Divide Widens for Hamburg’s Muslims

Times Staff Writer

HAMBURG, Germany -- Through alleys scented with oranges and peppered lamb, Afghan spice sellers sip morning tea with Pakistani vegetable vendors. Mothers wearing head scarves hurry children to school, past trickling sounds of water as men in mosques wash their hands in deep porcelain sinks before prayers.

Just beyond the German train station, past prostitutes and methadone addicts, the Muslim neighborhood unfolds, moving, as it has for decades, to its own sequestered rhythms. Life here, though, has been disrupted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. More undercover police ply the alleys, more young men are hauled in for questioning. Phones are tapped. Businesses are searched. Computers are confiscated.

Hamburg’s Muslim neighborhoods are retracting -- some would say they are being pushed -- further away from German society. Anger, distrust and cultural suspicions are widening rifts between German and Islamic communities throughout this nation of 82 million -- 3.5 million of whom are Muslim. Those on both sides worry that deepening divisions will stoke radical elements and complicate this country’s long-standing problem with integration.


“If a few Muslim men gather on the sidewalks, the police come and say, ‘Ah, you’re from Afghanistan. Do you sympathize with the Taliban? With Osama bin Laden? With Al Qaeda?’ ” said Abdul Hai Zakarwal, an Afghan cleric at a local mosque. “Germans are now suspicious when they look into an Arab face. I have no innocent blood on my hands.”

Hamburg has a storied history as a cosmopolitan city-state built on trade and commerce. But its recent past is clouded by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and his terrorist cell. Logistics for the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon were refined here. Fanaticism was cultivated, money raised -- all quietly, beneath the surface. It is an irony of sorts that while Atta was living at Marienstrasse 54 and a few Hamburg mullahs were preaching jihad, or holy struggle, the primary task of police in this port city of 1.7 million was curbing skinhead and neo-Nazi violence.

The police now have put this neighborhood under a microscope. There is little doubt that religious extremists live among the Moroccan booksellers and Turkish barbers.

Police estimate that Hamburg has 1,000 Islamic radicals, about 100 of whom are considered dangerous. Still, that is only a fraction of the city’s Muslim population of 150,000, many of whom claim that they are stereotyped and harassed.

“Many Germans in Hamburg have lost their innocence,” said Heino Vahldieck, head of the city’s domestic intelligence agency. “Their trust of Muslims has diminished, and this is affecting Muslims. They all feel under suspicion. A girl wearing a veil these days could easily become a heated topic at a school board meeting. I don’t know how to stop that.”

Less than a mile from Vahldieck’s office, a man who gave his name only as Isaak stood in the dusk outside an Albanian mosque. He was bundled in a jacket, a cap snug on his head. A construction laborer, he had a thick chest and rough hands.


Isaak moved to Germany from Macedonia 13 years ago. He is a Muslim with a 4-month-old son and barely enough money for rent. He pays taxes and speaks German, but he has been denied citizenship.

“I used to feel German. But now I feel like more of a foreigner,” Isaak said. “Every time I unzip my backpack and pull out a newspaper, the Germans stare at me and wonder if it’s a bomb. I blame the politicians. They’ve frightened the public. Germans think there are hundreds of thousands of sleeper cells all over the country.”

He kept speaking, an angry whisper concealed with a smile.

“There are people here who think Atta is a good man,” Isaak said. He didn’t count himself as one.

“What happened in the U.S. was tragic,” he said. “But what about all the murdered Muslims in Palestine, Bosnia and Kosovo? What about Muslim suffering? Some in this neighborhood say America brought the attacks on itself.... And here the neo-Nazis are putting hate leaflets in our mailboxes.”

About 80% of Germany’s Muslims are Turks who migrated here after World War II. Their children attended German schools and took German jobs. They were followed by others: war refugees from the former Yugoslav federation and migrants fleeing economic turmoil in Africa and the Middle East.

Because they straddled two worlds, balancing Muslim souls with German livelihoods, assimilation for Turks, Pakistanis and Afghans has always been confusing. Sensitive of its Third Reich past, Germany is careful not to discriminate against different cultures and is tolerant of religious expression by law. But many Muslims, even ones with German citizenship, complain that they feel estranged. Young women often discard the head scarves of their faith in order to blend in better. Men sometimes dye their hair blond and wear blue contact lenses to disguise their dark features.


