There is nothing illegal about distributing religious works in Germany — it is a frequent practice of Scientologists and Hare Krishnas, not to mention Christians — but officials are worried about who is doing the distributing.
The Koran campaign is the brainchild of Ibrahim Abou-Nagie, a Palestinian who preaches a fiery conservative brand of Islam known as Salafism.
Mr. Abou-Nagie, who has lived in Germany for 30 years, has been on the radar of German security officials since 2005, when he set up a Web site that has been suspected of spreading extremist propaganda. An attempt to prosecute Mr. Abou-Nagie on charges of incitement of religious hatred failed this year.
The campaign to hand out the Korans drew nationwide attention — and widespread condemnation — last week after journalists who had criticized the effort were threatened in an online video. And on Monday, the interior minister in Hesse, a state in central Germany, called Mr. Abou-Nagie and his followers "pied pipers” and said that the danger from radical Islam had reached "a new dimension.”
But Rauf Ceylan, a professor of religious sociology at the University of Osnabrück, said that violent extremists represented "a minority within a minority” and that the discussion of Muslims’ participation in German society should not be focused on Salafists. "Politicians have a great responsibility for communicating the fact that Germany is now an immigration society,” he said, "and thus far they have failed at that.”
The role of Islam in Europe has been fiercely contested in the decade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Moderate Muslims say that officials’ emphasis on extremist groups and terrorism helps contribute to a climate of fear that can lead to violence, like the killings last summer by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.
A German security official who did not want to be quoted by name because of the delicacy of the issue said officials were worried that disaffected, directionless young people would be drawn to what he called the Salafists’ simplistic interpretation of the Koran and find inspiration in it for violent acts.
He cited Arid Uka, who opened fire at a bus carrying American airmen at a Frankfurt airport in March 2011, killing two and wounding two others. Mr. Uka, who was born in Kosovo but had lived in Germany since he was a child, said he had become radicalized by reading Web sites, including some linked to Salafist groups in Germany.
On a Web site set up to promote the Koran distribution campaign, Mr. Abou-Nagie said the goal was "to bring Allah’s word to every household.” The campaign began in October 2011.
On Saturday, a stack of Korans sat on a table under a white-topped tent in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a crossroads for tourists and shoppers, as several men greeted passers-by and offered them copies.
A few yards away, a handful of protesters stood with signs denouncing Islamic extremism. Two squads of police officers kept watch.
Yannick Salziger-Ouatain said he had heard about the giveaway on the Internet and was simply interested in the book’s contents. "Islam plays such a major role in the general political discussion right now,” he said. "I figured that as a democratic human being, I need to find out more about it and make up my own mind.”