts like Aamal who feel overwhelmed by contradictory information and doubt that lower-class, under-educated born Muslims in Germany are reliable sources of information. Because Salafi mosques take a literalist stance, they answer all questions with reference to the Qurʾan and Hadith. The newer and older converts I met at Salafi mosques, or who had gone through a Salafi phase, told me that they found such emphasis on sources satisfying. Salafi literalism and clarity as well as its tendency to cut followers off from everything seen as unacceptable to Islamic lifestyle seem to ease some of the anxiety that many new Muslims such as Aamal experience.

Breaking Traditional Religious Hierarchies

A related attraction of the Salafi movement for converts is its relatively democratic approach to religious learning. Traditional Islamic learning is deeply hierarchical, and access to authority positions is practically inaccessible to newcomers to Islam. In Germany, it is not even possible to receive formal training to be an imam, and most imams come from countries such as Turkey, Bosnia, and Morocco. These imams are usually trained at a relatively young age and are often state officials, whose salaries are paid by their governments. Salafis, on the other hand, provide an easy path to anyone who wants to study Islam and become an authority. Their practice is in line with their understanding that any Muslim should be able to study the scriptures and come to a level of learning where they can perform ijtihad (individual interpretation). Because it is based on a narrowly defined textual frame and organized around a set of binary opposites—the oneness of God (p.122) (tawhid) versus divine associations (shirk), and loyalty to the prophetic example (Sunna) as opposed to adherence to one school of Islamic law (taqlid)—the Salafi perspective is powerful in minimizing human agency and intellect in interpreting issues from an Islamic perspective (Wiktorowicz 2006). Heykel (2009, 36) observes that “it is striking how relatively easy it is to become an authority figure among the Salafis. In fact, as an interpretive community Salafis are, in contrast to other Muslim traditions of learning, relatively open, even democratic.”

Pierre Vogel’s quick rise in Salafi circles from being a new convert to Islam to the public face of the movement in Germany attests to the nonhierarchical and democratic character of Salafi learning structures. A former boxing champion, Vogel converted to Islam in 2001 at the age of twenty-three. In autobiographical video recordings, Vogel describes how he was impressed by some of the Muslims, particularly an American and then a Turk, who he met through his boxing career. Shortly after his conversion, Vogel went to Mecca to study Arabic and Islam. When he returned in 2006, he was fluent in Arabic, and had studied the Qurʾan and Hadith according to the Salafi manhaj. He was able to quote long passages in Arabic and translate them into German on the spot when he had to address the proper Islamic stance on practically any topic. He also adopted what is believed to be the look of the early Muslims: he shaved his head, grew a beard without a mustache, and donned a jalabiyya and skullcap.

Shortly after he returned from Mecca, Vogel began preaching in German at the Salafi al-Nur mosque. From that time on, the al-Nur mosque became the main point of attraction for a new generation of young male converts to Islam. Vogel soon launched his own Web site, where he posted dozens of videos of himself preaching in the Salafi tradition.6 He calls on unbelievers to embrace Islam and born Muslims to be better Muslims. Vogel also teaches how to proselytize for Islam (daʾwa) in the German context. In interviews, he emphasizes that he is the perfect person to give advice to young people and summon them to Islam, because as someone who used to live like them, he can tell them that living a pious life and being married is much better than going to nightclubs, drinking, doing drugs, and fooling around with women. Hundreds of videos of young German men converting to Islam are the main focus of his Web site.7

Salafism as a Path to Radicalization

Although the great majority of Salafis in Germany are not involved in politics and are against the use of violence to attain religious goals, in the larger group of Muslims who adhere to some of the basic Salafi principles, there are small radical jihadi groups. It is quite difficult to study these subgroups, because of the obvious reasons that they are tiny in numbers (p.123) and secretive, and also because individuals who end up being radicalized by ascribing to extreme ideologies and then get connected to violent jihadi cells do so by way of the Internet rather than in the mosques. Hence, during my study I did not meet a single person who defined themselves as jihadi. Instead, I only met individuals who despised the actions of jihadis. Yet since jihadi terrorism is a small subsection of the Salafi movement and converted Muslims are part of this scene too, I discuss it briefly here.

