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An ex-imam confesses: Abdul Adhim Kamouss

Abdul Adhim Kamouss on his life-changing path from hardline preacher to humanist, and how hard it is to shake off labels once the media has you pegged as a dangerous Salafist.

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Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova
Abdul Adhim Kamouss on his life-changing path from hardline preacher to humanist, and how hard it is to shake off labels once the media has you pegged as a dangerous Salafist. Perhaps Germany’s most famous imam, Abdul Adhim Kamouss was once hailed as the “pop-star of the Salafist scene”. Since then, the Moroccan-born Muslim did an about-face when, following a deep personal crisis, he ditched hardline preaching to embrace a kinder, gentler and more open Islam, which ironically earned him death threats from the very radical Salafists he once was accused of catering to. All this is described in detail in Wem gehört der Islam? (Who Owns Islam?), an introspective biographical essay, in which he also blames the German media for sticking to the kind of stereotypes that nurture a deep-seated hostility towards Muslims. Why this book? It’s the product of my 17-year-experience in Germany, from being someone who had a rather strict and exclusive notion of Islam, to someone who preaches tolerance, love and diversity. My understanding of religion has evolved. This is something which was never taken seriously by the German media. They pigeonhole you and you’re trapped. I was once known nationwide as a Hassprediger, a “hate preacher”; Die Zeit called me a “brainwasher”; the Federal Agency for Civic Education the “pop-star of the Salafist scene”. For the Verfassungsschutz, I was a Salafist preacher, who stood as a “transit station for radicalisation”. They label you and you can’t shake it off. But people change. And I did change. I wanted to show that and the reasons why in this book. But you did start your career here as a hardliner. How did you become a Salafist? I never saw myself as one. When I was 17 I was invited to a Salafiyya centre in Rabat. The centre became my second home. I spent three intensive years with the scholars there, and I guess I took on their precepts and worldviews. But I never officially defined myself as a Salafist. Between 2001 and 2006 you were a very popular imam, and wanted ISIS fighters like Deso Dogg regularly attended your preaching. Looking back, do you think you contributed to spreading radicalism as people say? I never preached exclusion or hatred. I saw myself as engaged in making my audience religious, nothing more. But of course religion is more. Religion is an ideology. But you don’t notice it when you’re in it. That was my problem – this distance from reality. I said I was preaching love and mercy, but it was always “us” and “them”. When they lambasted me in the media for being that “one-way-station for radical Islam”, I didn’t take it seriously. But when I saw that people from my ranks joined ISIS, I thought, how can this be? Was I doing something wrong? And then I had a personal crisis, a difficult phase full of despair and depression. Anxiety, fear, regret, head- and stomach-aches marked this period. But despite the pain, I felt deep inside that Allah wanted to point me in a new direction. I started reading books on Sufi teachings and psychology. I went to the library every week to check out CDs and new books. I wanted to understand everything. I wanted to overcome this crisis – and I did: today I am free, unfettered. I don’t belong to any tendency or party or sect. My heart is open to everyone. Why the title: “Who Owns Islam?” Because many groups use Islam for their own agenda. And I think that Islam has been badly dealt with by all possible sides. By Muslims and by outsiders. And so I say, leave Islam in peace; it doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs only to God. I also wanted to show young people the border between fanaticism and fundamentalism. Is there one? Someone who is a fanatic is someone who doesn’t accept other people’s opinions, looks down on and rejects the “other”. A fundamentalist isn’t necessarily an extremist, but just someone stuck in a way of thinking that doesn’t belong to our time. Similarly, a Salafist isn’t necessarily the dangerous radical portrayed in the media. There are various tendencies within Salafism, a moderate branch and also reform movements. Yet, many radical Muslims in Germany have been identified as Salafist converts. How do you explain this radicalisation? That’s correct… But then you have to look at who those converts are, mainly disoriented youths who seek stability in the simplistic, black-and-white worldview of Salafism. A study of about 140 converts in the Islamist scene in North Rhine-Westphalia showed that over 50 percent had been previously convicted of crimes, and most of them had unstable personalities and problems at home. Is Salafism alone to be blamed? Another issue I see is that mosques in Germany don’t cater to the youth. When I arrived in Berlin, of the 80 or so mosques here, none were German-speaking. Islamic organisations and mosques neglect the children. So, looking for information and guidance, they turn to the internet, which is dominated by mild to radical jihadists. Is Islamic radicalism currently preached in some Berlin mosques? Not that I know of. Radicals are scattered about and active on the internet, but they don’t have any mosques. It may be that they pray in the mosques, but they have no official platform there. I can only talk about Berlin. Then there are mosques that can indirectly foster radicalism by means of their discourse, without being conscious of it. What about fears, fuelled by AfD and