“When did you move to Israel?” Ahmad Mansour, an Israeli-born psychologist and author, and one of Germany’s most prominent critics of Islam, asks me. We are sitting in a pleasant conference room at MIND Prevention, the institute for democratization and prevention of extremism that Mansour established in Berlin with his wife Beatrice.
“In 1990,” I answer.
“Do you remember the Arabs dancing on the roofs during the Gulf War? That was us,” he says. “My mother didn’t, but my brothers and I went up and watched the falling missiles. Our neighbors started celebrating and ululating.”
We spoke in Hebrew, mother tongue to neither of us. Mansour left Israel 15 year ago, but this was still the most natural language for our conversation. His anecdote about dancing on the roof preceded another Gulf War story, which he claims illustrates how the media in Arab countries twist political reality for propaganda purposes.
“We’re watching Israeli television, where Saddam Hussein is [reported to be] losing, at my parents’. You could see Baghdad surrounded,” he recalls. “I’d go downstairs to my grandparents because I was bored – and they’re watching Jordanian TV, where Saddam is winning. I think it was the same in 2003 [when the Iraqi leader was captured by U.S. forces]. I watched Al Jazeera, and everyone thought we’d win: Saddam would defeat the Americans. But CNN was showing Baghdad falling. It was shocking.”
Two of the books written by Mansour, 43, in recent years featured on Der Spiegel’s best-seller list. In the first, “Generation Allah” (2015), he presents his critique of the role of mainstream Islam in Germany, including that of the Muslim councils in the country, and focuses on the radicalization of youth and their recruitment by extremist groups via the internet. His second book, about integration and what he calls “false tolerance,” which came out last year, discusses his own struggle to adjust to German society and critiques the country’s mechanisms of integration. He has much to say about how the German education system – and other official bodies dealing with immigrant absorption – buries its head in the sand and ignores the contradictions between the baggage Muslim newcomers bring with them and the fundamental values of a democratic society.
“Instead of discussing important things with them, like equality and freedom from religion, they teach them to separate garbage,” he says.
Mansour is a sought-after interviewee on German news programs and talk shows, as well as in the press – conservative, liberal and left-wing alike – and he regularly publishes opinion pieces in local papers. Yet, despite the fact that he has become something of a media star in Germany, and an individual requiring police protection (a subject he asks not to expand on), he remains virtually unknown in Israel. With the exception of two brief television appearances, in which his face was blurred so he couldn’t be identified, Mansour hasn’t been interviewed by Israeli media and seems to be flying under his homeland’s radar. He refused my interview requests several times over the past two years, but then contacted me about two months ago.
“I have a great urge to be part of what’s happening in Israel,” he says, about his change of heart. “Some say this happens to a lot of migrants after 15 years. There was initially rejection [of life in Israel]. I said: I’m here, I’m happy, my family’s here. I don’t want to go back. But I have a huge urge to have an influence from afar. I’m starting to take an interest in Israeli politics, to watch Israeli television, to read Israeli books. I feel people in Israel understand my work better than local people, because they see the issues differently.”
Mansour dedicates much of his time to fighting anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel among Muslims. This year he won the German-Israeli Association’s Theodor Lessing Prize – the first Muslim to win the award, in the name of the late Jewish philosopher (who fought anti-Semitism and was assassinated by Nazis in 1933), since the organization was founded in 2003. “Where anti-Semitism rules, democracy dies,” Mansour declared at the award ceremony.
He talks about the need to introduce Muslims to the history of Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians and Arabs and criticizes the German education system for failing to deal with these subjects, along with such other topics as Islamism and the status of women in Muslim society. Mansour says this failure stems from a lack of cultural knowledge among educators, as well as taboos.
You talk about how Jews are a persecuted minority in Germany, or are on the way to becoming one. Do you really believe that’s the situation?
Mansour: “I can talk about the situation in the big cities. It is dangerous today to walk the streets with a kippah or Star of David. There is an Israeli restaurant in Berlin that is attacked weekly. Youths are attacked in schools because of their Judaism. I spoke with the principal of a Jewish high school in Berlin. He says people register their children there not necessarily because it’s Jewish, but rather because their children suffer in public schools [from bullying, etc.]. There are [Jewish] families who are thinking of emigrating. There are people I work with, my friends, who talk about it daily. They’re scared.”
