Tolerating The Intolerable

Harun Aydin, a 29-year-old medical student from Turkey, was about to board an Iran Air flight from Frankfurt to Tehran. Suddenly, a phalanx of German police appeared and whisked him away. In his suitcase investigators found a chemical-warfare protection suit, a bottle of a mercury-type liquid used to make bomb detonators and a CD-ROM full of jihadist propaganda. Investigators say Aydin is a high-ranking member of Caliphate State, a radical Islamic group in Cologne that calls for the destruction of Western democracy. It admits contacts to Osama bin Laden--yet is a perfectly legal organization in Germany. Indeed, Caliphate State enjoys the special status of a religious association. It's even tax-exempt.

Such coddling of criminals is far from rare in Europe. Taking advantage of liberal asylum laws that don't distinguish between religious Islam and fanatical Islamism, groups similar to Caliphate State have for years tapped into European freedoms (and social benefits) to attract support and advance their cause. They exploit tolerance to preach intolerance. They freely spread hateful propaganda, recruiting members among immigrant youth and intimidating those who oppose them. They often condemn the governments of the Muslim countries they've escaped; but they also castigate the political systems, the sexual mores and the social education of the European countries where they've settled. They may preach jihad not just abroad but at home, inciting outright violence against the very state that shelters them.

How did it come to this? Like the United States, Europe has in many ways fallen victim to its own good intentions. Taking pride in their openness and liberal compunction, especially in cases involving human rights, Europeans have bent over backward to welcome newcomers in their midst. And while the activities of the extremists among them was worrisome, public leaders often chose not to speak out--for fear of being branded racists. But all this may have changed with the attacks on New York and Washington, plotted by a cell of Islamist students in Germany. Across Europe, there are signs--not so much of an anti-Islamic backlash, but rather a sober and even shocked reassessing of the rules of tolerance in a civil society. Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born Islam expert at Gottingen University, has warned for years that Westerners need to differentiate between good Muslims and bad. Until now, he says, no one wanted to hear that, verging as it does on the politically incorrect. Herman Philipse at Leiden University notes that Europeans are understandably reluctant to "profile" people by ethnicity or religion. But the consequence is that vital issues, such as immigration, simply do not get discussed. French police, for example, are barred from identifying criminal suspects by religion, even when fighting radical groups that define themselves by faith. In this sense, Sept. 11 is a wake-up call that sooner or later will force European governments to review everything from asylum policies to their nations' character as a people. The questions are profound and potentially divisive. What is a multicultural society? What are the limits of tolerance, personal privacy and free speech? "This will be a huge debate in Europe," predicts John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The problem is not new, of course. For decades Europe has welcomed political refugees who faced persecution at home. Ever since Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood for its suspected role in the 1954 assassination attempt against President Abdul Nasser, a steady stream of extremists has found asylum in Europe. Back then, enemies of the pro-Soviet Nasser were the West's friends. Today, say European and American intelligence officials, Muslim Brotherhood centers flourishing in cities from Munich to Geneva have close ties to Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist groups. And many are anything but friends.

Consider events of the past week alone. In Milan, Italian police have known for years that the local Islamic Cultural Institute--recently named by George W. Bush as a known terrorist cell--was one of the epicenters of the brotherhood's activities in Europe. The only arrests came in 1995, when 61 people linked to the institute were accused of running a protection racket. (The case was thrown out on a technicality after police forgot to translate the charges into Arabic.) Now comes news, outlined in chilling detail in a series of phone intercepts made public last week, that a bin Laden network of Arab terrorists in Italy has fanned out through Europe, planning bombings and discussing how best to use a mysterious chemical that suffocates those who come in contact with it. "Before Sept. 11, we had no idea of the depth of the problem," one Italian official admitted to The Washington Post.

In Britain, authorities last week arrested Yasser al-Siri, an Egyptian living in London since 1993. Convicted in absentia in Egypt for the attempted assassination of a former prime minister, he was seized in London for his alleged role in the death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan killed earlier this fall by associates of bin Laden. The assassins masqueraded as TV journalists and brought letters of introduction from al-Siri.

The list of such people is almost endless. Regardless of their crime, or their activities in their host country, most European law forbids the extradition of anyone who might face the death penalty. Hence the head of Caliphate State, Metin Kaplan, lives safely in Germany despite being wanted in Turkey for his role in a pair of planned suicide bombings. That hasn't stopped him from agitating against Turkey or his benefactors. "Islam and democracy will never be compatible," he told his organization's newspaper, Ummeti Muhammed, before his conviction by a German court last year for ordering the murder of a dissident within his own group. "When we come to power, we will destroy and burn Parliament and cast its ashes into the sea."

Islamic fundamentalists have become experts in working the system of Western civil society to maximum advantage. European traditions of free speech, for example, have helped such groups to flourish--even as they preach a firebrand code of intolerance. Milli Gorus, an Islamist group close to the outlawed Turkish Welfare Party, is a case in point. It runs more than 500 mosques across Western Europe with an annual budget of ¤220 million. But according to German intelligence, its leaders aim to build an Islamic social and political order that is in direct conflict with Western democratic principles. Hate literature that is normally banned in Germany--such as anti-Semitic tracts by the Turkish Holocaust denier Harun Yahya ("Judaism and Freemasonry")--is available at its bookshops. So are the works of one Sayyid Qutb, an advocate of the radical jihad embraced by bin Laden.

