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The Firestarter of Berlin

Meet Imam Kamouss, the handsome, popular, self-proclaimed moderate Muslim preacher who has become the face of intolerance and terror across Germany.

Photo: Harald Franzen
Photo: Harald Franzen

BERLIN — On an unseasonably warm day in early October, off a busy artery that cuts through the heart of Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood, the voice of Imam Abdul Adhim Kamouss rings out of Bilal Mosque.

Inside, men and women sit in a narrow, carpeted room. Africans, Germans, Pakistanis, and Turks are on hand to listen to the 37-year-old Kamouss, a Moroccan preacher who seamlessly translates the Quran into German, his words punctuated by a French lilt.

"On this Day of Arafah, the Prophet Mohammed says God will come down and forgive all your sins — all except those who carry hate and spite in their hearts," Kamouss bellows, describing the Islamic holy day. "God said he created us with different languages, cultures, backgrounds so we can get to know one another. How can we get to know one another if we don’t open up to each other?"

With his white cotton robe that swallows his small frame and with a megawatt grin, Kamouss captivates his audience. Even though he’s a part-time, volunteer imam, his rousing lectures have won over Muslims across the German-speaking world. He has become a social media star: His clip "Who is ISIS?" (one of his 500 or so YouTube videos) has been watched more than 41,000 times in two months. In the video, he describes the Islamic State as "a poisonous plant that has spread its roots in all countries."

Kamouss says it’s his message that has drawn so many to him. He insists he is instilling his flock with proper moral and political values. He teaches elementary school students how to build character, he says, lecturing on the importance of taming the ego, and he beseeches young Muslims to hear the Quran’s unequivocal words on why jihadism is the wrong path.

But critics say this is just one of Kamouss’s two faces. For more than a month, German media have been raising alarm bells across the country over what they term his retrograde views, the radical mosques he frequents, and his links to a deported terrorist — casting a long shadow of suspicion he has been unable to shake. The controversy has become a flash point in the raging debate over Islam in Germany and across Europe, where Muslims are struggling to gain acceptance against a backdrop of rising extremism, and fear of the religion seemingly behind that trend.

"With what’s going on in the world, the fear of IS [the Islamic State], it’s reflected in German society — and you feel the mistrust," said Kamouss, seated at an ice cream cafe in a busy shopping center. "It’s a challenge to be a practicing Muslim right now."

The controversy surrounding Kamouss started in late September, when he appeared as a guest on a political talk show on radical Islam in Germany. He was introduced from the start as an ultraconservative preacher with ties to extremists — descriptions he vehemently rejected. He attempted to disprove the caricature, reading out a letter from Berlin’s former interior minister that praised Kamouss for his work in fighting radicalism.

But the show’s producers played two videos: one of him promoting an upcoming seminar on Islam alongside Denis Cuspert — now Germany’s most famous jihadi, fighting with the Islamic State in Syria — and a 2002 lecture in which Kamouss says a woman cannot leave the house without her husband’s permission.

The imam immediately distanced himself from Cuspert, arguing that the rap star-cum-jihadi formerly known as "Deso Dogg" was simply one of the Muslims he was unable to pull back from the brink. As for his stance toward women, he denounced his own lecture as plain wrong.

"When I started preaching, I was 22 years old," he explained, noting the controversial lecture was 12 years ago. "Now I’m 37, and I’m so happy that I’m able to grow and develop as a person."

The host and guests appeared unconvinced. Kamouss turned increasingly shrill, launching into a defensive rant on his community outreach, his moderate views, and the peaceful core of Islam. Two leading lawmakers jumped into the fray, with Wolfgang Bosbach, a legislator from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, declaring he doesn’t trust preachers like Kamouss. Shouting ensued, with Kamouss’s voice rising to the top. By German standards, this was chaos.

It was clear Kamouss had touched a nerve: In the days following the program, several German media outlets denounced him as a demagogue and a dangerous radical who had disgraced Germany’s Muslim population.

"Abdul Adhim Kamouss represents a world view that’s 1,400 years old," wrote Christoph Sydow in the German weekly Der Spiegel. "But he gets how a TV talk show in the year 2014 works."

* * *

It has been a long journey for Kamouss, from Morocco to the center of a German culture war. He was born to a devout family in Rabat and first arrived alone in the German city of Leipzig in 1997 to study electrical engineering. But he was spurned by the cold and often racist reception he received. Fellow Moroccans had to explain why nobody would sit next to him on the tram or why elderly woman would avoid him on the sidewalk.

Germany is Europe’s most powerful country and is widely considered one of its most progressive, but immigrant communities here are still dogged by racism and discrimination. In 2010, Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the executive board at Germany’s central bank, blamed the country’s supposed demise on immigrants — particularly Muslims — in a book titled Germany Does Away With Itself. His racialized views touched off a storm of controversy, but his book was the most popular to hit the shelves since Mein Kampf.

