BERLIN // A Muslim businessman wants to convert Germans to Islam by distributing 25 million free copies of the Quran in a project that is being criticised by politicians, the security authorities and leaders of the Muslim community.
Palestinian-born Ibrahim Abou Nagie, 47, said he has already handed out more than 300,000 copies at stalls set up in major cities as "a present from the Muslims to their neighbours". The campaign is called "Read! In the Name of the Lord Who Created You".
He launched the project in November but only began attracting nationwide media attention last week because he stepped up distribution during the Christian holiday of Easter.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency has warned that the project is not as harmless as it sounds and called Mr Nagie a prominent exponent of Salafism, an ultraconservative branch of Islam.
He is being investigated by state prosecutors for allegedly inciting violence and denigrating other religions.
His campaign has also brought criticism from the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Its chairman, Aiman Mazyek, said: "The Quran isn't a PR pamphlet or brochure you distribute as mass produce." He added that there was a danger that copies of the Quran could get thrown away and recycled.
Mr Nagie has given speeches urging followers to "die as martyrs" and saying non-believers will "go to hell forever". Investigators regard his website, The True Religion, as a hub for radical Islamists on the internet.
Mr Nagie moved to Germany from the Gaza Strip when he was 18 and studied electrical engineering in the western city of Iserlohn. He made his fortune selling self-adhesive foils and decided in 2003 to devote his life to Islam and studied the Quran, he told Kölner Stadtanzeiger, a Cologne newspaper, in an interview published on Thursday.
"This is about Salafist propaganda and recruiting supporters," said a spokesman for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency, on Friday. "The Quran is just a vehicle." The head of the agency, Heinz Fromm, said last year: "Not every Salafist is a terrorist. But every terrorist known to us at some point had Salafist connections."
Mr Nagie's project has confronted German authorities with a problem because the distribution of Qurans is perfectly legal, and any steps to halt it could be construed as anti-Islamic. In addition, the German translation being handed out is completely innocuous and contains no Salafist commentary or interpretations, officials say.
The controversy is a public-relations coup for Mr Nagie, who has little hope at least in the near future of distributing 25 million copies because the German printing company, deterred by the public criticism, has cancelled the contract after delivering more than 300,000 copies.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, a centre-left newspaper commented on Thursday that the project was a cynical PR stunt. "It makes the sect look far bigger, more significant and threatening than it is - and thereby more attractive to the real target of the campaign: young people who aren't sure of themselves and who could be receptive to a seductively simple division of the complicated world in friend and enemy, good and bad, halal and haram, as offered by the Islamists."
The debate also risks fanning public prejudice against Germany's wider Muslim community, even though there are just 3,800 Salafists in Germany, according to an estimate of the domestic intelligence agency - less than 0.1 per cent of the country's four million Muslims.
Professor Rauf Ceylan, an expert on Islam at the University of Osnabrück, said: "Salafism is a fundamentalist movement of Islam which is very backward and tries to establish a society which is also very backward, which is anti-democratic and whose theory runs counter to the views of most Muslims."
Members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, called on authorities to keep a close watch on the distribution and to clamp down on the activities of Salafists in Germany.
The leader of the Greens party, Cem Özdemir, a secular Muslim, said: "I have a problem with all religious groups in Germany that place their ideology above the constitution and human rights. That also applies to those Salafists who call for violence and whose ideology feeds Islamist terrorism with keywords."
"It is evident that the stunt is aimed at portraying oneself as the voice of the Muslims, as the supposedly only true Islam. The Salafists mustn't be allowed to get away with that."