Pegida, that refugees are importing radicalism and terrorism? To my knowledge, none of these people have engaged in anything radical so far. Some might have a radical point of view, but black sheep are everywhere. On the whole my perception is that radical tendencies are receding. People are more aware with regards to radicalism. How so? I think that people realised that Al-Qaeda and ISIS are a blight on the world. Muslims in the whole world reject such tendencies. They are fighting them theologically and in their mosques. The German state set up anti-radicalisation programmes. Meanwhile they’ve been cracking down, monitoring and arresting suspects. So radicals are getting more and more pushed into the corner as well. You just created Stiftung Islam in Deutschland (Foundation for Islam in Germany). Is that your contribution against radicalisation? Yes. Since I was banned from mosques, I had to find a new platform to engage with Muslim youths. The foundation stands for a humanist approach of diversity and respect of the German constitution, which we see as reconcilable with the tenets of Islam. It distances itself from antisemitism, homophobia and all forms of racism. It stands for equality between men and women. We offer preventative projects like political education and arts and culture projects. But we also aim to engage with those already in the process of radicalisation. We want to go to prisons, for example, offering conversation and education. For now you have a space in a Baptist church in Müllerstraße… Who goes there? German-speaking Muslims. We meet every Friday at 1:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. But we want to establish new projects, one of our ideas is “Pfadfinder” – scouts. We are establishing a “Muslimischer Pfadfinderbund Deutschland”. Hiking Muslim youths? Yes, hiking and discovering nature amongst other Muslims. For two weeks they get to be away from their usual surroundings, and are confronted with a different reality. But we also have a theatre group that deals with young people from problem districts like Neukölln and Wedding. Art workshops in Neukölln and Steglitz. We’re also planning to work with 57 Muslim psychologists to establish a family counselling centre. You recently pressed charges of hate speech against Thilo Sarrazin, for his new book Feindliche Übernahme – “Hostile Takeover”. What sparked your ire? His book betrays so much contempt towards Muslim people, attributing to us anything to do with backwardness and stupidity. And his passages about Muslim women, whom he describes as legs wide-open, as if to say, “Children, children, children!” If that’s not hate speech then what is? I couldn’t even bear to read the book from cover to cover, but the passages I saw were enough to convince me that I needed to take action. Enough is enough! If one said about Jews only a 10th of what he says about Muslims, there’d be an outcry in the whole country. But in Germany Muslims can be dragged through the mud and our religion sullied, and no one says a word. So you see a double-standard when it comes to Muslims? That is a bitter reality. In the media and in politics, everyone is very sensitive about what one says about Jews, and it’s a result of German history. But all people should be treated – and protected – the same, whether they’re Jews, Muslims or Christians. Under the rule of law, human rights and human dignity should apply to everyone. So what are state prosecutors doing? Why do I have to press charges? Sarrazin and the AfD point to a gradual Islamisation of German society… This doesn’t reflect reality. Statistics show that we have 20,000-100,000 converts, and a grand total of 4.7 million Muslims. That isn’t even a 0.001 percent of the German population. And then one talks about Islamisation! Mosques are full, and we’re building more, and the churches are almost empty… But that was always the case! Muslims are much more connected to their religion, that’s all. On the other hand, we Muslims say that the opposite has happened. That the Muslims have become less and less religious, and when they concern themselves with Islam, it’s mostly for identity reasons. So it’s a matter of perspective!
Image for An ex-imam confesses: Abdul Adhim Kamouss Abdul Adhim Kamouss is born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1977. Aged 17, Salafiyya scholars introduce him to radical Islam. After moving to Berlin in 1998, he immediately gravitates to the hardline Al-Nur mosque, which will later be cast in the media as a hotbed of Salafi thought. In February 2001 he starts as an imam with five pupils. By 2004, there are 500, mostly German-born youths, who find in the young charismatic imam preaching in German the kind of spiritual guidance they are craving. Soon known as “The Muslim Maker”, he comes on the radar of German counter-terrorism after notorious ISIS fighters such as ex-rapper and Germany’s most wanted terrorist Deso Dogg are identified as his former pupils. Two preliminary investigations are opened and dropped – the charges: creation of a terrorist group, summons to jihad in Israel and collection of donations for Hamas. His residence permit is restricted, his passport confiscated, and his home stormed by a special forces unit. In 2010 a deep “existential crisis” leads him to call into question the dogmatic precepts he has lived by till then, and to embrace a tolerant and enlightened Islam. Banned from preaching at Berlin mosques following a highprofile appearance on Günther Jauch’s talkshow where he found himself unfairly stamped as “the hardliner” in 2014, he’s now engaged in educational work and fighting radicalism among Muslim youth, through his newly founded Stiftung Islam in Deutschland. His book Wem gehört der Islam? came out last September.