Two weeks after we met, on Yom Kippur, a right-wing extremist attempted to perpetrate a murderous attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle. The assailant, when he couldn’t get into the building, murdered a passerby and a customer at a Turkish shawarma restaurant. The attack unified Jews and Muslims, as victims of racism. Still, the rabbi of the Halle synagogue, Elisha Portnoy, told me afterward that usually he is actually afraid of Muslim youths, who sometimes curse him in the street.
If we are comparing minorities, do you think that the Muslims living here have it better than the Jews?
“I don’t want to compare the two situations. It’s something political Islam tries to do all the time – to say our situation is like that of the Jews before [during the Holocaust]. It’s a victimization strategy they always use. There was no Muslim Holocaust here, nor will there be any. There are racists here who hate Muslims and sometimes attack them, and you have to fight that, but there is legitimate criticism of the way Muslims and Muslim organizations behave. That is what I try to say always – it’s legitimate. It is not an attack on the religion.”
Mansour’s German-born wife and their little daughter may be in Germany, but his parents and siblings live in Tira, Israel. Maybe he doesn’t want to reveal his real opinions to the Israeli press out of fear for his family’s safety? Mansour denies this, but his family and its view of his opinions are definitely a part in his decision to avoid exposure in Israel – and in his change of heart.
“I don’t fear for my family. They don’t think like me,” he says. “They disagree and argue with me, and that’s okay. My parents were just here, and I wrote you after their visit that we had very deep conversations and discussed my views. They opposed them, but they still love me, and they are a part of me.”
He admits that he is sometimes impulsive, and adds, “I think the decision to be interviewed is mistaken, but let’s see what happens.”
Mosques and movies
Ahmad Mansour was born in 1976 in Tira, one of a number of Arab towns in central Israel that make up the area called the Triangle; he is the eldest of three children. His grandparents were farmers, his father worked in a gas station, and his mother is a homemaker. Their home was on the edge of the village and the family lived frugally, relative to local standards. As a child, Mansour had to help his grandparents in the fields; he also worked with his father at the gas station. As a teenager, he worked in construction and gardening.
He remembers his childhood as being lonely. His classmates didn’t accept him, in part, he says, because they were better off socioeconomically. Mansour was one of the children who always went straight home from school.
Things started changing at age 13, when he became interested in religion, began frequenting the local mosque, and grew close to the imam, who belonged to the Islamic Movement (before it was divided into northern and southern factions). His parents objected to his growing attraction to Islam, in both its spiritual and political forms.
Mansour: “My father was against me being part of the infrastructure of the Muslim Brotherhood and he objected to the imam, but I was very happy. I discovered a place where they understood me, where we were all equal. There was suddenly action in my life. Before that, I never went anywhere. Suddenly, I was going to Rahat [in the Negev], all kinds of demonstrations, weddings and religious classes, alone and with others – but not with my parents.”
All of a sudden, you had friends.
“Yes, but also many arguments with my parents, who didn’t want me coming home late or sleeping outside the house. But it was a part of my adolescent rebellion. Others do it differently. They start going out to clubs. With me, it was religion.”
Asked what getting closer to religion meant in his case, he mentions praying five times a day in the mosque, giving other children religious lessons, attending lectures on religion and politics, and confrontations with Sufi groups over control of the mosques.
“We went to lectures by [Islamic Movement leaders] Raed Saleh and Abdallah Nimr Darwish. I believed that I belonged to the elite,” Mansour says, adding that it was forbidden for him to listen to secular music, certainly anything performed by women. He listened only to nasheed – religious music, which could also be political, sometimes praising shahids (martyrs).
“It all drew me closer to feelings of resistance, of global jihad,” Mansour says now, and then immediately clarifies: “The Islamic Movement didn’t call upon us to do it, and didn’t do it. Rather – and this is very important – it was ambivalent: They didn’t hate the people who perpetrated terror attacks; they didn’t express clear disagreement with. For instance, there was an attack in the 1990s when Arab boys killed three soldiers at a military post [the so-called “Night of the Pitchforks,” in February 1992, when Wadi Ara residents affiliated with Islamic Jihad murdered three conscripts in their tent with knives, axes and pitchforks]. I remember people from the Islamic Movement telling us it’s not okay what they did, but that they will go to heaven. You can imagine the conflict this creates at age 15, and this ambivalence was always there.”
