The believers who despise our ways

Joan Bakewell attends the German trial of an Islamic leader and fears that, across Europe, democracy

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It is Mothering Sunday, according to the Church of England calendar, when I fly to Germany. Radio 4 broadcasts a service conducted by a woman cleric with testimony given by a woman. On the plane, two women share news of what presents their children have given them for the occasion. I am struck by how feminine Christianity is these days - soft and tender in its concerns and observances. I am about to enter the world of an entirely different religion. Islam feels, in its expression and its public face, entirely masculine. Throughout my stay in Cologne and attendance at the court in Dusseldorf, I have only one sustained exchange with an Islamic woman. And that is very alarming.

The Dusseldorf court - once the setting of the Red Brigade trial - is now occupied with the prolonged trial of three fundamentalist Muslims, Turkish members of Hilafet Devleti. This organisation is a huge embarrassment for Germany, which granted its founder political asylum about 16 years ago. Nothing was known there of his intentions: to declare the Caliphate State of Islam, proclaim it the legitimate government of Turkey in exile and bring to an end Turkey's existing secular government. This is Islamic fundamentalism pursuing its political ends from German soil.

The current leader - Muhammed Metin Kaplan, nicknamed the "Caliph of Cologne" - is accused with two others of belonging to an illegal organisation. He is also charged with incitement to murder. The trial began in February and is expected to drag on into the autumn. To a newcomer, there is already a languid, dusty air to the proceedings. Interested press come and go, the court is well, if casually, guarded by plenty of special police in green fatigues and big boots, the women police favouring bright yellow hair and numerous earrings. By contrast, supporters of the accused sit in neat blocks: at the front, rows of bearded men in black robes, with white turbans, behind them rows of women cowled in black. The court bears no insignia of authority. There are six judges, a federal prosecutor, each accused has two lawyers. There is no jury. The witness sits at a table at the dead centre of the room. There is much Turkish-to-German translating. I am at a loss in both.

But I soon know plenty. The story of the charges goes back to 1996, when Cemaleddin Kaplan, founder of Hilafet Devleti, died and his son Metin Kaplan succeeded as caliph. Soon after, a splinter group in Berlin broke away and proclaimed their own caliph. Whereupon Kaplan issued a fatwa, reminding his listeners of the words of the prophet: "When a second caliph challenges the first, kill the second caliph." Soon after, Berlin's caliph was shot dead.

There is no forensic evidence whatsoever linking Kaplan's supporters to the crime. But the charge of incitement certainly gives the German authorities the chance to hold Kaplan in custody for a long time. He was arrested in March of last year and his supporters, who turn up to chant their protests whenever the court is in session, feel they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

This matter of being caliph has significance far beyond the disputed succession of a small religious sect. Its published statement, The New World Order, says : "Our goal is the control of Islam over everyday life. In other words, the Koran should become the constitution, the Islamic system of law should become the law and Islam should become the state." And later it pledges that there will be "no agreement with the regime of unbelievers and heresy, also no tendency to being prepared to compromise".

The political nettle is firmly grasped: "Is it possible to combine Islam with Democracy and the layman's system on which it is based? For this question only one answer exists, and that is a resounding 'NO'!"

These believers are Turks targeting Turkey. They want it back. They think of it as stolen from them by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey. On the 75th anniversary of the Turkish republic in 1998, Turkey claims to have intercepted a plot by Hilafet Devleti's followers to launch an attack by plane on Ataturk's mausoleum; 23 were arrested. Kaplan himself is suspected of calling for a jihad, or holy war, to overthrow the Turkish government. Turkey wants him extradited, but Germany has refused. Germany doesn't extradite to countries that still have the death penalty.

All this puts Germany in an awkward situation, both with regard to Turkey and its own Turks. There are some 2.7 million Turks now living and working in Germany, and the disaffected among them might well be drawn to an organisation that confirms their roots and reinforces their self-respect. Until recently, Turks in Germany have been treated virtually as a separate community, living in enclaves of Turkish shops and clubs, suffering the taunts of neo-Nazi organisations. Even now, Turks must be resident many years before gaining German citizenship and with it the right to vote.

Perhaps this is why an organisation called DITIP, the Turkish Union of Islam in Germany, an unofficial arm of the Turkish government, is now so active in promoting good relations between Turks and Germans. Under its aegis, mosques are taking in classes of German primary school children and explaining to them what Islam is all about. Here the message is far less absolute than that of Hilafet Devleti: Islam is a religion like any other, the Koran is a book for Muslims, just as the Bible is for Jews and Christians.

There are moves in Germany's state schools to have Muslim children taught their faith in their own classes, in German, and within the national curriculum. In this way, it is hoped, the majority of Turks will gradually assimilate - thus defusing the appeal of Hilafet Devleti and other Islamist groups.

But there is a dilemma here that won't go away. Germany, like all western democracies, believes in religious tolerance. It is for their share of such tolerance that the members of Hilafet Devleti are now arguing in court. The mild and soft-spoken members who talked to me are devout, sincere men who could not understand that their profound commitment to an exacting code of moral behaviour could be perceived as a threat. But their faith is absolute. It brooks no compromise with other religions.

Christianity has long accepted the secular society, heeding Jesus's instruction to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". This admits the possibility of co-existing with other ways of thinking.

To fundamentalist Muslims, however, Christianity appears feeble and ineffective. While such a view is fine and permissible in a religious context, once absolutism enters the political arena, democratic society is in a fix.

As I left the court, a veiled woman suddenly let loose a torrent of abusive accusations at me: "Go away: it's the fault of you all. Look at Chechnya! Look at Kosovo! It's all a Jewish conspiracy against Islam." Hilafet Devleti himself does not speak or print such sentiments. I met devout men and women who were seeking, like all those of strong belief, to extend their moral perspective into political life. But their followers go further - and they exist across Europe, in Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia and Britain. Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester and Peckham were mentioned to me. Such fanatical Islamic fundamentalists are now a threat at the heart of Europe.

Joan Bakewell reports for Correspondent on BBC2 on 3 June