Small Muslim group opens up to outsiders

Berlin, Germany - Germany has some four million adherents to Islam, but as David Wroe reports, a small group of Muslims is making a big effort to become a recognised part of German society.

When the Ahmadi Muslim community was building a mosque in eastern Berlin last year – the first in formerly communist East Germany – they didn’t expect it to be easy. But nor did they expect death threats.

“I was standing on the road,” said Abdul Basit Tariq, the mosque’s Imam. A man stood there and stared at me with very sharp eyes and said, ‘I will kill you.’”

Another man living across the road unfurled a German flag on his balcony and, according to the Imam, cried out, ''This country belongs to us, not to you.''

“They were afraid and tried their best to stop the construction,” Tariq said of local agitators in Berlin’s eastern Pankow district who tried to whip up opposition to the house of worship.

“They spread fear, spread hostility. They said, the Muslims will put their prayer carpets on the road. Property prices will go down. The schools will be filled with Muslim children. We are not ready to see women on the streets with black veils.”

Such folks ought best avoid Mannheim this weekend. Ahmadiyya, a small but determined Muslim community that split from the Sunni faith in the late 19th century, is holding what is thought to be the biggest ever Muslim gathering in Germany. Up to 35,000 Ahmadis will converge on Mannheim in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg – a conspicuous presence in a city of 330,000.

Ahmadiyya Islam is an oddity. On a continent where Muslim communities are accused of forming enclaves that refuse to integrate, the Ahmadi bend over backwards to reach out to the mainstream and open themselves up to scrutiny.

They are also unapologetically ambitious. Though they are small, with about 30,000 members out of more than four million Muslims in Germany, they aim to build 100 mosques across the country in the next couple of decades. There will be plenty more like the one built in Pankow.

“We like to say, ‘Here we are. This is what we’re about. We’re not going away, so let’s be open with each other,’” explains the community’s affable national spokesman, Ijaz Ahmad.

For the Mannheim meeting, they have invited virtually all of Germany’s media organisations – though few, it seems, have taken up the offer – and secured the attendance or written greetings of MPs from the country’s major political parties, as well as the mayors of Mannheim, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Riedstadt.

“The lesson they have learnt is that the only method they can take against all the emotions of the people who do not really know them is complete transparency,” says Greens MP Omid Nouripour. “That’s the way they are trying to go now. It’s a good idea. It’s the only idea that can work.”

Used to being outsiders

The Ahmadi are used to being outsiders, having been persecuted in their homeland of Pakistan and dismissed as a sect by mainstream Muslims in Germany. Nouripour, who is of Iranian background, says mainstream Muslims have made a “huge mistake” in not inviting the Ahmadi to such gatherings as the German Islamic Conference.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, has made a point of stating the Ahmadi are peaceful. They strongly condemn all violence and interpret Jihad as an internal struggle to free oneself of impurities and be more faithful to God.

Yet despite describing themselves as reformist, they are considered to be conservative and, particularly in their adherence to hejab dress for women, likely to anger many Germans.

In an interview with The Local, Imam Tariq railed against the European culture of sexual freedom and binge drinking, and said women should not go out in public alone. Spokesman Ahmad did his best to restrain him.

“He doesn’t mean they can’t go out alone,” Ahmad said. “Only that it’s better if they don’t. If someone wants to wear a veil, that’s her choice. No one can force her.”

In 2007, the Ahmadi had a public relations disaster when its youth magazine claimed eating pork made you gay – a stance swiftly rejected by the community’s leaders.

Since the Pankow mosque opened late last year, the community’s bridge-building, which has included holding “open house days” and inviting their critics, has turned public opinion around, according to Ahmad and Tariq.

''The Mosque was filled with German people,” Tariq said. “We were saying, 'We will not hide from you. And if you won't come to us, let us come to you.' We are not bad people, we are civilised people.''

Even Joachim Swietlik, the head of the local opposition came to an open day and stayed for five hours, they said.

They felt they had at least partly convinced him. Swietlik’s Pankow-Heinersdorf Citizens' Interest Group did not respond to email requests for an interview, but recent postings on their website, which includes a sarcastic denunciation of a kids’ playground on the mosque premises, suggests the Ahmadi still have their work cut out for them.