Andi versus al Qaeda — in Germany

March 25, 2008

Andi comic coverIt seems a bizarre tool in the hands of security officials, but German authorities believe a cartoon comic strip can help them get their message across to young people who might be tempted to flirt with militant Islamism. The unusual experiment in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, has stirred international interest from as far away as the United States and Japan, according to the team behind the idea.

The comic is aimed at 12-16 year-olds and has been distributed in mosques and to every secondary school. “The reactions are almost entirely positive,” said Thomas Grumke, the interior ministry official who first thought up the hero Andi, his Muslim girlfriend Ayshe and the rest of the characters, including a militant imam and two young men who fall under his influence.

The story, which can be downloaded here in German, is interspersed with short passages of text addressing key issues and terms like sharia, jihad and the difference between Islam and Islamism. On that last point, it says: “Islam is a monotheistic religion (a belief in one all-embracing God), which is closely related to Judaism and Christianity. By contrast, Islamism is a political ideology which poses as ‘true Islam’ and wants to realise this as a binding, guiding principle for state and society. This ideology is directed against the free democratic order and thus is unambiguously extremist.”

Andi and friendsAyshe, the feisty, headscarf-wearing Muslim girl in the story, is able to quote the Koran in defence of her relationship with non-Muslim Andi. When her brother’s friend Harun tells her this is forbidden by Allah, she fires back: “What a lot of nonsense. It says in the Koran we should be gracious and friendly towards those who don’t fight us because of our faith.”

Grumke said the feedback from Muslim girls has been that they are drawn to Ayshe as someone who is both devout and assertive.

He acknowledged that stereotyping is an issue when using the comic format, but he said figures like the militant imam in the story, who advocates fighting and killing non-Muslims, are not unrealistic. “This preacher has a stereotypical beard and clothing. Not every preacher has looks like that, but he may well do, and the likelihood is very high that he looks like that.

The comic initiative was launched by the NRW interior ministry’s department for protection of the constitution – Verfassungsschutz in German. Essentially it is a domestic intelligence agency which can use covert surveillance methods to track militants, but its boss Hartwig Möller told Reuters its role is about much more than just preventing attacks.

Hartwig MöllerIsn’t it just as dangerous if there’s a religious community which doesn’t practise violence but which in the long term wants to change our society, to abolish our democracy, and which is seeking free room in which to establish their standards, which aren’t compatible with the constitution, where sharia would be introduced which isn’t in line with our legal system. Isn’t that just as dangerous?” he asked in a telephone interview.

Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany , said the basic approach of the comic was right, but he regretted the authorities hadn’t consulted the Muslim community beforehand. The NRW ministry said it was prepared with the help of Islamic experts.

For more detail, read the Reuters feature and then let us know what you think. Is this the right message, and the right vehicle, for preventing young Muslims from embracing al Qaeda-inspired violence?

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