To many here in Germany, it sounded like a nightmare. A group of radical Muslims called the Sharia Police began patrolling the streets in the western city of Wuppertal this September, allegedly enforcing Islamic laws against booze and gambling.
The leader of this roving band of vigilantes: none other than Sven Lau, 34, a German-born firebrand who was once accused of recruiting fighters in Syria for the Islamic State, or ISIS. Lau beat the charges, but his image as the country’s most notorious religious radical has stuck, thanks in part to a rabid YouTube following.
After Lau announced the first patrol—during which members wore orange construction worker vests with “Sharia Police” on the back—the reaction was swift, and not just from skinheads and neo-Nazis. No, the image of Islamic extremists taking over the streets fed into the fears of many Germans at a time when the country is in the grips of a tense debate over an influx of Muslim refugees and immigrants.
Now the growing backlash is threatening to make life harder for Muslims, as right-wing groups—some of them violent—have taken to the streets in protest. But Lau—a man called “public enemy No. 1” by one of Germany’s most popular newsmagazines—didn’t seem to be backing away from his patrols.
So last weekend, two days before thousands planned to attend a rally against Muslim extremism in Cologne, I decided to find out why he and the Sharia Police were still taking to the streets. I asked Lau if I could tag along for a Friday night on the town. And to my surprise, he agreed.
The Masjid Darul Arqam Mosque doesn’t look like a typical Islamic house of prayer. There are no domes, no elegant towers or stone plazas where people gather to hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. Instead, the entire mosque consists of a sparsely furnished room on the second floor of a warehouse-style industrial building in a gritty part of this city of 350,000.
When I met him at the mosque, Lau was sitting against the wall, sporting a long beard. The cuffs of his pants rested just above his ankles. Both styles are common among followers of Salafism—a radical sect of Sunni Islam that advocates a literal, almost puritanical interpretation of the religion. Lau, however, dislikes the term. He calls himself a Muslim, but the subtext is clear: Anyone who doesn’t follow his sect of Islam isn’t the real deal.
As I introduced myself, Lau seemed calm, soft-spoken—even a little shy—not at all like an agitator trying to turn Germany into an Islamic state, one foot patrol a time.
I learned that joining us for the evening was a camera crew from Vice, which was setting up in the corner of the room. The Wall Street Journal was next in line, Lau later told me, and a German magazine had arrived the week before.
The press coverage seemed to please him, and with the Vice cameras rolling, his shyness transformed into a carefully affected hard exterior. “The press? They help us,” Lau later told me over a tuna sandwich at Subway. “People love bad boys. Women love bad boys. In the last month I think 10 women wanted to marry me…from models to women who are totally covered.”
Not that Lau’s looking for groupies. Quite the opposite. A married father of five, he has three children from his current wife—a German woman of Moroccan decent—and two others from a previous marriage. But his wife (he declined to give her name to respect her privacy) isn’t exactly a fan of his newfound attention. “Sometimes she doesn’t like it so much,” he said.
Attention, of course, is what helps Lau get converts, which is one of his primary goals. After the Vice interview ended, he asked me if I spoke German. I nodded yes.
“You could be Muslim, too,” he said, stroking his beard and nodding at mine.
I laughed and Lau turned to the Vice guys with a wry smile.
“Another sheep for the flock,” he said.