Although research shows that people generally acquire extreme ideas on the Internet as isolated individuals, and not in mosques, Salafi mosques have been under the German government’s scrutiny over the past ten years. Marc Sageman (2011), one of the most insightful experts on Islamic violence, notes that in Belgium, his area of expertise, not a single foreign recruiter came to the country to attract individuals to terror groups. Rather, individuals frequently join the jihadi cause totally voluntarily and on their own. Arid Uka, a twenty-one-year-old Albanian German who committed the first Islamically motivated terror act in Germany in 2011 by killing two US airmen and injuring two others on their way to Afghanistan, struck out totally on his own after watching a propaganda film purporting to show US soldiers raping Muslim women that was posted by a friend on Facebook. The video clip had been made by using scenes from Brian De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted, a work of fiction.8

Guido Steinberg (2013, 5) writes in his book German Jihad that Uka learned about the jihadi ideology and politics on his own, without the guidance of any authorities or masterminds: “After only a few months, Uka was ready to join the battle in Iraq or Afghanistan, but he later told his interrogators—to their surprise—that he didn’t have the necessary contacts. Thus, after having watched the rape video, he decided to act alone and kill Americans on their way to Afghanistan.” Based on Uka’s interrogation reports, Steinberg notes, he did not intend to kill soldiers on their way back from Afghanistan but only on their way to that country. Hence, he killed the US airmen after asking if they were on their way to Afghanistan.

Even though jihadis based in the West seem to join these groups totally on their own initiative, it would be wrong to overlook the internationally determined reasons for the development of the jihadi groups and their choice of targets. Steinberg observes that jihadis based in Germany came into being only after Germany’s intervention in Afghanistan and targeted Germany in order to put pressure on Germany to withdraw its troops. Individual jihadis follow the international scene and also get their ideas about potential targets as a result of being informed about this scene through radical sources on the Internet, such as the propaganda video seen by Uka. “Many [jihadis] stated that the suffering of Afghan Muslims at the hands of Western forces was one of their prime motives for joining the jihadist caravan” (ibid., 29). Between 2007 and 2010, several dozen young men and (p.124) women from different parts of Germany joined the jihad in Afghanistan as a result. In 2009, they even founded the first exclusively German jihadist group, the German Taliban Mujahideen (ibid., 30–31).

Some scholars and security experts point to the high number of converts among those who join jihadi groups. Robert Leiken (2011, 236), for example, argues that “if a German Muslim is a convert he is eighty times more likely to become a jihadi than is a born Muslim,” making the obvious mistake of assuming that all born Muslims are practicing Muslims—whereas most converts are. He also puts converts in a suspect position, notwithstanding that only a handful of converts are jihadis—perhaps a few dozen out of tens of thousands of converts.

Here it is important to underscore that individuals who joined these jihadi groups had different motivations, “including a lust for adventure, the wish to leave their allegedly corrupted home society, the prospect of imitating the life of the first Muslims in Mecca and Medina in the seventh century, and hatred of the US, Germany, and their allies. … In all cases in which the course of their radicalization has been established, however, non-Muslim interventions in Muslim countries played an important role” (Steinberg 2013, 31).

The story of an African German convert to Islam who became a Salafi jihadi sheds light on some of the dynamics discussed above. Denis Mamadou Cuspert was born to a German mother and Ghanian father in Kreuzberg, Berlin. His father left the family when he was a baby, and he grew up with an African American stepfather who had formerly been a US army officer. Cuspert had many conflicts with this man, who was strict and used brutal disciplining methods.9 After tough years with his stepfather, Cuspert was sent to a facility for difficult children.10 On leaving the facility in 1995, he found a way to channel his energies into rap music and became well known in the German rap scene as Deso Dogg. His music depicted “ghetto” life in Kreuzberg with images of street violence, criminality, and racialized confrontation with the police borrowed from African American rap. In his videos, Deso Dogg portrayed gangs in Kreuzberg consisting of blacks, Turks, and Arabs.11 Deso Dogg’s music also had a political dimension that criticized this racism, and in interviews he has said that he is rapping about the racist German society he was raised in: “I grew up with racism. Though my mother is German, some teachers would call me ‘Negro’ and treat all Muslim kids bad.”12

