Hesham Shashaa, center, an imam at the Darul Quran mosque in Munich, condemns militancy.
MUNICH — Hesham Shashaa looked twice at the display on his cellphone, staring at the number. “It’s either a person who needs help or someone who wants to kill me,” he said.
Mr. Shashaa, an imam at the Darul Quran mosque in Munich, follows the strictest form of Islam, Salafi. But the people who want to kill him are Muslims.
“They use the religion for their personal aims and declare war on Jews and Christians, but I want people to follow what Islam really says,” said Mr. Shashaa, who with his beard and traditional clothes has sometimes been likened to Osama bin Laden. But his philosophy is quite different.
A growing number of imams in Europe and the Middle East have denounced suicide missions and terrorist acts. Many of these imams, however, still view Al Qaeda, the Taliban or Hamas as legitimate resistance movements, while Mr. Shashaa openly declares that they are violating the tenets of Islam.
He travels to mosques and madrasas throughout Europe, as well as the Middle East and Pakistan, telling young Muslims that fighting against American troops and other forces is a violation of their religion. He condemns militant recruiters in his sermons, urges worshipers at Friday Prayer to call the police if they hear about plans for an attack and readily talks with law enforcement officials about the reasons for radicalization and the best way to combat it.
“We cannot just sit down and let other people hijack our religion,” he said in an interview.
Threats come with the territory, so now Mr. Shashaa travels with former students who act as his bodyguards.
“This man is a traitor,” wrote one critic in a posting on a jihadist Web site. “He needs a lesson,” said another, who published pictures of Mr. Shashaa meeting with police officers.
He has a complex relationship with German law enforcement officials, who see his message as crucial and unique here and continually press him to do more.
“We know that he speaks and works against terrorism groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and that is important,” said a senior German security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make official statements about Mr. Shashaa. “He is the only example who is doing it in this way here in Germany, and in this sense he is effective.”
At the same time, Mr. Shashaa said, he must keep the trust of his congregants, who feel singled out by law enforcement agencies.
Recently his own mosque was searched by law enforcement officials who were looking for a specific book about women in Islam that is not allowed in Germany, a Munich security official said. Mr. Shashaa confirmed that he had the book in his library.
“Of course I had it,” he said. “I need to know what is in these books. How else will I know how to argue with recruiters?”
Mr. Shashaa, the child of a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, was born and educated in Egypt, where he worked for a time as a journalist. He is in his 50s, though he is evasive about his age because he does not want young people to think that he is too old to understand them.
He has three wives, marrying the later two in ceremonies recognized by his mosque if not the state. The wives and 10 children all live in his Munich home.
Mr. Shashaa said he had not intended to end up in Germany. But he lost his briefcase there on a 2000 stopover while on his way to Britain from Romania, where he had been living. “Everything was gone, the papers, the money,” he said. “So I thought it was God’s will that I should stay here.”
He has won over some people who say they had intended to wage jihad against the West, including one of his bodyguards, who would appear to be a dream recruit for any militant group. The bodyguard, Abu Khalid, 36, served in the Jordanian Army, excels in tae kwon do and has extensive knowledge of weapons.
After moving to Germany from Jordan and France in the 1990s, Mr. Khalid said, “I got into some circles where people talked about jihad and thought I had to defend my brothers and sisters in Iraq.”
Looking for an imam who would back his mission, he met Mr. Shashaa, who introduced him to the teachings of Islamic scholars who opposed violence. “Then I realized that I was on the wrong path,” Mr. Khalid said.
Mr. Shashaa talks with regret about the young men he could not dissuade, including a 19-year-old of Tunisian descent, who lived in northern Germany. Visiting the young man’s mosque, he sat talking with him and two children. “They were just talking about war and killing of unbelievers,” he said, shaking his head. “They were totally brainwashed.” Later, Mr. Shashaa said, a friend told him that the young man was killed in Iraq in 2005.
Eight months ago, Mr. Shashaa traveled to Pakistan, where he visited madrasas and mosques, talking about jihad. He videotaped some of his sessions, which he showed The New York Times.
One session featured an angry student asking him, “Isn’t it our duty to support our brothers from Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the jihad against the American occupation in Afghanistan?”
Mr. Shashaa listened and then said that jihad was part of the Koran and allowed for self-defense. “But it must be the head of state or caliphate who announces jihad,” he said. “It can’t be someone like bin Laden or Mullah Omar who declares jihad,” a reference to the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. “What they do is not jihad.”
In response, one man stood up and shouted, “I swear to God, you should be killed.”
Mr. Shashaa let the man finish before replying. “If you can show me in the Koran or Sunnah that I am wrong,” he said, referring to the sacred book of Islam and its prophetic traditions, “I will be the first one who would take a gun and join them, but you won’t be able to find something like that.”
Mr. Shashaa knows about the fascination that militant groups can hold. As a young man in Egypt, he said, he sought answers in a variety of movements: Communism, Sufism, the Muslim Brotherhood and even jihadist groups. Eventually, he said, he concluded that most of the young people attracted to the groups “did not ask any questions, as if they had closed eyes.”
That is why Mr. Shashaa is convinced that people like him, who know how the members of groups like Al Qaeda work and think, have the best chance of reaching young people who are drawn to these networks.
“If I would not have a long beard and not have this knowledge, do you think anyone would follow or believe me?” he said.
Just as he accepts the complications of his relations with some German law enforcement officials, he accepts that other Germans he meets on the street are likely to look at him with suspicion. He counters with courtesy and, at times, with humor.
With a smile in his face and a slight Bavarian accent, he offers the typical Bavarian greeting: “Grüss Gott,” or greet God.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, people in Munich would often shout “Hey, bin Laden!” to him. So he wore a piece of paper around his neck that said: “I am not Osama bin Laden. I am Hesham Shashaa.”