LONDON — At London’s Ladbroke Grove Tube station, a very steep set of stairs leads down to street level. If you turn right at the foot of the stairs it is only a short stroll to the famous Portobello Market and the even more famous Nottinghill, with its pubs and clubs, designer shops and cream and pink candy-colored house frontages. No other part of London is as cool and effortlessly chic.
If you were to turn left at the foot of the stairs, you would find a world that is a few shades darker. A few kilometers down that road is the Quintin Kynaston Academy, where Mohammed Emwazi went to school. Emwazi is better known as "Jihadi John," famous for cutting off people’s heads on live TV in the middle of the Syrian desert. He swears that "with Allah’s help, ISIS will be slaughtering your people in your streets soon."
"When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you," Winston Churchill once said. But this does not hold true on London’s streets and has not done so for a while. More than 600 young Britons have joined the ISIS terrorist network. The group's tentacles can reach anywhere, into every corner — into Islamic cultural institutions, into mosques, even into children’s bedrooms.
ISIS recruiters stalk young boys and girls by spying on their online entries. They take advantage of their young victims' naïvetéï»¿ and lack of self confidence. In the last year alone, at least 22 young girls gave up their lives in the United Kingdom to become "jihadi brides."
"Dad, I am a member of ISIS and I will never return home." That is how the last phone call of one of those girls made to her father ended.
"I don't preach"
At the all-girls Sion-Manning School, a group of 150 students are howling with laughter, screaming in a way that only teenagers can scream. Humza Arshad has just told his first joke — "But you always get such dry ankles in the desert! Honestly, have you ever looked at the ankles of those jihadists? Don’t they have E45 cream down there?" — and it went down well.
"Hey girls, how many of you are Muslim?" More than a third lift their hands. "Cool, we're this place over!" More shrieks of laughter. The girls know Humza. He is a YouTube star, with nearly 250,000 followers. And more than 60 million people have watched his clips online.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, he has become London’s newest and most modern weapon in the fight against Islamic extremists. The 29-year-old comedian is touring more than 50 schools, by order of the Metropolitan Police. More than 20,000 kids have seen "badman," aka Humza, have cheered him in their assembly halls, have cheered the man dressed in a beanie hat and hoodie who slags off ultra-conservative Pakistani parents and "remote-controlled" ISIS followers.
But the message he wants to deliver at the end of his gigs is a simple one: Islam is a peaceful religion. He says that people who view violence as a means to an end have misunderstood Islam's message. "I don’t preach," the comedian insists. "But I can reach the children much better than a civil servant in a checked shirt can."
Riz Chothia is a civil servant who was inspired to hire Humza when he saw his 11-year-old son watching "badman" online. "This was a young Muslim, who is incredibly popular, and whose sketches you wouldn’t have to fear as a parent," he explains. "That was it!"
Chothia is a police officer and part of a special anti-terrorism task force in Lincolnshire, in England's midlands. After he hired Humza, the policeman's colleagues in London followed suit. "With Humza we had somebody who speaks the language of the youth of today, someone who can reach them far better than we can," says Chothia.
At Humza’s gigs there are no police officers in uniform, not even the logo of the Met is anywhere in sight. No enforcement gigs, no monologues. Instead, Humza’s gigs resemble "Q&A game sessions." What can young people do when a friend or relative is acting strangely all of a sudden? Humza tries to get the message across that it's okay to contact the police in these situations.
With every passing minute the girls become more and more restless. Humza has promised them the opportunity to take pictures with him at the end of the gig. A little while later, a wave of girls accosts him and, cell phone camera's popping, a huge selfie session begins.
Afterwards – Humza has been gone for quite a while ago at this stage – the girls are still standing together in groups, chatting and giggling with flushed faces. The photos featuring them together with Humza have long since disappeared into the online ether that is Instagram. But the message has taken hold in the girl’s heads and they are still thinking about it.
"This was the first time someone ever explained to me what extremism actually is," says Shania, 15. "And he also explained what I can do if I witness it."
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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