Following a car accident in 2010, at a time when his music career had plummeted, Deso Dogg announced that he had converted to Islam and changed his name first to Abou Maleeq and then to Abu Talha al-Almani.13 He quickly became part of the Salafi scene and was affiliated with the converted Salafi preacher Vogel. During that period, he gave many proselytizing lectures in Salafi mosques, and those talks have been posted online. After (p.125) his conversion, he seemed less interested in the realities of Germany and showed signs of wanting to leave the country. In an interview he gave in November 2010, the ex-rapper describes Berlin as a “Kuffar” (infidel) metropole, and declares his desire to join Muslim mujahideen in Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Somalia. In 2012, he met an Austrian Al-Qaeda member named Mohamed Mahmoud, who had recently been released from prison. Through this connection, it seems, the ex-rapper joined the most radical Salafi faction. The tone of his Islamic speeches changed during this time. In his early videos, he talks about his self-transformation in an emotional tone. In this narrative of redemption, he details the kind of “bad life” he led from his adolescence on, and subsequent feelings of dissatisfaction and emptiness, despite his success and money. He is frequently overwhelmed and tears roll down his cheeks. Soon afterward, his tone changed in his videos, and he started singing German-language Islamic chants (nasheeda), celebrating Osama bin Laden and calling on Muslims to join the jihad.14 He also made a video that threatened Germany with further attacks, and since then has been under the observation of German authorities.15 While under surveillance, he left Germany, first going to Egypt along with dozens of German Salafis, including Mahmoud, and then to Syria in order to fight on the side of the Salafi Al-Nusra front.16 As this book was being written, he was still in Syria, and had uploaded a video that showed him in a warrior outfit and with a gun in the mountains of Syria. In the short video, he calls on Muslims to join the jihad, while he gleefully plays with water in a small pond and fires his gun in the air. German officials have expressed concern about these activists further radicalizing and learning military techniques that they can use to terrorize people back in Germany.

It should be kept in mind that Deso Dogg converted to Salafism at a time when German troops were increasingly active in Afghanistan and jihadi Web sites were seeking to recruit German jihadis online to put pressure on Germany. The Austrian Al-Qaeda member Mahmoud, who had just been released from prison, was behind most of the open German-language Internet calls to jihad.17

Breaking with Traditional Muslims

Since Salafis seek to emulate the lifestyle of the first three generations of Muslims and follow Islamic scripture to the letter, they distance themselves from Muslims who they see as having diverged from that path. They do so on the basis of the principle of loyalty and disavowal (walaʾ wa-l-baraʾ), which calls on Muslims to distance themselves from Muslims who are insufficiently devout. Salafis feel that a true believer must demonstrate their enmity toward Muslim “idolaters.” The distinctive appearance of Salafi men—full beards, skullcaps, jalabiyyas, and pants three or four inches above (p.126) the ankle—and women, often with their faces covered, is among the most effective ways in which they display their difference from other Muslims groups in Germany. Salafis also often shun events that aim to bring different Muslim groups together, such as the annual Muslim Cup sporting event and Islam Day in Berlin, which strives to explain Islam to non-Muslims. Men and women sitting together as well as women playing sports, even when fully covered, do not fit their view of proper Muslim behavior. Instead, Salafis create distinct, close-knit communities and keep their distance from other Muslim groups.

Newcomers to Islam or older Muslims who newly affiliate with Salafism similarly need to learn how to disassociate themselves from situations that might be unacceptable or unfavorable from the perspective of their new creed. In my observations at the Salafi mosque in Berlin, even though newcomers were never explicitly told to stay away from their non-Salafi family and friends, and they were always encouraged to be respectful of their parents, the practical advice given for everyday matters leads to Salafis’ isolation from their previous communities, including family and friends. New Muslims frequently want to know if it is acceptable for them to take part in Christmas, Easter, or birthday celebrations with their families; if they can go to baptism ceremonies or funerals; or if they can be present at a dinner table where there is alcohol. Imams or other counselors in mosques often advise that although there is nothing wrong in theory with, say, taking part in Christmas dinner, in reality it would be unadvisable, because the family would be practicing idolatry or would drink alcohol. Or when they ask if it would be acceptable to continue sending their child to a church-based preschool, which are widespread in Germany, the typical answer I heard was that it would be acceptable if they did not teach them about the Trinity there, but since they do, it is not advisable.

Similar rules of distancing oneself from people who do not adhere to the correct path, according to the Salafi perspective, apply not only to non-Muslims but also to other Muslims who are under the influence of national traditions. Thus, regardless of their ethnic background, those who become Salafis often end up shedding connections with their families and friends in exchange for the close-knit community they find among like-minded Salafis. In the end, even though the new community is quite strict in the way it organizes daily life, it is wildly diverse and welcoming to newcomers of any background. Born and converted Muslims in Salafi circles enjoy a feeling of superiority in relation not only to non-Muslims but to traditional Muslims as well. Salafis make frequent reference to a Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says, “My people will split into seventy-three sects. All of them are damned to hellfire except one.” Looking at the world from the perspective of this Hadith, there is not much difference between the (p.127) majority of the Muslims who do not purify themselves and non-Muslims. None of them will be saved in the end.