Kamouss fled home after three months, until his father convinced him to go back and find his way. He’s glad he did.

"I have picked up so many German values — the mentality, the discipline, a lot of character traits," he said proudly.

Yet despite his efforts to learn the language and culture, the problem, according to Kamouss, is most Germans simply don’t want to hear him. That is because he is considered a Salafi — a member of a conservative movement whose followers adhere to a rigid, puritanical strain of Islam as practiced in the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Kamouss rejects the association.

Of the 4 million Muslims who live in Germany today, only a little over 1 percent are considered Islamists, and only a sliver of that group are deemed Salafists, according to a 2013 report by Germany’s domestic security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). Still, many Muslims complain the image of extremist Salafists has come to shape public opinion on their religion.

A survey conducted by the opinion research institute Infratest Dimap revealed that 53 percent of Germans polled see Islam as anti-democratic. Only 24 percent believe the religion is a tolerant one.

Kamouss says he is trying to improve that image. "A radical Islamist would say only Muslims, only Islam, period. Not me," said Kamouss, listing Hermann Hesse as a favorite author and soccer as a favorite pastime. "A Salafist, a rigid Salafist would never be that open. But they want to brand me with that cliché, and I don’t know how to shake it."

This is not the first time Kamouss has been in the public eye for his alleged ties to extremists. In 2003, when police swooped in on Ihsan Garnaoui, a Tunisian man living in Germany, for allegedly planning an attack on Jewish and American targets on German soil, Kamouss was also brought in for questioning. He said he had met Garnaoui once through friends but swore he knew nothing, and he testified to that end in court. Garnaoui was found guilty on charges of weapons possession and tax evasion, but was acquitted on the terrorism charges.

Kamouss says the incident launched a period of three years of harassment at the hands of federal authorities and the media. His visa was changed to a temporary status that had to be renewed every few months, and the paperwork cost him his research job in engineering at the renowned Fraunhofer Institute.

"I was deeply depressed; I was psychologically broken," he says.

* * *

Now, the media furor has started up again. This time, the places he lectures have come under scrutiny. One of them is the al-Nur Mosque in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood, which is rumored to be a meeting place for jihadis and radical wannabes. When asked whether the al-Nur Mosque was under surveillance, a BfV spokesperson said the agency doesn’t monitor specific mosques, but rather Islamist groups, and confirmed that al-Nur is a place where Salafists pray.

The mosque sparked an outcry across Germany and beyond this summer when Sheikh Abu Bilal Ismail, a visiting preacher from Denmark, called on his listeners to "destroy the Zionist Jews" in a speech. Berlin’s public prosecutor has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Ismail can be charged with incitement.

Kamouss isn’t deterred. He says he would preach his moderate message anywhere that would have him. "If I’m invited to speak in a bar, I would speak in a bar, even where people are drinking," he said.

Yet just weeks after the controversy surrounding the talk show, Kamouss announced on Facebook that he would no longer hold his usual Sunday lectures at al-Nur because the mosque’s board had decided to sever ties.

The mosque’s management did not respond to repeated requests for comment about this decision in time for the publication of this article. Whether it cut ties with Kamouss due to the negative publicity his presence caused, or because the preacher’s message was too moderate for more hard-line Islamists there, is unclear.

Still, Salafists are in the public eye like never before. Pop-star converts like Pierre Vogel and Sven Lau have mass followings — and are under federal police watch for disseminating hate propaganda. Images of Cuspert fighting in Syria have flooded the Internet — recently, he showed up in a video holding a severed head. He has repeatedly called on German Muslims to join the cause.

Kamouss warns against ersatz preachers hawking half-baked interpretations of the Quran.

"They can speak well; they’re gifted with words; they have a great HD camera, and — poof! — they’re imams," he admonished his audience at Bilal Mosque last month. "That’s very dangerous. Their message is poisoned, full of mistakes."

Yet some 450 Germans are now fighting in Syria and Iraq for the Islamic State, according to government officials. And in Germany’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, radical Islam is quietly taking root. In Neukölln, for example, unemployment stands at 24 percent, and lawmakers complain that the large Turkish and Arab communities are building parallel societies, instead of integrating into German society.

Kamouss blames Islamophobia for marginalizing Muslim communities, describing it as a "poison" spreading across Europe. But he says his way with words and easy smile actually work against him. Germans tend to avoid charisma in their public figures — think of dowdy Chancellor Angela Merkel — because it is a stark reminder of how the power to win over hearts and minds can be manipulated.

"Hitler was charismatic; he was good with words. Hitler was convincing. The Germans don’t feel comfortable with that style," he said. "But they forget that I’m Moroccan, with those virtues, and I have to be true to myself. But I hope, with time, they can learn to stand me."

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