An imam in a gray tunic suit and soft fez-like hat recited verses from the Koran in bursts of piercing song one recent night at the Boeckmann Street mosque here. A chattering crowd, waiting to break the Ramadan fast, hushed. And the world outside -- the nearby sex-shops, the furtive drug trade, the neon-lit evening commuters and the watchful police, stationed just around the corner -- seemed momentarily like a distant planet.
In this mosque, tucked down a narrow street in the city center, a quiet revolution may be stirring. A tolerant European Islam, the wish of many of the continent's 11 million believers, is being showcased in such one-time bastions of fundamentalism as this Turkish place of worship.
The mosque is preaching democracy.
The prayers complete, Ramazan Ucar, the 36-year-old elected imam, stepped before an invited dinner audience that included the American consul, representatives from Christian churches and the local Jewish community and German politicians.
Speaking in German from a prepared script, he nervously pleaded for a leap of faith. Not toward Islam, but toward the idea that his group is firmly committed to the democratic principles that define the German state and its secular constitution. "If there first appeared to be a contradiction between Islam and democracy, we believe [now] that only democratic society guarantees a rational life as a Muslim," said Ucar, a member of a Turkish group called Milli Gorus, which is on the German government's watch list of Islamic radical groups.
The jury is still out on whether his sentiments represent the beginnings of Milli Gorus's transformation or whether he is tolerated by the group's older and secretive national leadership as a tactical retreat from the public advocacy of fundamentalism. But the possibility that the isolationist orthodoxy of one generation is being abandoned by the next is an intriguing development on a continent where the integration of Muslims remains a troubling issue.
Ucar's words are all the more surprising coming from a man who said in an interview that he is routinely followed by the German security agents and whose mosque is featured in annual federal and state reports on extremism in Germany, alongside chapters on neo-Nazis and Marxist revolutionaries.
Across the city, in the Hamburg state Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a domestic intelligence agency, officials contend that Ucar, by virtue of his membership in Milli Gorus, is a radical who supports a parallel, theocratic society for Germany's Muslim population. The organization he belongs to, officials say, is anti-constitutional, anti-Semitic and intent on imposing an austere Islamic order not only on Ucar's native Turkey but also within Germany and Europe.
"They try to show that they are good democrats," said Manfred Murck, the office's deputy director. "But still we have suspicions, and a little more than suspicion, that they are doing this for tactical reasons. If they were too clear with their real plans, they could be [banned.]"
There are doubters in the Turkish community as well.
"I want them to be democrats," said Lale Akgun, a Social Democratic member of the German parliament who was born in Istanbul. "It's very important for our community, but I'm skeptical. . . . They tell us they are great democrats. But I want to see what they are doing in 10 years, for example with regard to women's rights, women and men together in the political arena. They still need to convince people."
Ucar's German boosters, however, envision a generational and philosophical shift and believe that Germany should encourage it.
"We have change in the sense that we have a young generation in Milli Gorus who want to become German citizens in the full meaning of the word," said Udo Steinbach, director of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg. "They criticize the Milli Gorus leadership as undemocratic, and they want to impose, sooner or later, their values on Milli Gorus to make it more transparent. It's a grass-roots movement led by young people. And I believe in them."
Translated as "National Vision," Milli Gorus has its roots in the 1960s as an unofficial European arm of the Islamic Movement in Turkey led by Necmettin Erbakan, whose Welfare Party came to power in 1996 but was overthrown by the military in 1997.
Headquartered in Germany, Milli Gorus and earlier incarnations under different names were led at first by Erbakan's brother and then his nephew, Mehmet Sabri Erbakan. It was a closed family enterprise, staffed by Erbakan acolytes sent from Turkey and financed, in part, with cash of dubious origin, according to German officials.
The group says it has 27,000 members in Germany. But its influence is much greater in the Turkish community because of its network of 500 mosques, which provide educational, social and leisure services.
For years, Milli Gorus advocated a "just order," interpreted by German authorities as an Islamic theocracy, for secular Turkey and Europe. The group did not formally advocate force, but its rhetoric has often contained violent images.
"Our battle is against Turkey, Europe and against the whole world," said one former Milli Gorus leader, Ali Yuksel, in a speech in Berlin. At a rally in Neu-Ulm in southern Germany in June 2001, a crowd chanted to Necmettin Erbakan, "If you tell us we should fight, we'll fight, if you tell us we should kill, we will kill."
Books advocating violent holy war and promoting Holocaust denial were a staple of the group's book sales for years, and have only recently been removed from its lists, according to German officials. "The Holocaust Lie" by the Turkish Holocaust denier Harun Yahya, for instance, was removed from sale by Milli Gorus only in early 2001.
Murck, the domestic intelligence official, cited a statement from a newspaper he said is affiliated with Milli Gorus (the group says the publication is not a formal part of the organization): "In the next century one will see the third European Islamic civilization." He picked another incendiary statement and another, including broadsides against equal rights for women.
Ucar counters that the skeptics are trapped in the past, failing to recognize a slow but inexorable reformation. It will be destroyed, he said, if the group is driven underground.
"Our congregations have changed greatly," said Ucar, who said he will not allow radical or anti-Semitic material in his mosque and preaches on the virtues of pluralism in his Friday sermons, which once a month are delivered in German. "If members were focused on events in Turkey, these things have lost importance here over the years. Generations are changing. Principles are changing. . . . Ideas are changing."
Those changes have been accelerated by the fallout from the terrorist attacks on the United States and by the eclipsing of Erbakan in the recent Turkish elections and the disgrace of a nephew in Germany who resigned recently as the group's leader after he was found to be having an adulterous affair with a Christian woman.
"All I can say to our critics is what I repeat over and over: Believe what we say and judge us only by our actions," said Oguz Ucuncu, the 33-year-old general secretary of the organization and an ally of Ucar. " . . . This is a new generation that believes what it says. When people say we are like wolves in sheep's clothing, we can only fight these prejudices by showing that we are different."
One of the leaders of Milli Gorus in the Netherlands, Haci Karacaer, recently opened a dialogue on minority rights with the country's gay and lesbian community and consulted a Jewish architect on plans for a mosque in Amsterdam. And local German leaders such as Ucar have opened their mosques to all comers, including their Jewish neighbors.
"These talks, in particular with the Muslims, are very important," said Dov-Levy Barsilay, state rabbi of Hamburg. "I have met with Iman Ramazan a few times. . . . We have mostly talked about the problems we have as minorities in Hamburg. They are often similar problems."
Milli Gorus and similar organizations are engaged in a public relations effort to improve their image and understanding of Islam, with open days at mosques, sponsored dialogues between Muslim and Christian women, and -- most flamboyantly -- a road-show mosque.
The Islamobil, as it's called, is a multimedia mosque that travels on a six-wheeled truck to German cities to bring the religion and its believers closer to Germans of different faiths. Technically independent of Milli Gorus, the Islamobil, graced with a pop-up minaret, is, nonetheless, an extension of the group, according to German officials.
"The goal is to provide the opportunity for people to get to know the real Islam, to show that peaceful cohabitation is possible, and to tear down stereotypes," said Metin Aydin, managing director of Islam Info, the nonprofit group that runs Islamobil.
Touch-screen computers and videos allow visitors to get information in German on basic aspects of Islam while volunteers answer detailed questions. Passages from the Koran are recited, and music is played as visitors walk through the 40-foot-long mosque.
"It was very friendly and open," said Horst Wadehn of Bruehl, a city near Bonn in western Germany where the Islamobil, currently undergoing repairs, made a stop last year. "It was for information only, not at all about converting people to Islam. With Islam, it seems everybody talks about it, but no one is informed."