CAIRO – Accused by the Swiss media of preaching fundamentalism, a mosque in the city of Biel is struggling to shrug off the label of being a hotbed of radicalized Muslims in Switzerland.
“We have opted for discretion, rather than play the media card,” Khalid Ben Mohamed, Imam of Errhamen Mosque of Biel, told Swissinfo on Wednesday, July 4.
“Being transparent made no difference since the press still labels us the same way.”
The mosque drew the media attention in 2004 after the arrest of a group of Yemenis on suspicion of having links with Al-Qaeda.
It further came under media scrutiny after Kenyan authorities accused a Swiss Muslim of Jordanian origin, who was an attendant at the mosque, of having links with militants in Somalia, prompting accusations of radicalizing young Muslims.
But the mosque imam denies the accusations.
“This suspicion is linked to previous bad experiences, such as the arrest in 2004 of a group of Yemenis suspected of contacts with al-Qaeda,” Ben Mohamed said.
“It turned out to be wrong but the media failed to highlight this when these people were exonerated.”
Ben Mohamed, of Algerian origin who has lived in Switzerland for 17 years, denies any mosque role in turning people to extremism.
“We are swimming against the tide of extremist ideas,” he said.
“We have to stop lumping everything together, everyone is responsible for his or her own acts.”
Imam Ben Mohamed warned that the Internet plays a major role in radicalizing young people.
“In my sermons, I am constantly warning of the dangers posed by ideologically-laden discourse found on the internet.”
The mosque imam says that his sermons focus on fighting social problems in the society.
“To give you an example, in my last sermon I spoke about the campaign put in place by the city authorities to combat littering,” he said.
“I speak of social and political issues in the right sense of the term. But the community also expects that the imam to speak of what is in the news. When I pray to Allah to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, that also gives relief to the worshippers.”
But the imam complains that Swiss authorities fail to recognize played by the imams in the community.
“Our role in society is not recognized at all by the authorities,” he said.
“We try to guide certain young people, to influence the reality of Muslim families torn apart by divorce, as well as the social or educational problems of their children.”
The mosque imam blamed the media for radicalizing some Muslims, citing the case of a Swiss Muslim of Tunisian origin, who died in Iraq six years ago.
“One day he told me about his plan to go to Iraq,” Ben Mohamed recalled.
“In front of witnesses, I told him not to, believing it was part of my role as imam. His family was shocked when it heard the news of his death and it still is today.
“After that, media harassment contributed to radicalizing some members of his family,” he said.
The imam also admits that failure of some Muslims to integrate into the society could turn them to extremism.
“Everything is possible in terms of human psychology. Some young people are not well integrated but others have no integration problem. The family environment plays a role too.
“These cases can be counted on one hand. Other problems worry us much more: integration, criminality, unemployment or political campaigns run by certain parties about us.”
Switzerland is home to an estimated 500,000 Muslims, out of a population of more than 7 million.
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