Interreligious bike ride in Berlin sends signal of Jewish-Muslim unity but is overshadowed by accusations

On June 24, 50 bicycle tandems, composed of Jews and Muslims, made their way from Berlin’s central Holocaust memorial, located next to the Brandenburg Gate, to Bebelplatz – a square in front of Humboldt University where the Nazi regime had organised the burning of 20.000 books in 1933.1

The Jewish-Muslim ride sought to send a message against Antisemitism and Islamophobia by showing how – quite literally – Jews and Muslims could work ‘in tandem’ against racism and hatred. The event was organised by the meet2respect initiative, focused on inter-religious dialogue. In a statement on its website, the initiative asserted that the bike ride was intended to

“send a signal to all Muslims in the city that anti-Semitic attitudes cannot be reconciled with the Islamic faith. And all those who cultivate the prejudice of the violent and hateful Muslims could get a vivid picture of a different Islam.”2

To underline their commitment, the bike riders, many of whom were rabbis and imams, stopped at a synagogue and a mosque on the way. They were greeted by drinks, snacks, and a reception highlighting the history of these places of worship.

Uniting religious minorities

The bike ride was held after a number of highly mediatised assaults on Jews in Berlin. In the aftermath of these events, Muslim migrants have been accused of ‘importing’ anti-Semitism to Germany. Against this backdrop, the interfaith cycling tour sought to showcase that Muslims and Jews could and should stand together as minorities that are both frequent targets of hate crimes.

The bike ride thus understood itself as an active intervention in current social and political debates. This agenda, coupled with its self-conscious aim to ‘show a different Islam’, brought its own pitfalls, however. Consequently, while the participants’ aim was to stress the commonalities between Jews and Muslims, at times this message of unity threatened to be submerged by more discordant overtones.

‘Distance yourselves!’

In some quarters, the bike ride was perceived not as a joint Jewish-Muslim show of unity against discrimination. Rather, it was seen as a necessary (if also unsatisfactory) attempt on the part of Muslim leaders to distance themselves from the anti-Semitism (supposedly) rampant in their own communities.

In line with this, the single one statement by a participant that virtually all media outlets took up was a quote from Ender Cetin, a Berlin-based imam. Cetin asserted that imams and rabbis getting together in a bike ride meant that “we send a signal to the Muslim community that we will not tolerate anti-Semitism.”3

While an admirable statement in and of itself, it problematically implies that it is above all Muslims who need to be taught that anti-Semitic prejudice is objectionable. Indeed, outside observers of the recent vitriolic debates on anti-Semitism in Germany would be forgiven for thinking that Muslims are the only perpetrators of violence against Jews. Yet the opposite is of course true: the vast majority of anti-Semitic offences continue to be committed by the far right.

Muslim participants under scrutiny

Yet it was not only the political intent of the bike ride that was at times hijacked by political contention. Some of the cycle tour’s riders also came under intense scrutiny. In particular, the participation of imam Mohamed Taha Sabri was a bone of contention.

Sabri is the imam of one of Berlin’s major places of Islamic worship, the Dar as-Salam mosque. The mosque, located in the multi-ethnic Neukölln district, carries the sobriquet Neuköllner Begegnungsstätte (NBS) or ‘Neukölln Place of Encounter’.

In line with this moniker, the mosque has become a fixture in Berlin’s civil society scene, hosting a large number of public fora and discussion events with a wide range of participants. Guests have ranged from a hardline Saudi cleric to a large number of German academics, LGBT activists and far-right politicians.

Interior intelligence agency surveillance operations

The mosque has also, however, been under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, for its suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Attempts of the NBS to have its name deleted from the watchlist have, so far, failed.4 The precise nature of the intelligence agency’s suspicion remains, however, unclear.5

The dilemma that the Neukölln mosque and its leaders face is that their activism and their ceaseless public declarations praising Germany’s constitutional order are routinely seen as null and void: after all, they might say something completely different behind closed doors – or so the argument goes.

Thus, the Berliner Zeitung reported that the interfaith bike ride might have delivered a “kosher certificate to Islamists” because Mohamed Taha Sabri was among its participants.6 The American Jewish Committee, as well as Jewish members of the SPD and a Green Party politician also denounced Sabri’s presence.7

The logic of suspicion

Bernhard Heider, chairman of the Leadership Berlin NGO who coordinates the meet2respect project and was therefore responsible for the bike ride, sought to come to Sabri’s aid. Speaking of Sabri and other participants, he stressed that “there are no statements from them or their parishes that are anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic, or that advocate or relativise violence.”8

Yet the absence of any incriminating statements is not enough to be cleansed of suspicion. A Protestant pastor who has routinely partnered with the NBS expressed his exasperation at the constant and unsubstantiated distrust levelled against his Muslim cooperation partners.9

Indeed, as long as Muslim figures constantly have to repeat the public rituals of ‘distancing’ themselves – from terrorism, violence, radicalisation, gender discrimination, anti-Semitism, or any other matter – they will be in no position to become meaningful partners in interreligious dialogue. Any gesture of understanding they make will be routinely interpreted as a diversion tactic that is consciously employed to shroud their genuine and sinister agenda.

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  5. The flimsiness of such accusations was on ample display in the juridical proceedings a mosque in the Bavarian town of Penzberg brought against the Verfassungsschutz: the mosque had been placed on a watchlist because the chairperson’s name and address appeared on a ten-year-old Excel file listing affiliates of the local branch of the Islamic Community Milli Görüs (IGMG). The IGMG was one of the Verfassungsschutz’s main targets for suspected Islamist extremism; a move that was in and of itself harshly criticised by many academics and observers. The fact that the mosque chairman had long renounced his membership in the IGMG youth branch and that he had become chairman of the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were discounted by the Verfassungsschutz as a deceptive manoeuvre on his part. For an account of this case, see: Müller, Tobias: “Sicherheitswissen und Extremismus: Definitionsdynamiken in der deutschen Islampolitik” in Amir-Moazami, Schirin (ed.), Der inspizierte Muslim: Zur Politisierung der Islamforschung in Deutschland (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018), pp. 194 f.