Why young Germans become jihadists

The reasons behind people’s radicalization are individual. However, anger over lack of social recognition often plays an important role. Salafism and Islamophobia must be tackled simultaneously.

There are not many terms that have gained coinage as rapidly in our society as that of “Salafism.” Less than a decade ago, the word was known to just a handful of experts. Now, most people know that  it refers to a very new phenomenon of extremism, one that stands alongside the known forms of right-wing and left-wing extremism.

Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has examined Salafism since 2006. Shortly prior, one of the most influential minds of the German jihadist movement to date, Pierre Vogel, had caused a sensation among young people with public appearances and Internet videos.

Islamic scholars and religion teachers may have noticed the phenomenon a few years earlier. However, they did not view it as anything that remarkable in the beginning, especially since similar trends have always existed in Islam. Yet, with the growing social relevance, their assessment of the phenomenon of Salafism changed.

The reasons for a radicalization toward Salafi jihadism are numerous. There is no pattern of radicalization. Nor does it attract only disadvantaged people or only very religious people. Every case has to be examined individually when seeking to identify the causes of the radicalization.

However, people who have fallen for Salafism tend to share two traits. One is frustration and anger over perceived injustices brought onto them by society or their own families. And the second one is the desire for attention and recognition.

Powerlessness and rage

Interviews with members of the scene as well as defectors often point in these two directions. The mostly young followers are frustrated with their lives, a lack of opportunities and the rejection and discrimination by mainstream society. Feelings of exclusion may be nurtured by repeated negative experiences at school, with the police, when working through a bureaucratic system, or, for that matter, when dealing with a supermarket cashier or health care professional.

Followers need not even have made these experiences themselves. Merely witnessing the plight of others can, in some cases, suffice to engender a self-image of a second-class citizen in some. For example, hearing other people’s private stories, or witnessing public discussions about Muslims and their religion. Each headscarf debate, each PEGIDA march is a signal to (young) Muslims in Germany that they essentially do not belong there.

This sentiment is exacerbated when leading politicians sit down with, for example, PEGIDA sympathizers and ask them about their fears and concerns. This invariably raises the question among those targeted by PEGIDA: “And who asks about my fears? Who sits down with us?” Most Muslims try to ignore such fears, and tune out and look away. But not everyone can do that; some individuals slowly develop feelings of rage and powerlessness.

And some of these individuals, in turn, feel the desire to take revenge and to get back at this unjust society. It is here that the Salafist public figures come into play. They offer an ideology for compensating these negative feelings and provide the opportunity to enact the desire for revenge. This applies first and foremost to young men, although young women may just as well experience such feelings. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of German Salafists are women.

The role of the family

Furthermore, Salafists emphasize a strong sense of community. They welcome newcomers with open arms and are more than willing to stand by as mentors in word and deed. About 85 to 90 percent of the members of the German Salafist scene have an immigrant background where hospitality is a strongly rooted component of the culture, and their openness strikes a chord with many newcomers.

Thus, closely and individually mentored, newcomers to Salafism hardly have the chance to learn objectively or freely about Islam―nor are they supposed to. Instead, they are to obey and adhere to strict guidelines. New converts to Salafism are usually so insecure and deem themselves to be so unknowledgeable that they accept any offer of assistance gratefully, but not critically. In that context, the conversion becomes a competition of who is the most pious, the most rule and law abiding, and who shows the most commitment to their new community.

This pressure, in particular, can cause young Salafists to make the decision to seekjihad in Syria or Iraq. Often, they are joined by young women, who go to training camps to stay by the side of who they consider to be future martyrs. Whoever enters Salafism, converts, including many who have not even made any previous confession of faith to Islam.

The radicalization has primarily to do with our families and with everyday life in our villages and towns. Religion merely serves as a stand-in of sorts, giving ideological direction and abused to provide justification. When German-born adolescents area drawn to Salafism, their motives are primarily individual and often family-related. In many cases, they come from households where the father is either absent or otherwise incapable of adequately providing for the child.

In that context, the Muslim communities are called on to participate and recognize their responsibility. Indeed, at present they still exhibit significant deficiencies in this regard. Yet, one thing is clear: The Muslim communities alone will not be able to rid society of Salafism.

Growing Islamophobia

Salafists claim, as do other fundamentalists, to represent the true essence of Islam—something which Islamophobes readily buy into. This view, however, is blind to more than 1,000 years of history of religion and an intensive theological exchange. Moreover, the sources on the origins of early Islam, which Salafists claim to imitate, are extremely meager and hardly secured. Finally, Salafists deny epistemological progress, which inevitably sets in over the centuries.

Understanding all this requires deeper insight into the history of Islam. Yet, since few people have that, the messages of Islamophobes can easily catch on. In turn, Salafists use this growing Islamophobia to convince potential recruits that the German society is in fact against Islam.

Thus, caution is advised when discussing Salafism. Giving credence to the Salafist claim that they represent the “true Islam” plays into the hands of Islamophobes and engenders blanket statements or hasty and unfounded arguments with regard to the Muslim religion.

This must not, however, result in putting oneself in shackles. The problem of Islamophobia must be taken into consideration. But it may never be an argument for halting the strongest rejections of Salafist tendencies. On the contrary, Islamophobia and Salafism are structurally two sides of the same coin. They are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. Both must be addressed simultaneously. Otherwise the rest of society risks going under between these two extremes.

This commentary is a translation of the article “Warum junge Deutsche zu Dschihadisten werden

Translation by Cathleen Poehler