On Patrol With the Man Behind Germany’s “Sharia Police”
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.
Lau didn’t start out as a member of the flock. He was born to a Catholic family in the western city of Mönchengladbach and spent his early teens smoking weed and playing soccer. He never took to Christianity, so when he was 15, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Abu Adam. He found comfort in the idea that life is a test and that seemed to fuel his commitment to Islam. He later founded a fundamentalist group called Invitation to Paradise in his hometown, and was once accused—and later acquitted—of burning down his own mosque.
The arson charges wouldn’t be Lau’s last brush with the law. He moved in 2012 to Egypt, where he lived with a group of Salafist transplants. He traveled there to study Arabic, the language of the Quran, he says. But the school he attended is reportedly a place that also pushes extremist ideas about holy war. Last summer, not long before the Mohammed Morsi teetered in Egypt, Lau was deported amid rising fears of Islamic extremism.
He returned to Germany, but over the next year and a half, he visited Syria three times. The German government charged him with recruiting fighters for the jihadi group commonly known as ISIS. Lau beat the rap because of lack of evidence. He says he doesn’t support ISIS, and was simply driving an ambulance and delivering aid to his fellow Muslims. But as he was arrested, the German government revoked his passport. He hasn’t gotten it back.
He’s not the only one the state is worried about. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said earlier this week that the government is monitoring 225 Islamic extremists it fears will commit acts of terrorism. “The number of threatening individuals has never been as high as now,” he said.
The number of Salafists appears to be growing, too. Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, warned last week that the Salafist community in Germany has grown from 3,800 in 2011 to 6,300 today.
“Salafists actually provide solutions,” says Dr. Götz Nordbruch, the co-founder of Ufuq.de, a Berlin-based Muslim group that tries to combat extremist religious views.
“Young people will wonder something like, is it OK to go to a Christmas party as a Muslim? The traditional mosques don’t provide answers to these questions. Salafists provide answers to youngsters, and they do it in a language that they understand, German.”
Many fear young Muslims in Germany are ripe for radicalization, which is partly why the Sharia Police seemed so menacing to many Germans. For his part, Lau believes it’s all a misunderstanding and that he’s unjustly branded as an enemy of the state.
Before I went on my first patrol, he told me that the Sharia Police were no longer wearing their orange vests. The German government had said it was fine to walk around, but that wearing the makeshift uniforms was cause for arrest.
“The police detain me for hours here in Wuppertal,” Lau says. “It’s embarrassing. They just stop me to check my ID. I have to stand there with people looking.”
As I later learned, that seems to be at least part of the point.
That evening, we drove to downtown Wuppertal and began our patrol. The cafés were crowded and the bars spilled out into the streets. Men and women dressed in tight black clothing flirted and smoked cigarettes in the cold.
Our group seemed far less urbane. Joining Lau and I on patrol were three members of his group, a motley crew he had recently rebranded as “Pro-Halal.” All were members of the mosque who had agreed to press coverage. There was Abdul Aziz, a 28-year-old German of Turkish descent, who sported a long beard and didn’t want to give his full name. There was Isa Schneider, a 23-year-old ex-soccer hooligan with a crew cut and tattoo sleeves. And then there was Yunus Sahin, a 27-year-old who wore a black jacket and gray pants, which were longer than those mandated by Sharia law. He was well on his way, though. “Sharia comes from God,” he said. “It’s good for all people, not just for Germany.”
Lau made sure that the cameras were rolling, and then we started walking around town. First we stopped by a casino and stood out front. Schneider went inside with a cameraman from Vice while the rest of us remained outside. Lau was somewhat apologetic when I asked why he didn’t join them.
“When they see people with a beard, they call the police,” he said. “They get scared.”
Later they went to a nightclub and again, just stood out front, silently. They barely even made eye contact with any passersby. It was beginning to feel like we were just a group of guys walking aimlessly around town.
After a few hours, the Vice film crew left. Lau and his patrol hadn’t once asked someone to put on a headscarf or stop drinking alcohol—and I was beginning to think that they never had— that the entire idea of the Sharia Police was little more than a media-savvy ruse.