Ethnic Muslims in Salafi Mosques

Like other Salafi mosques in Europe, the al-Nur mosque also is heavily attended by born Muslims of Arab, Turkish, or African background. I focused on converts to Islam during my research, but I met many born Muslims in the al-Nur mosque too. I found that most of the born Muslims there shared common experiences with converts. They also came from nonpracticing families and had found Islam for themselves. They were young individuals alienated from ethnic mosques, either because they were not fluent in the languages spoken there or did not feel part of these communities. They told me that they appreciated that German was spoken in the Salafi mosque and they felt welcome there. Narratives of the experiences of three born Muslims from nonpracticing families who regularly attended the al-Nur mosque with quite different expectations will illustrate their perspective.

Canan is a seventeen-year-old Turkish German high school student with an imposing personality for her tiny frame. When I met her, it was clear that at least one of the imams saw her as the perfect person to be responsible for new young Muslim women members in the near future. This imam would make sure that Canan came to classes and understood all the arguments. He would always joke with her. When I asked Canan why she found this mosque appealing, she replied that she really liked the ease of relationships in this mosque. She said that when she went to Turkish mosques, she felt oppressed by older Turkish women, who seemed too serious to her. She liked the fact that everyone in this mosque was young and always ready to joke. Furthermore, what she had learned about the details of religious practice in this mosque put Canan in conflict with the women in Turkish mosques. Canan said that she kept going to Turkish mosques for a while, carrying printouts from German-language Salafi Web sites to try to prove to the Turks that their practices were inventions, bid ʾa, and therefore not valid in Islam. Yet she got frustrated when Turkish women there did not take her seriously. “I’d take them information that is supported with references to the Qurʾan and the Hadith, and they would say, ‘This is information from your mosque. That is not how we do things here!’”

Canan came from a nonpracticing family. She told me that until a year earlier, she had only been interested in boys. Everything changed when she fell in love with a young Arab man in her class who attended the al-Nur mosque. Even though the nature of their involvement was ambiguous, and (p.128) he never promised to get married, he always made sure to keep Canan under his control. He made sure that she never went home late and never talked to other men. It was apparent that one reason for the ambiguity of the relationship lay in the fact that the young man was Arab and Canan was Turkish. Intermarriage between Germans and Arabs is common, but not between Turks and Arabs. And when it does happen, it is not devoid of conflict.

This Arab man told Canan to take off her nose ring and come to the al-Nur mosque. The al-Nur mosque ended up being a spiritual and social home for Canan. She started going there almost every day. She began praying regularly, and wearing a headscarf and conservative clothing. Canan took off her nose ring. One of the imams in the mosque, who Canan really respected and adored, told her that having this kind of relationship with a man was not acceptable, even if it mainly consisted of exchanging texts. “You should either should get married or end this relationship,” he advised Canan. The imam was of Lebanese background, like the young man; he even volunteered to act as an intermediary and talk to the young man’s father. Following this intervention, the relationship came to a halt.

I met Canan during my first year of fieldwork. A year later, when I returned to continue my research, I did not see her there. Acquaintances told me that she no longer attended the mosque. I could not find out why; she may have married another man and moved elsewhere, or simply stopped attending the mosque after things did not work out with the Arab man. Perhaps she became alienated from the mosque because the imam’s actions had led to her losing that relationship. It is also possible that she married someone else from the Salafi community and moved to another city.

Esin is a thirty-year-old Turkish woman who came to Germany several years ago to continue her studies in art. She painted abstract figures expressing pain. Religion had played almost no role in her life when she was in Istanbul or during her first few years in Berlin. She told me that her life followed a typical pattern for art students in Istanbul and Berlin—alcohol, drugs, and ill-defined relationships with men. During this time, she began having intense nightmares, which she interpreted as calls to Islam. She frequently dreamed that she was in a small boat in the middle of a rough sea at night. She had to hold on tight to the boat’s mast, and fire rained on her. In her dream, she recited the Shahadah, and then things would calm down. She began saying the Shahadah when she was awake and withdrew from her art circles.

At the time, she was romantically involved with a German student, Manfred, in the same program. Manfred had grown up without religion in the former East Germany. But he had a great interest in it, and they spent a lot of them talking about different religions, reading the Bible and Qurʾan together. As a result of her being called through dreams, Esin started practicing (p.129) Islam. Eventually, Manfred also converted and they married. After his conversion, Manfred stopped painting and changed his major to Arabic literature, so that he could read and understand the Qurʾan in its original language.