In the mid-1990s, a Hamburg social agency and the Muslim community made some progress on integration: Sections of local cemeteries were set aside for Islamic burials, and Muslim prisoners were permitted to pray more freely in jail. There was an effort at religious education in Hamburg institutions for young men wanting to become mullahs and imams. Most religious clerics now come from Turkey and the Middle East, knowing little of German culture or sensibilities.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a changing political landscape sent a chill through Hamburg’s integration aspirations. The new conservative government, reacting to Germans’ fears of foreigners, shut down the social agency that worked with immigrants. Police here and throughout Germany questioned scores of terrorist suspects, parading some before TV cameras but making few arrests.

“We’ve always led separate lives from German society,” said Mustafa Yoldas, deputy chairman of the Council of Islamic Communities. “Conservative politicians say, ‘Foreigners eat our breakfast.’ My father worked here 40 years -- he deserves a breakfast. I’m a second-generation German. The politicians are under pressure to show Germans they live in security. But they are not realizing what they are doing to Muslims.... It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Yoldas and other Islamic leaders fear that the pressure the Muslim community is under may foment extremist passions. “Right now,” said Yoldas, a doctor, “we are trying to control radical elements. We’re stopping the fiery speeches in mosques. We’ve eliminated radical books, including one by a Turkish writer that denies the Holocaust happened.... I’ve spoken at 160 seminars since Sept. 11 trying to ease tensions.

“A woman who works in the hospital asked me after Sept. 11, ‘Mustafa, are you supporting Osama bin Laden?’ I said, ‘You’ve known me for so long. Can you really imagine my doing that?’ ”

A Moroccan who emigrated from Casablanca 11 years ago, Abdelhak Safer runs the Islamic Attawhid bookstore two blocks from the Al Quds mosque, where Atta used to pray. The titles in Safer’s shop include “The Battle of the Prophet,” “International Islam” and “Jesus, Son of Mary.” Safer, who is married to a German, said life was hard but good until July 3, when police raided his home and store.


Safer and seven other men from Morocco, Egypt and Afghanistan had been under surveillance for months. Police suspected them of plotting jihad while they drank tea in Safer’s store. Safer’s computers and CD-ROMs were confiscated. He was interrogated for 10 hours and released. His bookstore stayed shuttered for three months during the police investigation. Safer says he lost about $15,000 in business, and his landlord, fearing that he’s a terrorist, wants him to move.

“The police are just looking for scapegoats,” said Safer, who hired a lawyer. The federal prosecutor’s office said it has no evidence that Safer planned terrorist attacks. Its investigation is continuing. “It’s been a business disaster,” Safer said. “It’s becoming too much. You can’t make us all guilty people.”

But one of the men who sipped tea in the bookshop was arrested and charged last week with supporting Atta’s sleeper cell. Abdelghani Mzoudi is suspected of providing logistical support and money to terrorists, including hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi, believed to have piloted the Boeing 767 that hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. Mzoudi visited an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and was one of two people to sign Atta’s will, police said.

It is such overlapping relationships within an insular community that led police into the lives of men such as Safer. It is difficult, law enforcement officials said, to infiltrate this world and weed out terrorist sympathizers from those just sipping tea. Safer said many people came through his shop. They chatted about religion and politics. They spoke of families and of living as immigrants.

“The police said we wanted to ‘die for Allah,’ ” Safer said. “No one said that.”

Around the corner, the sun was rising, slanting in the alleys and off the dome of a mosque. On one side of this Muslim neighborhood, shopping carts clattered at a Wal-Mart; on the other, the neon of brothels had been switched off, the prostitutes had retreated. The Lebanese butcher sharpened his knife. Young men sat in barbershops, laughing and dreaming of Kurdistan.

This is Mehmet Cicek’s world.

He wore a peacoat against the cold. The son of a Turkish guest worker, Cicek arrived in Hamburg in 1987. He was 14. His father worked in a gold and silver factory. “By the time I was born,” he said, “my dad was already speaking German.” Cicek went to a German school. But he said he doesn’t see much of a future here, not since Sept. 11, when some of his German friends stopped calling and police spent more time eyeing him.


“You can grow up here, but you’re always an outsider,” he said. “When I’m here, I feel like a visitor. Some of my friends dyed their hair blond. It changed nothing. We really feel at home nowhere. Not Germany, not Turkey.”

He lighted a cigarette and looked down a street crowded with men just like him. “They don’t trust us anymore,” he said.