Mansour’s “Islamic period” ended suddenly at age 18, when he was accepted to nursing studies at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and his imam encouraged him to go. His desire to escape poverty was stronger than his attraction to religion, and he discovered a whole new world in the city and at college, he recalls, that enabled him to forge his first real and deep connections with Jews, whom he’d only met previously as gas station clients or bosses at work.
“I was the Arab everyone wanted to be friends with in the Sheinkin Street of the 1990s,” he says, referring to a trendy Tel Aviv street. “It was this kind of ‘in’ thing. I had to pay attention to see if someone wanted to be my friend because he was interested in me as a person or because I was an Arab. My antennae were very sharp.”
He says he never laid down a prayer carpet on campus: “It was important the others wouldn’t see this because I wanted to belong. I knew the moment I’d do such a thing, I would be saying non-verbally that I don’t belong, I’m something else, fear me. I didn’t want that.”
He left nursing studies a year later and went on to complete his studies in psychology, sociology and anthropology at the college. “I started studying Western literature – reading Machiavelli, Freud, Nietzsche,” he says, and stopped going to the mosque. The imam tried in vain to convince him to return. That was the moment, he says, when he lost almost all his friends in the small Muslim city in which he’d been born.
His family was unhappy that he left religion: “Their fear of my going to the movies or to parties was greater than of my going to the mosque,” says Mansour. “They wanted me to go back.”
But he didn’t. He started working in the department for eating disorders at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, in Petah Tikva, and then went on to work in various departments at the Yes satellite-TV company. At the same time he made his first attempt to enter the media, to which he was always attracted: “I wrote one opinion piece on the Ynet news site, and was alarmed because the Arab community attacked me. The idea of the piece was [to propose] creation of two fates for two peoples: to disconnect from the fate of the territories and of Gaza, and focus on what’s important to Israeli Arab society. I attacked the Arab MKs for serving the Arabs of the territories instead of their own people.”
By two fates for two peoples, he clarifies, he meant one for Israelis – Jews and Arabs – and the other, for the Palestinians in the territories.
The second intifada, which erupted while he was working at Schneider, in 2000, was one of two reasons why he eventually left Israel.
“I very quickly realized this wasn’t a life. You can’t live two meters away from terror attacks. And it was all getting closer: The bus I had always taken to college from Kfar Sava exploded. There were attacks in Kfar Sava, Tel Aviv, in places I knew. I was close to a shooting attack next to the Kirya [army and defense headquarters in Tel Aviv]. Sometimes, people working with me at Yes got phone calls telling them their mother or friend had just been killed, and I needed to sit nearby, trying to help them.
“There were checkpoints en route to Tira [during the intifada]. I was a potential terrorist who had to be checked. But no one treated me in an ugly way, even during that period,” he says, adding that he remembers an incident from October 2000 – when there was a series of violent protests in Israeli Arab locales that left 13 Arabs dead – when a Jewish man came to visit his daughter in Schneider’s psychiatric department.
“I worked on Yom Kippur, because I’m Arab. The first pictures from Nazareth, Acre and Umm al-Fahm came on in the evening. There was chaos in the country. I was scared, and this father started cursing. Not me, but the situation, the Arabs – what do they want, we should kill them – things like that. That basically was the first time I felt the hatred.”
Mansour also recalls the notorious Ramallah lynching, also in 2000, when a Palestinian mob killed and mutilated the bodies of two army reservists – coverage of which he watched with his coworkers – and heard the curses aimed at Arabs. “I know very well how to de-escalate, to maneuver through situations so they won’t hurt me. I learned at school how to keep away from bullies who were only looking for trouble, and I also learned it on the job with people, some of whom are very good friends.”
The second reason he decided to leave Israel was related to life in Tira – to his family and friends there. His desire to live freely in the big city, says Mansour, clashed with social and religious demands people were making of him: “At 26, you have to think about marriage, kids, a home. That was hard for me. My friends in Tira got married. I went to all their weddings and then I remained alone. Pressure from my family grew. I said the only way to escape all that was to leave to study. Not to emigrate. Rather, I said, I wanted to find somewhere abroad to continue studying psychology.”
