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With Germany's New Salafist 'Sharia Police'

Orange-clad vigilantes
Orange-clad vigilantes
Hannelore Crolly

WUPPERTAL — The god you’ll discover if you become a Salafist is not a god who will coddle you. That’s a message zealot Pierre Vogel sends out loud and clear over the microphone when he’s doing his village tours to promote the "perfect sharia."

Germany’s best-known convert to Islam used to be a professional boxer who isn’t much for coddling anyway; in fact he likes keeping things crystal clear. The big boss, i.e. God, he says, made the universe "so he also has the right to decide what you should do and what you shouldn’t."

Therefore, alcohol is out, as is gambling, music, porn. The universe is as simple as that for the self-appointed preacher who goes by the name of "Abu Hamza."

In the western German city of Wuppertal, where Vogel is based, one might also add: if you attend their Darul Arqam mosque, don't expect to be greeted by a warm and cozy setting.

It’s located in a sad industrial back court at the edge of a wood. By the door sits a huge rusting container. But according to police this is the new Salafist meeting point in the Bergisches Land, a low mountain range region in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia – where young Muslims on the "right path" are led.

Arcades and paradise

It’s also where Vogel has often laid out his views on alcohol, gaming and porn and where the obscure "Sharia Police," which have recently made headlines in Germany, began their patrols.

Mosque spokesmen not only emphatically deny it is Salafist but the mosque does not officially acknowledge its own connection to the self-appointed morals police. But what is clear is that the action of this self-appointed force last Thursday night, widely criticized by German politicians and police, was meant primarily to promote an Islam lived under strict moral precepts. Meanwhile, German intelligence services accuse Darul Arqam mosque of being a possible Salafist meeting place and training center.

What happened last week is that 11 men wearing high-visibility vests that read "Sharia Police" moved through central Wuppertal praying with young Muslims to keep them out of discos and gambling dens. These moral police posted a video of the action that shows the head of the troop, 33-year-old Sven Lau handing out business cards or laying them out in arcades, talking to people, and extending invitations to visit Darul Arqam.

Lau, a former fire fighter, is a pal of Vogel’s, and also a convert to Islam. The radical Islamist used to lead a Salafist association called "Invitation to Paradise" (now no longer in existence) and spent months in investigative custody because he allegedly tried to recruit Germans for military training in the Middle East.

The charge had to be dropped, however, because proof was too vague. But Wuppertal’s integration officer Jürgen Lemmer fears that Lau is continuing to focus on forming an extremist next-gen, relying on swoops through the city exhorting young men to "stay off the wrong path and come to the mosque."

Both Lau and Vogel spoke at the opening of the mosque in May, attended by a crowd of people that filled the 100 square meter courtyard. After that, however, says integration officer Lemmer, the austere location didn’t have enough drawing power to keep people interested. And the severe views of the self-appointed morals squad may have turned more than a few off.

Although Sven Lau apparently doesn’t live in Wuppertal, he was seeking a relatively simple way to promote Darul Arqam, and found one.

On a recent afternoon, a 19-year-old is leaving the mosque amid the sounds of religious chanting. He seems to have taken the invitation up, though he admits openly only to the desire to say a "quick prayer."

Their visit has nothing to do with Sven Lau’s downtown tour, he says. Didn’t he and his friend have second thoughts about going where there might be a lot of radicals like Salafists that try to recruit people for jihad? The 19-year-old, sporting black jeans, thick belt, a white shirt and baseball cap, chuckles with amusement into his well-kept beard. "Nonsense! Those are all great guys up there."

He did admit that he and his friend had seen the video of the group with the high visibility vests. But he also expressed outrage at the amount of "crap" and "lies" that had been written about the action in the German media.

"They didn’t do anything wrong. They were totally polite." They left a few business cards, handed out some friendly info. And anyway: he had nothing against it when people tried to keep kids away from drink and drugs.

Just the start

That is exactly the line of argumentation followed by Sven Lau and Pierre Vogel. In other videos they can be seen joking about how well the thing has taken off. "That was just a test version, we just wanted to show how quickly others go for this and all because of a name," says Lau.

Vogel stresses in a video message, however, that the word "police" in the name could perhaps lead to misunderstanding and may have been poorly chosen.

Though conceding that both he and Lau were surprised by the wide and forceful resistance to the patrol, Lau says they intend to forge ahead, just more cleverly. "The real version will have a different name and work differently, without the orange vests," he explains. He likes the ring of "Anti-Haram Team" which would make them street workers instead of morals police. In Arabic, "haram" means everything that is forbidden or sinful under Sharia law.

"With Allah’s permission we’ll soon be branching out to all cities and keeping brothers and sisters away from the shamefulness not because we interfere, but simply because they see us." Lau says they’ll be going down "all the dark lanes" where politicians and social workers fear to tread to invite people who have been overlooked for years to come to the mosque.

That could only be a mosque in the Darul Arqam mold, however, as spokesmen for all the others expressed outrage at the campaign. Not only has the Wuppertal mosque association distanced itself from the entire undertaking, so have Islamic associations and Muslims all over Germany.

Ersin Özcan, the state chair for the umbrella organization Ditib that coordinates the religious, social and cultural activities of Turkish-Islamic mosque communities nationwide, says the overall impact of Lau’s action were "harmful."

"Many put all Muslims in the same boat," he says. "But this campaign is not Islam."

Many people in Wuppertal, including Muslims, are unhappy with the campaign and turned to the police for help. One young Turkish man said, "I feel like parking myself outside a disco with a can of beer in my hand and waiting for these guys. Somebody has to show them where things stand."

He soon recants, however, saying, "Well, maybe not. You don’t know how many of them there are." According to German intelligence, there are 1,800 Salafists in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

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