Essen, Germany Only a week after their temple had been hit by an extremist bomb attack, the Sikh community of the German city of Essen invited the local community to celebrate the Sikh festival of Nagar Kirtan. ‘Nagar Kirtan is a Punjabi terms which literally means “Neighbourhood Kirtan” and involves a religious procession through the city singing holy hymns. The event had been planned for long and the Sikh community not only saw it as a religious festivity but also as an opportunity to open up to the local community and present to them Sikh customs.
The festival involved ‘Shabad Kirtan’ (singing of hymns from Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the holy scripture of Sikhs), religious songs called ‘Dharmik Geet’, ‘Gatka’ (Sikh martial art) and ‘Langar’ (the provision of free food). Initially, the plan was for the procession to lead from the temple to Kennedy Square, one of the most central and most busy places in the heart of Essen, where the festivities would take place. Security concerns however led to a change of plans and the festivities were relocated to a local stadium after the Sikh community profoundly refused to cancel the event.
Meanwhile, a team of police which consists of some 70 officers continues to investigate the background of the attack. The incident happened around 7pm on Saturday April 16 when a self-made bomb was placed right outside the entrance of the temple. The blast blew off the entrance as well as the windows of neighbouring buildings. Two men aged 47 and 56 were minor injured, the 60 year old priest of the Sikh community was seriously injured and hospitalised. A wedding celebration in the temple was located in the halls in the back of the building but luckily no more people were hurt. Soon after the attack police appealed to public for support in identifying the attackers and released surveillance pictures showing them leaving the nearby underground station.
On Wednesday April 20, one of the attackers, only 16 years old, turned himself in to police, allegedly after being pressured by his parents. His accomplice, also just 16 years old, was arrested by special police forces the following night. German media names the attackers as Yussuf T. from Gelsenkirchen and Mohammed B. from Essen. Both teenagers had been on the radar of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the domestic intelligence service of the Federal Republic of Germany, for their connections with extremist groups. They also had been convicted for violent crime before.
Police investigations now focus on finding the individuals behind the attack as there is doubt that the two young boys planned and executed the attack on their own. Yusuf T. allegedly is linked with the ‘Lohberger Brigaden’, a very active Salafist group in Dinslaken (not far from Essen). Ten members of the ‘Lohberger Brigaden’ allegedly have left Germany to join IS. The group also participates in the nationwide campaign “Lies!” (Read!) which includes the distribution of Qurans in high streets and nearby schools. Yusuf T. is said to have been an eager volunteer in this campaign. Yusuf’s father, a 45-year old Syrian who lives in Essen since 1995, told the local newspaper WAZ that he cannot understand how his son, who attends a school for special needs, radicalised. He said: “Everything was fine, but two months ago he started going for prayer in a mosque in Duisburg.”
Essen is in the heart of the Ruhr-Valley, Germany’s most populated area in Germany’s most populated state North-Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). 18 million people live in NRW, 5 million of them in the Ruhr-Valley. About 2 million foreigners, among them 500.000 Turks and about 32.000 Syrians, live in NRW, many of them also in the Ruhr-Valley, making it one of the most diverse areas in Germany. Unfortunately, NRW has subsequently also become a hotspot for Islamic extremism. About 600 Salafists are currently under surveillance. The success of groups like the ‘Lohberger Brigaden’ in radicalising youth puts German police forces into a dilemma as German law puts special protection on juveniles. Subsequently, police is only allowed to collect and save data relating to minors in exceptional circumstances. This has been widely criticised by police and politicians alike, however, legislation has not been changed yet.
While bureaucracy and legislation has still a long way to go, more than 1000 participants in the Nagar Kirtan procession in Essen set a colourful and cheerful sign against extremism. The smell of curry and the sound of Indian drums and songs brought together Sikhs and locals in peace and harmony.