Mosque struggles to shrug off extremist label

Imam Khalid ben Mohamed describes his mosque in Biel as "an open place"

Accused of preaching a fundamentalist line of Islam, the Errhamen Mosque of Biel is once again in the firing line for having welcomed amongst its worshippers young men who have travelled abroad to fight jihad.

This content was published on July 4, 2012 minutes

In an upstairs office of the mosque, an old building in the throes of renovation, Imam Khalid ben Mohamed, an affable political refugee from Algeria who has lived in Switzerland for 17 years, welcomes with a smile.

In this interview, ben Mohamed discusses the reasons behind the mosque’s decision to restrict media access to prayer areas, and the rumours damaging its reputation. The media is not welcome in the mosque’s prayer areas. Do you have something to hide?

Khalid ben Mohamed: We have opted for discretion, rather than play the media card. Being transparent made no difference since the press still labels us the same way. This suspicion is linked to previous bad experiences, such as the arrest in 2004 of a group of Yemenis suspected of contacts with al-Qaeda. It turned out to be wrong but the media failed to highlight this when these people were exonerated.

We are swimming against the tide of extremist ideas. We have to stop lumping everything together, everyone is responsible for his or her own acts. I insisted on individual responsibility when I commented the case of M.N.* to worshippers. In my sermons, I am constantly warning of the dangers posed by ideologically-laden discourse found on the internet. What exactly do you know about M.N., the high school student of Jordanian origin from Biel who is believed by Kenyan authorities have developed ties with Islamists in Somalia?

K.M.: M.N. came regularly to the mosque in his younger years. He was quiet, discreet, intelligent, but had few friends and some health problems. He was often absent, both from the mosque and school. Since 2009, we haven’t seen him. He told us that he was very busy with his studies.  

The mosque is an open place, lots of people come and go. His disappearance didn’t worry us because we had no idea of his intentions. We still don’t know where he went and what provoked his departure. Like everyone, we found out about his arrest via the media. The community was very shocked. Could M.N. have used your mosque, or somewhere else in Switzerland, as a stepping stone to reach Somalia?

K.M.: All the experts will tell you that a terrorist or jihadist organisation will never publicise its activities. If such a cell existed in Biel, it would stay very discreet. But it is highly unlikely that there is a network organising the departure of young jihadists from Switzerland. Private contacts can be made over the internet. And nothing is simpler than to travel to another country and to disappear from there, because we live in an open world. What about “Abou Saad the Tunisian”, who was an attendee of your mosque and died in Iraq in April 2006 in circumstances that remain unclear?

K.M.: We have very little information about this man. He presented a similar profile to M.N., he was a young man without problems. But one day he told me about his plan to go to Iraq.

In front of witnesses, I told him not to, believing it was part of my role as imam. His family was shocked when it heard the news of his death and it still is today. After that, media harassment contributed to radicalising some members of his family. Your mosque is known for practicing a political and militant brand of Islam. What exactly do you speak of in your sermons?

K.M.: The authorities know very well what is said in mosques. The state has a right to protect itself. But we are worried about the image we convey to the Swiss population.

To give you an example, in my last sermon I spoke about the campaign put in place by the city authorities to combat littering. I speak of social and political issues in the right sense of the term. But the community also expects that the imam to speak of what is in the news. When I pray to Allah to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, that also gives relief to the worshippers. Is it possible that some of your ideas be misinterpreted by young people who are not well integrated, and who might feel humiliated by what is happening in the Arab world?

K.M.: Does a 20-minute weekly sermon have the same influence as a sophisticated video with accompanying music circulating on the internet? I don’t think so. The influence of the imam is very modest. Al-Qaeda and its network have understood that the internet is the at the heart of everything. Do you understand the feeling of revolt or injustice that can push some young people to join jihad?

K.M.: Everything is possible in terms of human psychology. Some young people are not well integrated but others have no integration problem. The family environment plays a role too.

These cases can be counted on one hand. Other problems worry us much more: integration, criminality, unemployment or political campaigns run by certain parties about us.

Our role in society is not recognised at all by the authorities. We try to guide certain young people, to influence the reality of Muslim families torn apart by divorce, as well as the social or educational problems of their children. Is it a coincidence if Biel and your mosque are almost always cited in Islamist terrorist issues which have a link to Switzerland?

K.M.: It’s true that the concentration of foreigners is quite high in Biel, a lot of Muslims, notably from North Africa, have settled here. But this city has been demonised when there have also been problems in Ticino, Fribourg, Neuchatel, Geneva and Basel.

* Name known to the editor.

Muslims of Biel

Some 5,000 Muslims live in Biel, about 10 per cent of the city’s total population. Generally well integrated, they come from diverse backgrounds: Bosnia, Albania, Pakistan, Turkey, North Africa, the Middle East. Cheap housing, a number of mosques and a bilingual environment are among the reasons why this city is so attractive to immigrants.

The Errhamen Mosque is considered the most conservative in the city. Despite what the media says, Imam Khalid ben Mohamed defends his adherence to Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam, followed by a majority in Saudi Arabia. “I clearly disapprove of the extremist elements it pushes. I feel closer to Sufism and a certain form of spiritual orthodoxy,” he points out.

According to ben Mohamed, the funding of the Arisala Association, which manages the Errhamen Mosque, is entirely covered by the worshippers. Nearly 500 families are registered with the association.

After having joined for several months in 2010 the Swiss Islamic Central Council, which is aligned with Salafism and was founded by the controversial figure Nicolas Blancho, the Muslim Association of Biel, which groups together seven of the eight mosques of the city, is now trying to distance itself. “He practically never comes to our mosque anymore,” says ben Mohamed.

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The threat of the internet

In its annual report published on June 21, the Federal Police Office noted that aspiring jihadists continue to use Switzerland as a base to actively support Islamic groupings by placing propaganda material and incitement to violence on the Web.

The government has employed six specialists to monitor jihadism on the Web, who have begun several preliminary investigations targeting websites or their operators.

Following information received from Germany, an inquiry was opened into a Swiss convert to Islam. The evidence indicated that online, he planned a terrorist attack against an American institution in Germany and was preparing to use explosives. However in the absence of tangible proof, the man is still free.

“In the area of ideological extremists, there is no doubt that jihadists are making extensive use of the internet,” said the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) in its 2012 report.

According to the FIS, the hard core of al-Qaeda and its network distributed anti-Western propaganda on the internet to incite Western Muslims to commit jihad attacks in the countries where they life, without being obliged to travel to combat regions such as Afghanistan.

For the security services, it presents a large challenge because “the isolated authors are very difficult to identify in the early stages”.

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