In Lower Saxony, Germany, police routinely perform ID checks at mosques and cafes.
BRAUNSCHWEIG, Germany — In the wake of the Christmas Day terror attempt aboard an American airplane, countries on both sides of the Atlantic have turned their attention to places within their borders where potential terrorists may be radicalized or recruited. But in one part of Germany, heavy monitoring of mosques and Muslim-frequented cafes is not just a matter of public debate. It is standard police procedure, and has been for years — a policy that has increasingly outraged German Muslims while failing to yield a single terrorism-related arrest.
In Lower Saxony, a state in northwestern Germany, Muslim worshippers heading to Friday services routinely arrive to find the street in front of the mosque cordoned off and armed police at the entrance. Those entering or leaving the mosque must show their identification papers. Sometimes the police search bags, ask questions, or bring those who cannot show ID to the precinct station. In one city, officers stamped Muslims on the arm after checking them.
In these controls, known as "unmotivated mosque checks," the police are not seeking any specific person or investigating any particular crime. Rather, they are acting under a 2003 state law that empowers them to question and search individuals in public places regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing in the interest of preventing crimes of "grave and international concern".
"The police say they're protecting us from terrorists", said Avni Altiner, regional head of the umbrella Muslim advocacy organization Shura. "But we don't feel protected. We feel discriminated against and degraded".
Muslims' anger over the mosque checks had by August of last year become vocal enough to attract coverage from newspapers in Berlin and Turkey. Then in December 2009, the Green Party introduced into the Lower Saxon parliament legislation to revoke the statute legalizing the checks.
"Muslims are being placed under general suspicion here", said Green Party representative Filiz Polat, one of the bill's backers. She is among a growing chorus of critics who argue that the checks infringe upon freedom of religion, damage efforts to integrate immigrants into German society and foster feelings of persecution that could radicalize Muslim youth — all without any visible results in the fight against terrorism.
Information released on Polat's request shows that six years of regularly occurring mosque controls have yielded charges and arrests for expired residence visas, traffic violations and unauthorized weapons — but no connections to terrorism. Hardly the stuff But the push to end the checks is meeting strong resistance from officials who call them necessary and effective counterterrorism. Regional Interior Minister Uwe Schuenemann of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, who oversees the mosque checks, said they have "proven themselves a worthwhile means of gaining knowledge about Islamic terrorism.".
According to Schuenemann, the list of charges is secondary to the "pre-emptive" effect of mosque checks: They have delivered intelligence about potential terrorist activity and reduced the prevalence of hate preaching by imams of grave international crime, say Muslim and Green Party leaders.
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