BERLIN // In a bid to bring Islamist extremists into the mainstream, German authorities have set up a telephone hotline similar to one that has been used in the past decade to assist neo-Nazis. Hatif, which means telephone in Arabic and is an acronym in German for the name of the programme - "Getting Out of Terrorism and Islamist Fundamentalism" - was launched last week by the domestic intelligence agency, BfV, and is staffed by seasoned agents, some of whom speak Turkish and Arabic.
"It is a support programme for people who want to leave an environment that preaches and lives by a fanatical ideology that supports the use of violence and refers to Islam," the agency said. It stressed that it had no intention of discouraging people from pursuing the Islamic faith. While some observers have criticised the programme, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany praised it, saying it was more focused than other measures undertaken to scrutinise the Muslim community since 9/11, such as racial and religious profiling, conducting police checks in mosques and placing imams under surveillance.
"It is more effective than demonising and criminalising the whole religious community," said Aiman Mazyek, the council's general secretary. In spelling out details of the programme, the intelligence agency said the hotline is also available to parents, relatives and friends of people who are being influenced by radical Islamists, adding that all calls would be treated with absolute confidentiality.
The scheme will offer help to individuals wanting to return to mainstream society, perhaps by finding them employment or arranging for education or job training. In cases where callers are in danger, the agency will consider relocating them and providing a new identity. Although other European countries offer general helplines for the Muslim community, Germany is alone so far in offering an official scheme that reaches out to radicals before they commit an attack, analysts said.
While the programme is ostensibly focused on helping extremists to quit the scene, the presence of intelligence agents on the other end of the line suggests that any sensitive information, for example on planned terrorist attacks, would be passed on and acted on. Given the implications for public safety, that would not be controversial, despite Germany's recent experience with state snooping and denunciation under the communist regime.
The aim is to tackle what German authorities believe to be a growing risk of home-grown terrorism committed by young men who have either converted to Islam or been recruited from within Germany's Muslim population of about four million. Germany has so far been spared a major terrorist attack, but it thwarted a plot by Islamist militants in 2007 to carry out bomb attacks against US military installations in Germany, including pubs and nightclubs frequented by US soldiers and the Ramstein air base.
Authorities are worried that the country's strong military presence in Afghanistan, where it has more than 5,000 troops, might encourage attacks on German soil. They are also acutely aware of Germany's potential as a haven for terrorists after Hamburg was used as a base for planning the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. According to recent figures from the BfV, 36,270 people in Germany belong to 29 Islamist groups that oppose democracy and support the establishment of Sharia, or Islamic law. Only a fraction of those people are deemed to be violent, however.
Hatif has similarities with a programme called Exit, which was launched in 2000 for people who want to leave the neo-Nazi scene. But the founder of Exit, Bernd Wagner, a former police officer, said helping potential Islamist terrorists to quit would probably prove to be more difficult. "We help neo-Nazis to move, find a new job and if necessary to change their name, and we show them how to cope with being pursued by former comrades without panicking," Mr Wagner said in an interview.
"Former right-wing extremists can sever all ties with the organisations they belonged to and return to live ordinary lives without being conspicuous," Mr Wagner said. "But it's more difficult with Islamists because they live in a smaller community and would probably not renounce their faith, which means they would maintain links with their religious communities. That will make it harder for them to hide their identity if they want to."
Yet the scheme is worth trying, he said, even if he would not describe it as a "milestone in fighting Islamist extremism". Exit, a private organisation partly funded with government money, has so far helped a total of 391 people leave the neo-Nazi scene, which is particularly strong in the former communist East Germany and has 9,000 members ready to commit violence, according to the latest estimates by the BfV.
Mr Wagner said the BfV should draw on the expertise of local imams to help with the hotline. But no one from the Muslim religious community has been recruited to join the scheme, a spokeswoman for the agency said. She declined to reveal whether anyone has rung the hotline since it went live on July 19. Götz Nordbruch, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Southern Denmark who has researched Muslim youth culture in Germany, warned against expecting too much from the hotline, especially since it was run by a government agency. "A state programme isn't the kind of body you turn to if you previously rejected this society," he said.