Posted on September 1, 2004

From Jesus to Muhammad

Uta Rasche, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aug. 27

They are active in mosques and Muslim organizations, study or teach Islamic courses, establish Muslim publishing companies or bookstores: Germans who converted to Islam. Some of them even take their religion so seriously that they spend several years at Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. In some cases, they have drifted into extremism and fought in Chechnya or Bosnia as mujahideen against “disbelievers.”

The number of Germans converting to Islam has risen dramatically in the past few years. For a long time, up to 300 converted to Islam each year. But the number climbed to 800 last year, according to the Islam archives in Soest. Mohammed Selim Abdullah, the head of the archives, says he thinks the rising numbers are linked to the recent wars in the Gulf region.

To convert, a person must repeat the shahada, the creed of Islam, in front of two witnesses: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Mosque congregations that cooperate with the Islam archives then send a report about the conversion to Soest. Others avoid the formalities altogether.

Around 800,000 Muslims in Germany have German passports, but only a few of them are native Germans. The number of those who converted to Islam is between 13,000 and 60,000, according to estimates. In any case, they make up only a small share of Germany’s more than 3 million Muslims. But many converts have a very special story. Often they are extremely attached to their religion — and sometimes, they are particularly dangerous. They want to prove to themselves and their new fellow worshipers that they take their conversion seriously and therefore have a strong desire to demonstrate their religious commitment.

Mohammed Siddiq is one of them. Born as Wolfgang Borgfeld, the 60-year-old German converted to Islam at the age of 18. In the early days, his grandmother had to cook different types of food in different pots so that the food would not become “impure.” For many years, he would not let himself be photographed for religious reasons.

After finishing an apprenticeship at a bank, he began to study sociology and Islamic studies as Mohammed Siddiq (“The lover of truth”). He traveled to Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Sudan, where he attended an Islamic school for four years. After another four-year stint at an Islamic school in Medina, Saudi Arabia, he had “the desire to do something for Islam.”

He established an association, “The House of Islam.” With donations from private supporters and some help from Muslims in Kuwait, he bought a former hotel south of Frankfurt in 1983. This is where he lives today with his wife and 12-year-old son, organizing Koran courses, vacation camps, weekend seminars on Muslim life and faith, and pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. “I never saw the path I took as a turning away from Christianity,” Borgfeld says. “Rather it was further development.” He quotes another convert, Ahmad von Denffer: “We are the better Christians.”

Denffer works for the Islamic Center in Munich. After studying Islamic sciences in Mainz, he attended a school in Leicester run by the Islamic Foundation. In Munich, he also founded an influential organization called Muslims Help that supports Muslims all over the world.

Other converts in Germany publish the Islamic paper Islamische Zeitung in Potsdam, which is suspected of being linked to right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic thinking. The Hanover paper Muslim-Zeitung is also published by German Muslims. Convert Susanne Seifert opened an Islamic bookstore in Wiesbaden. Convert Hadayatullah Hübsch, born in Chemnitz as Paul Gerhard Hübsch in 1946, has published numerous books on Islam. Today, Hadayatullah (“the one guided by God”) Hübsch is the imam of the Nuur mosque in Frankfurt.

Convert Christian Abdul Hadi (“the servant of God, who leads to justice”) Hofmann, who used to work for the Christian Democratic Union, is busy establishing an Islamic Academy in Berlin, following the example of Protestant and Catholic academies.

The first professor for the education of Islam teachers at public schools is also a German convert. Muhammad Sven Kalisch, 38, will start teaching this fall at the University of Münster. The federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia praises the new position as a great integration project, even though it remains unclear whether the different Muslim movements will accept Kalisch and the teachers he will train.

Those who want to attend an Islamic school like the one in Medina will run into fewer problems than Borgfeld did years ago. Through a well-organized network of German-speaking Muslims, one can easily find someone who will help find a scholarship for a certain school. According to the former managing director of the controversial King Fahd Academy in Bonn, convert Herbert Hobohm, the Saudi Arabian Embassy is always looking for scholarship candidates to Islamic schools. The chairman of the central council of Muslims in Germany, Nadeem Elyas, is considered to be Germany’s representative in the Islamic World League. He reportedly helped find a scholarship to the Islamic school in Medina for a terrorist involved in the attacks on a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, in 2002. That attack outside a synagogue killed 16 people, including 11 Germans, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda movement later claimed responsibility for it.

Other German residents who seem to be important parts of this network include Christian Ganzcarski, who investigators found was the last one to speak to the Djerba suicide bomber on his cell phone.

The German domestic intelligence service found that German converts were also sent to the Damascus Sharia Faculty, a stronghold of the Muslim Brothers. They also think that Denffer, who was taught by a Pakistani professor in Leicester, maintains good contacts to the Islamic University in Islamabad to which he now sends German students on scholarships.

Certainly, not every visit to an Islamic school produces an extremist, and naturally, not every convert becomes a terrorist. But when Islamic fundamentalists are looking for people in Germany whom they can use for their purposes, young converts have proven to be an ideal target group: They are enthusiastic, want to prove themselves, have severed all their ties and left their western circle of friends behind for the sake of the Muslim community. And there are decisive practical advantages: They have a German passport, can travel without restrictions within Europe, often speak good English and do not look suspicious at all.

Two such cases have become public: The German convert Thomas Fischer from Ulm answered the call for Jihad — which could simply be a call for a faithful way of living depending on how you read the Koran — literally and turned into a fanatic. In 2002, he went to Chechnya to support his Muslim brothers in the war against the Russians and was killed in November 2003.

Steve Smyrek, who used to be a member of the right-wing extremist scene, also converted to Islam. His anti-Jewish attitudes and his propensity for violence made him an ideal candidate for his recruiters. He wanted to die for Allah as a suicide bomber. But when he tried to enter Israel in 1997, he was detained and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In early 2004, he was released in a prisoner swap between Israelis and Palestinians.