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.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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