Esin told me that she felt at home in Islam, but did not feel at home in Turkish mosques. When she went to the Turkish mosques, she felt as though everyone was scrutinizing and judging her. On her first day at a Turkish mosque, one woman found her headscarf not conservative enough and tried to put another scarf over her head. That offended Esin. Turkish mosques also did not work for her husband, who did not speak any Turkish. Then they heard about the al-Nur mosque and started going there. Esin did not have any special opinions about this mosque, yet she felt like she was not being judged by how she looked, which was especially gratifying given the African-style headscarf she wore.

Hamza is a sweet-mannered seventeen-year-old Arab German with a big smile that never seems to fade. He was born to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother in Berlin. When we first met, he mentioned that I looked just like his mother. He later explained that I reminded him of his mother not because of my physical features but instead because I was not wearing a headscarf, and my clothes were neither too revealing nor too conservative. According to Hamza, his mother would have nothing to do with religion. She fasted during Ramadan, but that clearly was not enough to impress Hamza. His father sometimes went to Arab mosques, yet Hamza did not go with him since he did not understand Arabic. Hamza’s siblings shared his passion for religion. His brother was a mosque-going Muslim who took his religion seriously. His sister had become a Christian active in an evangelical church group. Hamza told me that his friends would get angry when they saw his sister wearing a big cross. “When that happens,” Hamza said, “I repeat the verse from the Qurʾan, ‘There is no compulsion in religion. We all do what we want!’”

Hamza told me that he liked going to mosques, especially because it was so easy to find friends there. “You go to a mosque,” he commented, “and immediately people say, ‘Welcome, brother,’ and start talking to you. How else can I meet people? After lectures we go and drink tea together, [and] we talk.” He explained that he likes the al-Nur mosque because it is the most fun. “It is full of young people, and Abdul Adhim is so funny,” he said with a big smile on his face. We exchanged some of Abdul Adhim’s jokes from his lectures and laughed together. We both found it especially hilarious when Abdul Adhim waved at the camera in front of himself enthusiastically and said, “Hello sisters!” to the women watching him on the big flat-screen television in the women’s section. But al-Nur was only one of the many mosques that Hamza attended. He went to several Turkish and Arab mosques, all with German-speaking activities. He pretty much listed (p.130) all the mosques in which I did my research: the Bilal mosque, where the DMK is housed, and the Mevlana, a Turkish mosque open to other ethnicities with German-speaking activities. Hamza told me that he had recently begun attending another mosque affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen movement, and really liked it.18 He noted that they read works by Said Nursi, which he found extremely deep.19 Hamza shared something he had learned there that impressed him: “When you look at a beautiful picture, you know that someone made it even if you do not see the painter. And the painter of the world is Allah. You can know him in the beauty you see here. At the al-Nur mosque, they tell us not to read anything other than the Qurʾan and the Hadith. But why shouldn’t I read such meaningful things?” Hamza viewed this as limiting.

He confided to me that there were some things that he did not like about the al-Nur mosque, such as being told not to go to other mosques. Moreover, “most brothers there had really difficult lives,” he said. “They were drug addicts, alcoholics; they were in prison. But in the Gülen mosque, everyone is a student. I really like that too.”

What these born Muslims have in common is that they were all new to Islam or Islamic practice in one way or another. They all went to the al-Nur mosque to learn about Islam in a context outside their families and national traditions. They attended the mosque to learn about Islam in German and a diverse context welcoming to people like themselves who knew little about Islam. And they did not feel burdened by their previous lives and backgrounds there. The al-Nur mosque felt welcoming without making them feel judged, at least for a newcomer. Unlike national mosques, which they said often felt as though they were exclusively for Turks, Bosnians, Indonesians, or Pakistanis, it seemed to them that the al-Nur mosque did not belonged to any specific group, and thus belonged to anyone in Germany who could speak and understand German. These born Muslims represent a new generation of new Germans who are less invested in their ethnic backgrounds, and more interested in finding spiritual and social meaning in the context in which they live.