Mansour arrived in Berlin in 2004, enrolling in a master’s program in psychology at Humboldt University and settling in Neukölln, a neighborhood with many Palestinian residents. An Austrian professor who’d lived in the Gaza Strip helped him get his bearings, and served as his thesis adviser. His thesis, about the status of women in Muslim society in Germany, led to his first job, which helped shape his career.
In 2007, he helped found Heroes, an organization that works to expose Muslim young people – both immigrants and descendants of immigrants – to the liberal values and lifestyles of their society, while helping them deal with the concept of honor and other traditional norms instilled by their families. The staff initially recruited and trained youths to serve as role models for others, and then organized workshops at schools with significant numbers of Muslim students, which addressed controversial subjects through skits simulating typical conflicts in the lives of Muslim migrants to the West. Eventually, Heroes opened branches in other cities, as well.
Mansour says the project was so successful that its organizers struggled to meet demand. “Teachers called saying they needed help with major problems,” he says. “They were very surprised how youths were open to discussing these topics with us and about the opinions they had about ‘family honor,’ women and women’s equality.”
However, Mansour began to realize that the situation of young migrants was changing. “We started noticing in 2009 that almost every class had youths starting to use extremist, religious language. Suddenly they were quoting Pierre Vogel,” he says, referring to a convert to Islam who is considered today to be one of Germany’s most radical preachers.
“Kids started airing new opinions – anti-Semitism, belief in a religion that rejects any element of modernity, of integration into society. These kids, unapologetic about killings of female family members, say: ‘We want to live like this. It’s our religion. I don’t want my wife, daughter or sister leaving home without a head covering.’ They’re starting to see German society, media, schools and workplaces as enemies that must be fought, not through jihad initially but by opposing people who are trying to instill foreign values.”
Mansour left Heroes three years ago after beginning to focus on a new project, in the framework of his work as a research associate at the ZDK Society Democratic Culture nonprofit: bringing together German officials with representatives of Muslim organizations and spiritual leaders. “We wanted to create a dialogue aimed mainly not at Muslims, but at naïve people on the other side – the ‘establishment’ [figures] involved in integration, the police, youth authorities,” he says. “We tried to show them: You have to work with the Muslim side, to know whom you’re working with.”
The point Mansour makes, in his writing and in our conversation, is that what he calls the Muslim mainstream in Europe – which rejects radicals and certainly terrorism – is actually significantly responsible for radicalization among Muslim youth: The mainstream don’t understand what leads to murder and extremism, or that they themselves are laying down the foundations on which extremism is based.
“They forget they live in a country with basic laws stating that every citizen is responsible for himself, and that they have to accept it if a woman doesn’t want to live in such a way,” he says. “They reject it, saying, ‘You’re not acting religiously.’ And then they’re surprised that her brothers start beating her. Radicalization isn’t a matter of manipulation or misunderstanding of religion – it’s created within the religion itself.”
Do you define yourself as Muslim or secular?
“Muslim,” he answers without hesitation, as if he expected the question. But the explanation he then offers reveals the complexity of this simple answer: “I believe in a separation between religion and state. It’s very important to me; it’s my secularism. But I have a very private way to communicate with God. He’s important to me in certain ways. I still have remnants of the culture of fear that I grew up with, which I’ve been unsuccessful in escaping. Every time I sit on an airplane – and I’ve flown a lot in recent years – and the plane starts shaking, I start trembling in fear. I turn to religion, the Koran, to escape fear during such moments.
“I want to believe in God out of faith and not fear. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. I’m very happy my 4-year-old daughter still hasn’t met God. I’m not sure I want to introduce her to him.”
In an article he wrote seven years ago in the Die Zeit newspaper, Mansour described an encounter with young Muslim, at which one 15-year-old said: “A man’s honor is between the woman’s legs. My sister must remain a virgin. She mustn’t have male friends, even on Facebook. She’s forbidden from walking outside at night. If she does, I’ll have to beat her.”
You heard the commotion after [veteran Israeli media personality] Yaron London called Arabs savages. What would you say to him and those who criticized him?
“I’d tell him some Arabs are savages and some aren’t. The problem of both London and his critics is that they homogenize. They see hundreds of millions of Arabs as the same. They all think the same. I don’t think that’s true. I criticize the left that tries to frame Muslims and Arabs as outstanding, wonderful people you can make peace with and live with, just as I do the other side that says they’re all savages who want to kill us. I think both sides actually exist. I also wrote in that piece about other Arab youths who thought differently.”