Perhaps sensing my boredom, Lau tried to make conversation.
“You like Walking Dead?” he asked me.
I shook my head, no.
“Zombies,” he said, pulling out a knife, flipping open the blade and jabbing it into the air. “They need one of these to the head.”
I nodded. I sensed that he wanted to show me his weapon, to let me know that he was tough. I ignored it and a few minutes later, he once again pulled out his blade.
Four years ago, a group of thugs—Lau thinks they were neo-Nazis—showed up at his house and broke a glass door. He was inside at the time, then walked out to confront them. The attackers, however, didn’t know that some of Lau’s friends from the mosque were hanging out just around the corner.
“One asked me, ‘Where is your Allah now?” Lau said. “But 30 seconds later they knew where my Allah was.”
The Sharia Police may have started as a stunt, a ploy to get attention and followers, but the backlash against them didn’t seem to take this into account. Which is why, two days after I met Lau, I traveled west to the city of Cologne, where 4,000 people had gathered to protest against Salafi Muslims. The Sharia Police wasn’t the only thing they were rallying against, but it was a significant factor.
The weather was unusually warm as I stood under the spires of a towering gothic cathedral, watching the crowd guzzle beer in a public square near the train station. The police were standing on the outskirts of the rally, making sure that fights didn’t break out between the anti-Salafists and 1,000 or so left-wing activists on the other side of the train station.
Since the end of World War II, Nazism and other forms of overt racism have generally been met with scorn in Germany. But fears of the growing Salafist presence—and the Sharia Police in particular—have sometimes brought out the worst in people.
The rally began as a peaceful event. Most of the anti-Salafist crowd seemed to be from the country’s right wing, but not all were Neo-Nazis. Almost everyone I spoke to was afraid that Lau and his cohorts would make it unsafe for non-Muslims in Germany.
As the event wore on, the police were able to keep the left-wing protesters completely at bay. But among the anti-Salafists, the extremists (and there were many of them) seemed to take over. At one point, as the crowd became drunker and more aggressive, a band performed a song about Muslims killing Christian children, and thousands of drunk fans chanted: “Salafist pigs, we want none.”
As the crowd chanted, people arriving at the train station watched, their mouths agape. But things didn’t get ugly until hundreds of extremists began a 20-block march through the city. They had made it only a few blocks when a woman in a head scarf peered out a window four stories above the crowd.
That was all it took. Suddenly, people from the crowd surged toward the building, throwing beer bottles at her window and launching firecrackers as the police tried to intervene with cudgels and pepper spray.
As the march wound its way along the Rhine River, chaos broke loose as black-clad, right wing thugs turned over a police van, kicked photographers, spit on a random guy with a beard and threw everything from tree branches to beer bottles at the authorities.
Eventually, the rally returned to the main square, where police in riot gear were waiting with truck-mounted fire hoses. I was standing nearby, about 50 feet away, watching the chaos with a young Muslim man. His name was Abas Afghanistan, a 27-year-old law student who was born in Germany and grew up in Cologne.
As beer bottles flew through the air and pepper spray lingered in the air, Afghanistan was horrified, but also slightly amused. The spectacle was just too absurd.
“Idiots,” Afghanistan said, surveying the crowd. “Uneducated idiots.”
I told him about my experience with the Salafists and he laughed. Lau’s stunt wasn’t responsible for all of this. But it had played a role. “Idiots,” he said again. “Neither group knows about Muslims, or the people, or the religion.”
The Salafists, he said, weren’t representative of most Muslims in Germany, but now people were mistaking him for a fanatic because of his dark skin and his beard.
“I’m German,” he said. “I speak German. I was born here. But I feel fear when I see this.”
He has good reason. Moments later, the crowd broke past the police line and surged toward us. Afghanistan and I turned and sprinted toward the train station, running from both the crowd and the pepper spray drifting over from the square.
I ducked into the train station and stood behind its glass walls. I was coughing and my eyes were watering. By the time I got my bearings, Afghanistan was gone. With the pepper spray still stinging my eyes, I wondered, would Lau have been pleased by this spectacle? Was this was the reason he put on the orange vest?