Despite the negative publicity that Salafi mosques such as the al-Nur receive in the media, they continue to attract newcomers to Islam. Salafi daʾwa may not always be, and generally is not, the reason that Germans convert to Islam.20 But it is the reason why they remain Muslims, or at least why they practice their religion while feeling perfectly acceptable members of the Ummah. Salafi puritanism—that is, a conversionist, literalist, anticulturalist, and antihistorical version of Islam—is attractive to both converts (p.131) and born Muslims who did not necessarily grow up as practicing Muslims, since it places them on equal footing with—or even better, makes them feel superior to—all other Muslims. This is especially powerful in a context where immigrant Muslims are routinely accused of being misogynistic, violent, uneducated, and simply stupid. Salafism allows new converts to fully embrace their religion without having to deal with the anti-Muslim sentiment with which they find themselves surrounded. It even permits them to feel superior to Muslims with immigrant backgrounds and invite them to true Islam, which is not Turkish, Arab, or Pakistani. Salafi mosques are the only Muslim spaces in Germany where piety matters more than ethnic or national background.

In that sense, Salafi Islam is the only Sunni Islamic practice in contemporary Germany that totally bypasses the question of national tradition along with the difficult issue of double consciousness for both converted German Muslims and Muslims with immigrant backgrounds. In their unique ability to bring together people of all possible backgrounds, Salafis show that they are able to present Islam as a fitting spiritual home to utterly diverse people. They truly queer ethnicity and create a totally new community consisting of people of diverse backgrounds united by their new identity as Muslims. Salafi Islam is thus a model of postethnic sociability that fits the realities of the contemporary postindustrial, postsocialist, postunification, and ethnically mixed Germany, where people are not preoccupied with the unitary consciousness favored by both middle-class ethnic German converts to Islam and DuBois, educated in the tradition of German idealism as a graduate student in late nineteenth-century Berlin. Given Salafis’ nostalgia for early Islam, in which Meccans and Medinans of different tribes came together to form the first Ummah, their practice allows for a space where no ethnic background is relevant.


(2.) For a history and the contemporary condition of Salafism, see Meijer 2009.

(3.) Quintan Wiktorowicz (2006) argues that there are three kinds of Salafis: quietists, politicos, and jihadis.

(4.) These numbers appear in the 2011 BfV report; see Bartsch, Popp, and Scheuermann 2012.

(7.) Vogel is under observation by the German Interior Ministry, suspected of being a hate preacher and having ties to jihadists groups. He denies both accusations and offers to give a thousand euros to anyone who can find hate speech in the thousands of videos he has posted.

(8.) Redacted is written and directed by Brian De Palma. It is a fictional dramatization of killings in 2006 by the US Army in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. The film received a Silver Lion best director award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival.

(9.) During a mosque lecture that he gave after his conversion, Cuspert talks about how his stepfather used to punish him physically and shows one of the big scars remaining from these beatings. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QIM5Wtju.

(11.) See, for example, the 2009 video Wilkommen in meiner Welt.

(12.) Quoted in Schmitt 2011.

(13.) Deso Dogg’s conversion does not look like a sudden decision, since Muslim themes, such as people taking ablutions or images of Ali’s sword as tattoos, were present in his videos in the mid-2000s. See, for example, the 2006 video Das ist die Realitat, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIEV5XyKJI4.

(14.) See, for example, “Mujahid lauf, Mujahid kämpf! Guck’ wie der Kafir stirbt und brennt! … Allah hat versprochen, der Sieg wird kommen. … Unser Ziel ist die Scharia, bis der Tod zu uns kommt! (Mujahid go, Mujahid fight! Look how the Kafir dies and burns. Allah has promised that the victory will come. … Our goal is Sharia, until death comes to us!).” Florian Flade, “Islamistische Kampflieder auf den Index gesetzt,” Die Welt, March 16, 2012, www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article13924439/Islamistische-Kampflieder-auf-den-Index-gesetzt.html.

(17.) “In Search of ‘True Islam’: Salafists Abandon Germany for Egypt,” Der Spiegel Online, August 13, 2012, www.spiegel.de/international/world/german-islamists-travel-to-egypt-a-849802.html.

(18.) The movement taking the name of Fethullah Gülen (born 1941) is a transnational Islamic one based in Turkey. For a discussion of the movement, see Turam 2006; Ebaugh 2009.

(19.) Said Nursi (1878–1960) was a Muslim scholar who wrote extensively while Turkey was going through rapid secularization. The faith movement that he started played an important role in the revitalization of Islam in Turkey. For a discussion of Said Nursi, see Mardin 1989.

(20.) Sadek Hamid (2009) also notes that all the Salafis he met in Britain came to Salafi mosques not owing to Salafi missionizing but rather following their dissatisfaction with other mosques, including the Tablighi Jemaat.