But you seem to be implying that most Arabs are savages. Some may be nice and liberal, but ultimately…
“Let’s define ‘savage.’ I think mainstream Arabs have huge problems with democracy and everything connected to human rights. There are problems of violence that are related to culture. I don’t think most Arabs want to murder, but I think we do have a problem. Forget the Jews. Look how many Arabs murdered Arabs in recent years. It’s a lot.”
And yet if you look at how many people the Germans killed in the Holocaust ...
“The German security services are busier dealing with Islamists than neo-Nazis, relatively. The things I’m saying may be problematic; they can be interpreted in different ways. But what’s the alternative? Not discussing it? Saying there’s no problems? Not writing about what I see daily in Muslim society? Not mentioning the 10 women who are murdered in ‘honor killings’ annually [in Germany]? That the security services are following 11,000 Islamists here?”
Mansour says he gets criticism from all sides: “The far left says, ‘Ahmad Mansour’s trying to give the right narratives with which to attack Arabs.’ The moderate left says, ’Women were murdered 50 years ago in Germany because their husbands wouldn’t let them work.’ How does that help me? When an Arab girl at a police station tells me, ‘I must leave home because father wants me to marry someone from Turkey who’s arriving in two days’ – am I supposed to tell her, ‘Don’t make a fuss, German women got married this way 50 years ago?’ Some people say, ‘Don’t mention things like that, or German society may deem you a right-wing extremist.’ I encounter this daily in schools – teachers who can’t raise these problems. It’s the same with anti-Semitism. Teachers say, ‘Don’t talk about it, or we’ll be considered a problematic school.’”
Mansour’s message to the left, the media and Israeli Arab leaders may sound no less subversive: “When [Israeli-Arab journalist] Lucy Aharish marries a Jew, the press reports MKs attacking her partner, and that’s fine, but why don’t I ever hear Arab society’s reaction?” he wonders aloud. “Why do I never read that her mother can’t visit her grandmother because the family disowned her? Why are we so one-sided? Why do we criticize [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, justifiably, for what he says about Arabs, but we can’t look at Arab society, its lawmakers, and ask them what their role is in making themselves irrelevant – by not taking part in any constellation of a future government?”
Actually, now there’s a feeling from what Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has said that if the Jewish side were willing, at least some of his party would join one.
“Odeh always puts the ball in the other court. What about his side, his opinions? What about saying, perhaps, we’re sympathetic to the Palestinian side but I don’t want to get involved? I have other problems, as an Israeli Arab. The sidewalk outside my house that hasn’t been paved in the last 20 years is more important to me than which flag flies above a Jerusalem mosque. When they fail to be part of Israeli discourse, to understand the psychology of Israelis – I can’t be a part of them.”
We both know what the response to that is: that if Israeli Arabs ignore Palestinian problems, they essentially betray their people.
“It’s not my people. We said – two fates for two peoples. I think the left can play an important role in resolving the conflict, but within Israeli discourse: It is not part of the Palestinian discourse. Ayman Odeh and [MK] Ahmad Tibi are involved in Palestinian discourse. They describe Marwan Barghouti [an imprisoned Palestinian leader convicted of murder] as a national hero. Perhaps he’s a hero to Palestinians, but a murderer is no national hero. And I can’t be a part of Israeli discourse when I see the other side – that we fight as Israelis and see as a real threat to security – and say it’s irrelevant.”
Yet that’s the tragedy of Arab citizens of Israel: They are both.
“But they must first make a decision [about their identity]. I will respect their decision, whatever it is, but then we’ll know they’re irrelevant to the discourse. And there’s something about Arabs in general, not only in Israel: As long as we start the conflict in 1947 or 1948, we’ll never achieve peace. If we don’t understand post-Holocaust Jewish psychology, the fears the Holocaust created within Jewish society – there won’t be peace. Until we understand that Israel acts the way it does because Jews don’t want to be weak, because weakness means ‘Holocaust,’ and they can’t risk another trauma – there won’t be peace. There also won’t be peace if we don’t understand that the future and education of our children is more important than a flag or state. And I say that now as a Palestinian, even though I don't know what's Palestinian about me, besides the language and the food.”