Laws guaranteeing religious equality have been bent into travesty. In Berlin, after a court ruling awarded Muslims the same right to public-school religious instruction as Christians, the city school board had to find a partner to organize classes on Islam. The group that came forward was the Islamic Federation, an organization German authorities say is dominated by Milli Gorus and other extremists. This year, teachers provided by the federation began instruction at two Berlin elementary schools, with another 18 schools to be added next year. Germany's Turks have every right to want their children to receive suitable religious instruction in their faith. But as journalist Ahmet Senyurt complains, "Right now I have no choice but to send them to classes run by Islamists," where the message is anything but the modernist liberal creed that he himself lives by. And just last week a Berlin court handed down a similarly double-edged ruling, deciding that Islamic teachers are permitted to offer instruction in public schools that contravenes the German Constitution. The issue in question: equality of the sexes. German law mandates it; fundamentalist Islam eschews it.

One of the supreme ironies is how Islamist organizations have been able to tap into public funds to finance their work. North London's notorious Finsbury Park mosque, among others, is funded by a £100,000 grant from the Greater London Council. There, Abu Hamza Al-Mazri--the one-eyed sheik and Afghan war veteran wanted in Yemen for his connection to the bombing of the USS Cole and other terrorist attacks--delivers his incendiary sermons. "America is a crazy superpower and what was done was done in self-defense," he proclaimed in a fit of joy after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the German city of Aachen, the Al Aqsa Association for Charitable Donations, which German intelligence believes is involved in fundraising for Hamas, gets ¤10,000 in aid from the town council each year, ostensibly for humanitarian work. (Yes, contributions are tax-deductible.) In London a radical preacher named Abu Qatadah, convicted in absentia in Jordan for a series of bombings, happily receives state income support and housing benefits--even as he churns out the fiery videotaped exhortations to jihad found in the Hamburg apartment of a suspected Arab accomplice sought in the World Trade Center hijackings.

A political counterreaction against this misplaced tolerance was gathering momentum even before Sept. 11. For almost two years the German Federal Criminal Bureau has been passing thick dossiers to state prosecutors, recommending a thorough investigation into Islamist networks and their possible ties to terrorism. But federal prosecutor Kai Nehm refused to pursue them. "There was not sufficient indication for criminal offense," his spokeswoman, Frauke-Katrin Scheuten, blandly told NEWSWEEK. Three weeks after Sept. 11, however, Nehm changed his mind--and launched a full-scale inquiry that will not halt at the doors of the mosques. "We are increasingly sure that the hijackers were radicalized during their stay in Germany," a senior German intelligence official now tells NEWSWEEK. "The people who radicalized them may have used some of our mosques and Islamic centers as a cover."

Proposed legal changes will also make life tougher for extremists. Right now, Germany classifies as illegal terrorist organizations only those groups planning attacks on German soil. That has held back investigations against Al Qaeda and other groups. ("They weren't touched, so they did nothing," says a French official who tracked several cells involved with terrorist attacks in France to their safe havens in Germany and Britain during the 1990s.) A bill now before the Bundestag will change that. Exempting radical organizations from strict freedom-of-religion protections is also part of the crackdown. Kaplan's Caliphate State, an intelligence official tells NEWSWEEK, is likely to be one of the first organizations to be banned under the new law.

We are likely to see similar legislation elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, Parliament plans to expand the definition of illegal incitement to include religious as well as racial hatred. Also in Britain, moves are afoot to test the country's perhaps too-liberal asylum laws. Last week lawyers for two Egyptians and a Saudi appeared before the House of Lords, arguing against their clients' extradition. The United States has demanded that they face trial for the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Legal experts on both sides of the Atlantic will be watching the decision closely.

Will the counterreaction to terror go too far? Already, some civil libertarians suggest that the broader police powers advocated by Germany's Interior Minister Otto Schily will impinge freedom in the name of ecurity. In Italy, Minister of Reform Umberto Bossi called on all mosques in the country to be shut down. "Let's close the border to all Muslims," he also told an Italian newspaper last week.

Public feelings are clearly running high. After Sept. 11, emotions that were beneath the surface are coming into the open--suspicions of foreigners are growing deeper, especially of those who keep apart and fail to assimilate the values of their adopted country. "There is much more aggression against Muslims than by Muslims," says Leiden University's Philipse, concerned about the animosities he sees growing in the Netherlands. But clearly, he concedes, "the general atmosphere is deteriorating." Says Jacobus Hijsen, a school superintendent and former member of the Dutch Parliament: "It once was politically incorrect to speak of intolerance in the Muslim world. Now we say, 'Tolerance ends where intolerance begins'."

So far, the social backlash against Islamic groups has been remarkably moderate. Right-wingers who call for a disproportionate crackdown are still as marginalized as their Islamic counterparts, the firebrands of prejudice and apostles of hate. But that could change. When the fears of different groups begin to play off one another in times of uncertainty, the social damage can spread far.