Banning Salafists 'Won't Solve Social Problems'

The debate on Salafists, members of a fundamentalist strain of Islam who are suspected of having close ties to Islamist extremists, has been raging in Germany for months. Following a number of recent violent incidents, including the stabbing of police officers in Bonn, there have been growing calls for the government to act.

On Thursday, it did just that. In an operation involving 1,000 officers, authorities raided Salafist facilities in seven German states. They also banned one of the most important Salafist groups in the country, the Millatu Ibrahim.

"The organization acts in opposition to the idea of constitutional order and multicultural understanding," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said on Thursday. He added that the group promotes violence in its "fight against the existing constitutional order."

The German government considers Salafists to be particularly dangerous and prone to violence, primarily because of their single-minded goal of establishing Sharia in Germany and their rejection of Western values. They have been in the headlines all spring, initially because of their drive to attract new members by handing out free copies of the Koran in major German cities. But it was their violent response to a campaign in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that landed them in the spotlight of justice officials.

In early May, the Islamophobic mini-party Pro-NRW launched a campaign to display anti-Islam caricatures in front of mosques and other Muslim facilities in North Rhine-Westphalia ahead of elections in the state. Counter-demonstrations in both Solingen and Bonn turned violent, with Salafists attacking police with rocks, sticks and even knives. In Bonn, 29 police were injured, two of them landing in the hospital with stab wounds.

On Friday, German commentators welcome the action but warn that more needs to be done.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The interior minister called the raid of the Salafists 'extremely successful.' But it's a bit early to be drawing such conclusions. You can ban groups but not opinions. Merely attempting to do that would be incompatible with our free democratic order, which also grants freedom to those who oppose the state, as far as is reasonable. Bans on associations, symbols and statements can only be a last resort."

"The operation is a symbol that is not aimed so much at the hard core of diehards (…) but is instead designed to deter hangers-on and give reassurance to those who abide by the law. Such drastic actions are, of course, also a sign that politicians are doing something, which is why they are always accompanied by newspaper images and television footage."

"When (politicians) feel -- for good reason -- helpless to act and cannot come up with a solution, they cannot admit that openly. Instead, they need to do something -- it doesn't matter what. That doesn't mean that banning parties or associations is totally ineffective, but those measures don't solve social problems."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Hate is still hate even if those who preach it refer to God or Allah. Violence is still violence even if it masquerades as religion. No God, whatever He is called, gives people the right to disrespect and ignore human rights. Those who do that in Germany are violating the country's liberal democratic order. Religion is no excuse and certainly no justification for defining other people as targets. (…) The constitutional right of freedom of religion is not an excuse for aggression, and the right of freedom of association does not mean that the state should protect militants who club together."

"The Salafists represent a tiny minority of the Muslims in Germany. Militant Salafists are, in turn, a minority within that minority. The vast majority of German Muslims distance themselves from the Salafists (…). Muslims in Germany should actually praise Friedrich for his ban -- if they did not have reason to suspect that the minister is suspicious of all forms of Islam. Unfortunately, Friedrich himself has provided plenty of reasons to make them think that."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has sent an important stop signal. With the prohibition on the association Millatu Ibrahim, the searches of 70 properties and an operation involving hundreds of police officers, the government has made it clear that the state will not put up with just anything. The biggest operation against radical Salafists in the history of postwar Germany has weakened the scene."

"But we should not expect too much from this operation. Bans can only be part of the strategy against radical Salafism. They weaken their organizational structures in the short term, but they may also serve to further increase the hatred of Western culture and the propensity for violence. The anti-democratic and inhumane ideology cannot simply be banned, but will remain firmly established in the minds of most of these young men."

"That does not make them any less dangerous. On the contrary, their potential for violence is already enormous, as seen in the recent stabbing of two police officers by a Salafist and streetfighting between Islamists and Islamophobes. (…) One wonders where the cycle of violence will end -- in deaths?"

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The state is flexing its muscles -- and it's targeting the right people. It's correct that it takes it very seriously when Salafists campaign against democracy or glorify al-Qaida terror. (…) But bans do not provide an answer to the question of why the bearded Islamists in their baggy robes, who preach a very traditional form of Islam, have attracted so many young people in recent years. Too much pressure even helps the Salafists to style themselves as victims of state repression -- which could even inspire radicalization in some people."

"For Interior Minister Friedrich and his counterparts on the state level, the provocations of the Salafists provide a welcome opportunity to show themselves to be men of action. They couldn't hope for a better target group than the bearded reactionaries, who enjoy very little public sympathy. The bigger challenge, however, is reintegrating those young people who are fascinated by Salafism back into society, through education, prevention and programs to help them abandon the scene. That would get less public approval, but it would be much more important in the long term."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The raids and the banning of a Salafist organization are instruments of a strong democracy that is able to defend itself. They are not targeted against all Muslims, but against those Muslims who want to destroy our liberal democratic order."

"But toughness and dialogue should be two sides of the same coin. That is the only way that we can make sure that most Muslims feel at home in Germany -- and that they, like democratic citizens who belong to other religions, welcome it when the state takes action against extremists."