COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Hani Salam escaped civil war in Syria and survived the journey from Egypt to Europe. But when he saw men with bushy long beards at a mosque near his current home in Cologne last November, he was worried.
The men’s appearance reminded him of Jaish al-Islam, the Islamist rebels who took over his hometown near Damascus, said Salam, 36, who wears a mustache but no beard. One of them told Salam that “good Muslims grow beards, not moustaches,” he recalled – a centuries-old idea that he dismisses.
“Everything about this mosque made me feel uneasy,” he said.
Syrians in Germany say many of the country’s Arab mosques are more conservative than those at home.
Over two months, a dozen Syrians in six places of worship in three cities told Reuters they were uncomfortable with very conservative messages in Arabic-speaking mosques. People have criticized the way the newcomers dress and practice their religion, they said. Some insisted the Koran be interpreted word-for-word.
It is a highly contentious issue in a country where Europe’s migrant influx is already having deep political and social consequences. In Germany this year Alternative for Germany, a populist party that says Islam is incompatible with the German constitution, has gained ground. There have been several attacks by militant Muslims. Syrians and others say the mosque problem is adding to mistrust.
In Germany, other different faiths are traditionally supported by the state. But most of the country’s four million Muslims originally came from Turkey and attend Turkish-speaking mosques which are partly funded by Ankara.
Last year around 890,000 asylum-seekers, more than 70 percent of them Muslims, entered the country. Around a third came from Syria. Many of them do not want to go to Turkish mosques because they do not understand the sermons. They prefer to worship where people speak Arabic.
Yet in these mosques, other problems arise. They are often short of funds, or else supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Some back ultra-conservative or highly literal interpretations of Islam, such as Wahhabism or Salafism.
“Unfortunately it is true that a large majority of Arabic-speaking mosques are more conservative than Turkish mosques,” said Professor Mouhannad Khorchide, who heads the Centre for Islamic Theology at Muenster University. That poses problems for integrating those who are less conservative.
“How can one absorb these people if they are interested in their religion?” said Khorchide. “When there is a shortage of offers the Salafists try to fill the gap.”
In Cologne, Salam said that 75 Syrians live in the same hotel as his family. Of them, only one veiled woman prays at the nearest Arabic mosque.
“One time when I was there, a Salafist asked a young Arab man to leave because he was wearing shorts,” he added. “At the Turkish mosque no one cares what you’re wearing.”
In a windowless ground floor room inside the Arabic mosque one Friday in August, some 200 men, including about two dozen with bushy beards and trimmed moustaches typical of ultra-Orthodox Muslims, crowded for prayers.
Afterwards, a worshipper scolded three Lebanese men for saluting him when he entered the mosque. They had interrupted the sermon, which he said was forbidden. “Your Friday is gone!” he told them, lifting his hands toward his face and pressing his fingers together to emphasize that their actions had made their prayers void.
The imam who led the prayers said the community is not political or violent. Asked about the Syrians who felt uncomfortable at mosques like his, he said: “It’s an honor to be called a Salafist. We are only interested in giving members of our community pure Islamic teachings.”
Even though Salam can’t understand the sermons in Turkish, he said he has started going to a Turkish mosque instead.
A 2008 survey of Muslims and Christians in Europe by the state-funded WZB Berlin Social Science Centre found fundamentalist attitudes were less prevalent among German Muslims than elsewhere in Europe, but still quite widespread: For example, nearly half the Muslims it surveyed in Germany felt religious law to be more important than secular law.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has recorded more than 320 attempts by Salafist Muslims to contact refugees last year, often by offering food, clothes, free copies of the Koran and help with German to asylum seekers living in shelters.
Earlier this month, a Syrian committed suicide in prison after he was arrested on suspicion of planning to bomb an airport. His brother and friends in Germany have said he was “brainwashed” by ultra-conservative imams in Berlin.
The intelligence agency has advised local authorities against housing asylum-seekers near Salafist or Wahhabi mosques.
“We know of at least 90 Islamist mosques where activities aimed at refugees are taking place. These mosques are largely Arab-dominated and influenced by Salafism,” said Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the agency.
At the al-Nur mosque in Berlin, which is run by Wahhabis, Syrian Abed al-Hafian said he was alarmed by a strict interpretation of the Koran and Hadith, a collection of sayings of the prophet. He recalled a sentence from Hadith that the preacher quoted on his first Friday: ‘Every novelty (in religion) is innovation, and every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance leads to the hellfire.’
“I had never heard that sentence in Syria,” said the 42-year-old father of three, who arrived in 2014. “The message is clear and is directed at us Muslims: ‘Don’t you dare interpret your religion. Take the Koran word for word.’ It’s a problem.”
He said he decided to take what he wants from the sermons and “ignore the rest.”
Even though officials accept that not all Salafists are violent, some Syrians worry that if they go to Arabic-speaking mosques, they may be seen as radicals.
In Hamburg, Syrian Kurd Abu Mohammad said he has avoided going to a mosque since he arrived in Germany two years ago because his parents, who came here a decade ago, told him it could only bring trouble.
“The government is obviously monitoring Salafists,” said the 32-year-old father of six, using a nickname because he said he fears for his safety and that of relatives still living in Damascus.
“I have a two-year visa and the last thing I want is trouble.”
The problem may be rooted in the schisms in Islam, but it is made worse by the structure of religious funding in Germany. Since the start of the 20th century Germany has had a system of collecting taxes for worship, which are then paid out to religious groups like Catholics, Protestants and Jews.
Muslims cannot benefit from this, because the four main organizations that represent Muslims in Germany can’t agree to merge into one religious body, a requirement to receive taxes.
“Most communities can’t even afford a proper mosque ... And most can’t pay a well-educated imam to serve their community,” said Daniel Abdin, co-chairman of the Shura Council in Hamburg, an umbrella organization for the city’s Muslim community.
“So you end up with a situation where people with little or no knowledge of modern theology are serving as imams.”
Five years ago, the government set up five Islamic theology centers to train imams and Islamic educators with a 20-million-euro ($22 million) grant from the Education Ministry. The strategy has been partly successful: Islamic studies are taught to Muslim pupils in many schools.
But few of the more than 1,800 students who have graduated from the theology centers have gone on to serve as local imams.
Nonetheless, Khorchide and other Islam experts are hopeful that the influx of Muslim asylum-seekers with an open approach to religion is an opportunity to promote a more “moderate” Islam in the Arabic-speaking mosques.
In Hamburg, Abu Mohammad says he has stopped attending mosque at all.
“I pray at home,” he said. “I’m sure Allah listens.”
Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Edited by Sara Ledwith