BERLIN (Reuters) - A poster campaign by Germany’s Interior Ministry to advertise a hotline for those worried that a friend or family member may be turning to radical Islam has incensed some Muslims who say it stigmatizes them.
Germany, home to four million Muslims, has become increasingly concerned about home-grown Islamic militants over the past decade after Hamburg served as a base for three of the September 11 suicide airline hijackers in 2001.
Officials are especially worried about the ease with which individuals can be recruited over the Internet by extremists. Last year a young Kosovo Albanian Muslim shot dead two U.S. airmen at Frankfurt airport after being radicalized online.
In the new campaign, posters showing four fictitious missing persons - ‘Hassan’, ‘Fatima’, German convert ‘Tim’ and ‘Ahmed’ - will be displayed in Arabic, Turkish and German in major cities with big immigrant populations from September 21.
“This is my brother Hassan. I miss him and hardly recognize him anymore,” one poster reads.
“He has become reclusive and gets more radical every day. I‘m afraid of losing him completely to religious fanatics and terrorist groups. If you’re experiencing something similar, contact the information center for radicalization,” it says.
Critics fear the campaign could fuel stereotypes of Muslims.
“Muslims are always regarded as a potential threat,” said Aydan Oezoguz, a Turkish-German member of parliament and integration commissioner for the opposition Social Democrats.
“This is a very important issue, but it risks alienating an entire religious community,” Oezoguz added.
The Interior Ministry says the campaign was crafted with the help of Muslim interest groups as part of a larger initiative to improve ties between security agencies and Muslim communities.
However, four of the six interest groups involved in the confidence-building initiative have since withdrawn their support.
“Constantly associating Islam with issues of violence and security policy can only lead to false perceptions,” the groups said in a joint statement.
Mistrust among Germany’s immigrant population increased after the authorities’ botched handling of a wave of neo-Nazi killings of mostly Turkish shopkeepers. For years, authorities told victims’ families that the murders were the result of score settling between organized criminal gangs.
Erol Puerlue from the Association of Muslim Cultural Centres, one of the groups involved in the initiative, said too much focus was placed on extremism among Muslims rather than in German society as a whole.
“Addressing extremism only among Muslims risks putting them under a general suspicion,” he said, adding that more classes on religion in schools would be a more effective way of combating radicalization among young people.
“We also have to talk about protecting Muslims. They can fall victim to extremism too,” said Puerlue.
Joachim Trebbe, a professor of media analysis at Berlin’s Free University, said stereotypes were unavoidable when trying to depict people with immigrant backgrounds.
“The alternative would be to not include any pictures, you’re always going to be stereotyping someone,” he said.
Reporting By Chris Cottrell, editing by Gareth Jones