Riots, Ritual and Rage – 'Salafists' and PRO-NRW in Germany

Last week several Muslims were arrested in Germany after riots during a protest against a demonstration of the German radical right wing party PRO-NRW. During the election campaign for the regional elections in Nord-Rhein Westfalen, PRO NRW organized a demonstration nearby a Salafist mosque in Solingen and in Bonn near a Saudi Arabian school whereby the demonstrators showed the Muhammad Cartoons published by the Danish Jylland-Posten a few years ago and that played a huge role in worldwide protests.

Ritual of provocation 

During their counter-protests the Salafists, according to the reports, attacked police and injured four of them. The majority of the Salafists usually do not engage in violent actions with weapens and this appears to be the first time they have let themselves to be provoked to such an extent that their leaders lost control. The next video in which we hear some of the Salafists in Bonn shout to their fellow protesters to stop throwing stones at the police, appears to confirm that (translation by

Apparently the Salafist Muslims saw the police as the protectors of the PRO NRW demonstrators while the police claimed that they only try to safeguard the Pro NRW’s right to demonstrate.

At first spreading the cartoons was forbidden but that ban been has been lifted. It is clear that showing the Muhammad Cartoons in front of the mosque served as flashpoints for these riots. Riots most often are not spontaneous, random and irrational but have specific logic and ritualized dimension. For example, Gaborieau (1985) focuses on the ‘ritual of provocations’: ‘codified procedures’ of deliberate disrespect, desecration, blasphemy, violation of sacred or symbolically charged spaces, times, or objects. First a selection is made of key symbols representing each community and as a second step the means by which symbols may be most effectively desecrated is chosen. In order for performative actions to ‘work’, they have to tap into deeply felt issues among people. The makers therefore have to be aware of their audience. It must resonate among the audiences, create and galvanize different social solidarities (that may be contentious) and the audience has to be active and participate in the ritual.

In defending such provocations often an interesting contradiction surfaces. Those defending these actions for example by referring to freedom of speech and freedom to demonstrate seem to indicate that, for example the Muhammad cartoons, are self-contained and that every action taken on by Muslims is external to it: it separates the act from its (possible) consequences. But by demonstrating in front of a mosque and then showing the cartoons it is clear that Pro NRW knows that the demonstration to be effective, it must be informed by prior knowledge about which boundaries can be or have to be transgressed to produce an effect. In this specific case the provocative nature of the demonstrations is clearly recognized in some media. The provocation however does not always result in counter-action. Pro NRW’sMuhammad cartoon contest did not yield that many reactions from Muslims or others.

Contested space

Often these rituals of provocations have a relation with contested spaces. Think for example about the marches and processions by Orange groups in Catholic areas in Northern Ireland. Van der Veer sees riots as a form of cultural antagonism, creating, expressing and reinforcing an opposition between the self and the other.

For the Pro NRW demonstrations their action seems to be designed upon and intended to reveal the picture of angry, irrational and fanatical Muslims who overreact against insults and provocations and thereby threaten the ‘absolute right of freedom of expression’. It is intended to zoom in on violence and intolerance among Muslims, and the fear for the ‘angry Muslim’. This fear combined with the frame of Islam as a threat and informed by an already biased representation of earlier events, turns these riots into an event that evokes values that are held fundamental such as the fear for a loss of social cohesion by blasphemous confrontation, for an islamization of society, blasphemy, and the freedom of speech. Or, to put simple, the Salafist affirm the negative stereotypes on which the whole action was based. Something recognized by other Muslim organizations, that condemded the Salafists actions as not according to islam.

The link between provocation and space was also clear a few weeks earlier when the Salafi organization The True Religion and its frontman Abou Nagie made headlines with the plan to distribute many copies of the Quran. At that time the Frankfurter DawaFFM was already handing out Qurans in Frankfurt. Although for a lot of people handing out Qurans was not so much the issue, the fact that it was done by Salafists (seen as intolerant and aggressive) was a problem and an attack on religious peace in public. These negative reactions were seen by some salafists as proof that the initiative was necessary in the first place (to give people first hand knowledge about Islam) and proof that society is indeed against Islam.

Although many of the Salafist Muslims appear to have a non-confrontational style and shy away from using violence, they also feel it is their duty to defend Islam and the prophet Muhammad:

Young German Muslims Defend Right to Protest – SPIEGEL ONLINE

They would never throw stones, they say, but they are furious because they perceive the cartoons as an attack on the Prophet Muhammad and, therefore, on themselves. Malik says: “The dignity of the Prophet is more important to us than our own dignity.” For this reason, he adds, they must defend themselves against this attack. They see it as their only option because they believe that no one has the right to insult their prophet, even if the perpetrators are only members of a tiny, far-right party waging an inept election campaign in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. A Muslim who protests against the cartoons, they say, is serving God.

Malik says: “On the Day of Judgment, perhaps the Prophet will ask: ‘Where were you when the name of the Prophet was defiled?’ I don’t want to have to reply: ‘Oh, envoy of Allah, I am one of those who looked the other way.”
Not everyone who is associated with the German Salafist scene seems as harmless and peaceful as these three young men. That afternoon, in front of the mosque, after the Pro NRW supporters had left, Martin, Malik and Koray were standing around with a group of Muslims who were incensed over Chancellor Angela Merkel. How could the chancellor allow the Muhammad cartoons to be displayed in front of mosques, they asked? One of the furious ones was Abu Abdullah, who, during the Bonn protest, had already warned the chancellor about possible attacks on Germans living abroad — unless she put an end to the anti-Islamic campaign.

Among the Salafist present were also some people from Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to Paradise) and its leader Pierre Vogel issued a statement after the riots:
In this statement Vogel criticizes German authorities for being lax about violent against Muslims while being tough about ‘incidents’ such as these riots. One of the major risks in the rituals of provocation is overkill. Calls for banning the Salafist and equating their ideology with Al Qaeda’s could signal such overkill which often only leads to more radical answers and escalation. In particular when authorities refuse to talk with Salafists as seems the case now.

(Thanks to RS and CB).

2 thoughts on “Riots, Ritual and Rage – 'Salafists' and PRO-NRW in Germany

  1. They would never throw stones, they say, but they are furious because they perceive the cartoons as an attack on the Prophet Muhammad.

    That’s wrong, because there were a lot of Jihadis at the counter-protests in Solingen and Bonn. In Solingen the most important movement was Millatu Ibrahim. The head of this movement is Mohammed Mahmoud who is an Austrian Jihadi. On the Bonn riots you watch videos with Abu Abdullah and Reda Seyam who are both Jihadist. Seyam is a Jihadist form Brlin who probably financed the Bali Bombings! So there wer less Purists and more Jihadis!

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