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Germany: Authorities Use New Religious Extremism Law To Ban Islamic Organization

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

German authorities Wednesday banned a radical Turkish-led Islamic organization they claim is a breeding ground for terrorists. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports that the move marks the first implementation of new German legislation to outlaw extremist religious groups.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Germany yesterday used new legislation on extremist religious groups to ban an Islamic organization known as the Association of Islamic Groups and Communities, or Caliphate State (Hilafet Devleti). The Cologne-based organization is run by Metin Kaplan, a Turkish citizen who is wanted in his homeland on charges of high treason and is serving a prison sentence in Germany for inciting murder.

Yesterday's decision to ban the Caliphate State was followed by police raids on more than 200 offices, apartments, and mosques belonging to the parent organization and 19 of its subsidiaries in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and Berlin. All the association's assets were seized and at least one person suspected of violating Germany's immigration laws was arrested in Wiesbaden. Turkey's "Hurriyet" daily newspaper reports that police in Wiesbaden also seized a number of religious books and articles.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, German Interior Minister Otto Schily said the organization represented a threat to democracy and to his country's domestic security: "The Caliphate State, or the so-called Islamic State of God, considers itself above democratic institutions and justifies the use of violence in the name of Allah. That contradicts the basic principles of the people's sovereignty."

The decision to ban the Caliphate State came after Germany's federal parliament on 9 November voted to waive constitutional protection for religious groups suspected of undermining democracy, inciting violence, or promoting extremism.

The new legislation came into effect on 8 December. Kaplan's organization is the first religious group to be affected by the legal change.

Germany has been at the center of international investigations into the 11 September suicide plane attacks in the United States, as three of the suspected hijackers lived for many years in Hamburg.

Schily did not say whether the Caliphate State was involved in the September attacks, but German investigators believe that in 1996-97 Kaplan was in close contact with Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the plane hijacks. Caliphate State's members reportedly traveled to Afghanistan at that time to meet with leaders of bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Known among his followers as the "Caliph of Cologne," Kaplan has openly called for the overthrow of Turkey's secular government and its replacement by an Islamic regime, or caliphate.

Schily said yesterday the ban was also justified by what he described as the organization's anti-Turkish and anti-Israeli rhetoric: "The Caliphate State runs against the people's will through its agitation against Turkey, Israel, and other states, as well as against Jewish citizens, both male and female."

The Turkish government, which in the past has banned a number of radical and moderate Islamic parties, has not officially reacted to the German move. But yesterday, Turkey's Anadolu Ajansi news agency quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as praising the German ban as a "positive" step.

Turkish authorities have been demanding Kaplan's extradition for the past two years, claiming that the religious cleric is behind a 1998 failed suicide plane attack on the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular state.

Germany has so far refused to abide by Turkey's repeated extradition demands for fears that Kaplan could be tortured, sentenced to death, or executed.

Schily yesterday said that German authorities may reconsider their position if they receive assurances from Ankara that Kaplan would not face the death penalty if he were sent back.

The Turkish parliament recently removed the death penalty for some criminal offenses, but capital punishment remains in the law books for some serious crimes, notably those involving terrorism. Ankara has been observing a moratorium on executions since 1984 pending the beginning of its accession talks with the European Union.

Werner Schiffauer teaches comparative cultural and social ethnology at the Frankfurt-on-Oder-based Europa-Universitat Viadrina, and is a leading specialist on German-based Islamic movements. In an interview with RFE/RL, Schiffauer said that although Kaplan's Caliphate State has never concealed its objectives, it is, paradoxically, a very secretive group: "On the one hand, [Kaplan's followers] have always been very clear about their intentions. They are [in no way] 'sleepers.' They have been very outspoken about their criticism [toward] the Turkish republic and democracy and about their revolutionary aims. So, [in a sense,] we know [a lot] about them. But, on the other hand, the movement became increasingly sectarian [toward] the end of the 1980s and particularly in the 1990s, [which saw] the radicalization of their positions. [With] this move [toward] sectarianism, of course, a strong inner group emerged which had a much tighter control over information than before."

Kaplan's late father, Cemalettin, was one of the most radical Turkish Islamic militants of the late 1970s and early 1980s and a great admirer of Ayatollah Khomeini, then Iran's religious supreme leader. Named "Kara ses," or "Black Voice" by his followers, Cemalettin Kaplan propagated from his German exile the establishment of an Islamic state in Turkey.

The Caliphate State, which emerged in 1983 from a split within a larger and much more moderate Islamic organization known as the Milli Gorus, or "National Vision," has some 1,200 registered followers in Germany and an estimated 300 others in Turkey. The group, which has assets worth several million dollars, also runs a weekly newspaper and broadcasts a regular television program in Germany.

Schiffauer says Kaplan's group -- which he believes remains isolated from Germany's 2.5-million-strong Turkish community -- belongs to what he calls "revolutionary Islam" and could be described as a fusion of strong religious belief and hardline leftist rhetoric inherited from the 1970s Maoist movement: "[Kaplan's group] is very religious. But, in its rhetoric, it takes up all these elements that had been articulated and formulated by the leftists. So it is, in a way, a revolutionary movement. And it understands itself as a revolutionary movement."

In November last year, a Dusseldorf court sentenced Kaplan to a four-year jail sentence for inciting the murder of Halil Ibrahim Sofu, a rival Muslim cleric who reportedly attempted to take control over the group after the death of Kaplan's father. Sofu was killed in 1997 by unknown assailants.

Since the September attacks, Ankara has called upon Germany, Belgium, and other European countries with large ethnic Turk or Kurd communities to clamp down on what it describes as banned "terrorist organizations."

Among such organizations is the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which advocates the creation of an autonomous state in Turkey's southeastern provinces, or the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party, a leftist urban guerilla group. In November, both groups were officially included in a list of terrorist organizations issued by U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and the British government.

Turkey also wants to eradicate militant Islamic groups such as the Hizbullah -- not to be confused with the Lebanon-based group of a similar name -- or the smaller Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front.

Schily yesterday called on other German-based Muslim groups to uphold democracy and refrain from promoting extremism. But he did not say whether other radical organizations could face a ban in the future.

Although most Turkish columnists today welcomed Berlin's decision, some said they believe the ban will have little effect and the Caliphate State will continue to operate in and from Germany.

"I do not believe Germany. Germany tells lies," wrote "Hurriyet" columnist Emin Colasan, noting that the PKK continues to operate in Germany despite the ban imposed on the group after it staged a series of violent demonstrations in the late 1980s.

Schiffauer also says he doesn't believe the ban imposed on Kaplan's organization will be sufficient to curtail the activities of its leaders, and adds that, in his opinion, the move was mostly aimed at pleasing Turkish authorities. He says: "My question is: Is it better to [ban] them and drive them into the underground, or is it better not to [ban] them so that they remain visible and can be observed?"

Turkish Interior Minister Rustu Kazim Yucelen is scheduled to visit Germany on 18 December for talks on cooperation in dealing with religious and political groups banned by Ankara. The topic of Kaplan's possible extradition is expected to be high on the agenda.