The research: Forces that Bind and/or Divide

Conflicts related to the public presence and representation of Islam have had an enormous impact on European societies over the past decades and have triggered debates about the binding or dividing function of religion in secular societies. Whereas most research considers Muslims as the object of integration policies, this project focuses on Muslims as active participants and investigates how their interventions produce ties that bind or divide both between Muslims and non-Muslims and amongst Muslims. Have such interventions contributed to development of a Muslim public sphere? To what extent and along which lines is this public sphere fractured? How does such a Muslim public intersect with other religious and non-religious publics? What transformations have taken place in the binding or dividing force of Islam in the Netherlands?

To answer these questions, this proposal does not start with categorizing Muslims (in terms of ethnicity, religious conviction and so on), but sets out with mapping the variety of positions Muslims, including Muslim youth and women, have taken up, both in terms of the substance of their interventions and with reference to their styles of presentation and the impact of particular forms of mediation. Employing a historical, comparative and transnational perspective, the broader question it addresses is whether and how such Muslim interventions and their societal effects are specific to the Dutch context or an expression of a far wider European or even global trends.


In order to analyse interventions with respect to particular conflicts and debates, extended case-study methods are used. Public events and conflicts about the public presence and representation of Islam are approached here as ‘diagnostic’ occurrences that offer insight into broader social struggles and dynamics of change (Moore 1987). The cases selected cover the main fields of Muslim activism in the Netherlands: Muslim participation, representing Islam, and living Islam.

Muslim participation: mosques and imams. In the Netherlands policy makers have for the last decades attempted to engender a ‘liberal, Dutch Islam’, steering Muslims away from ‘orthodoxy’ (Rath e.a. 1999, 61; cf. Maussen 2009). After 9/11, and in particular after the murder of Theo van Gogh, there has been a great concern about the involvement of mosques and imams in the development of a parallel society. Imam training has also been one of the pillars of the Dutch counter-radicalization policies, aiming to provide an alternative for ‘radicalizing Muslim youth’.

Also in Muslim circles, mosques as well as imam training are a topic of great interest and contestation, especially with respect to the involvement of the younger generation and women.

Representing Islam: texts and images. Freedom of speech versus religious sensitivities have emerged as a major field of contestation since the Rushdie Affair. Since then we have witnessed the emergence of new organizations, new spokespersons, a more compelling integration policy and stronger secularist underpinnings of the debates. Comparing the Rushdie Affair with the Muhammad Cartoons, and the movies Submission and Fitna allows us to explore how Muslimactivists and organization have altered their strategies and tactics. It also brings to the fore the importance of particular forms of mediation, such as the Internet and its increased interactivity, and the ways in which textual and visual means are employed

Living Islam: love, food and dress. ‘Islamic lifestyles’ have also engendered heated debates in Europe. Three topics, ritual slaughter, dress (especially veiling), and marriages are particularly interesting, because of the very different constellations of binding and dividing forces they entail. A prohibition of ritual slaughter does not only affect Muslims but also Jews, positioning both in opposition to defenders of animal rights. Face-veiling (as one instantiation of Islamic dress) and Islamic marriages are also contested amongst Muslims themselves, and are strong cases where the trope of Muslim women’s gender subordination is employed.

Because a pilot has already indicated that men have a far stronger presence in this field than women, while the position of Muslim women is one of the main topics of debate (Bracke 2011; Hammer 2012; Scott 2009), the PhD student will focus specifically on the gendered ways of participation in the debates as well as the gendered construction of particular topics in the debates, whereas the post-doc will focus on generational issues and the particular position of Muslim youth.

Societal Relevance

Tensions about the public presence and the representation of Islam are central to debates about national identity, and the future of democratic participation in Northern European multicultural societies. Following the pillarization and later privatization of religion in Dutch society, we now witness religious groups actively engaging in culture and politics, showing a new assertive expressivity. The conflicts about the representation of religion and about religious activism reveal important developments in Dutch society, with regard to issues that are considered to be of fundamental value to the fabric of society such as citizenship, liberal freedoms, (the limits of) public debate and the position of religion. As religion has become a topical, yet still little understood issue in social conflict, policy makers are in need of more profound and differentiated analyses of the binding and dividing forces of religion, in particular with reference to the internal and transnational dynamics of networks of Muslim activists. This research does not only analyse the public presence of Muslim activists but also focuses on their internal differentiations and contestations. This will engender a better understanding of the binding and dividing forces of religious activism, and the transformations that have taken place in the course of the last two decades.

In order to enhance the public relevance of the project and its research results we work closely together with Imagine IC; pioneering the heritage of our present lives together.

Research Team

Prof.dr. Annelies Moors, University of Amsterdam, AISSR

Dr. Sarah Bracke, Harvard University

Dr. Martijn de Koning, University of Amsterdam, AISSR

PhD student: Fouzia Outmany, University of Amsterdam, AISSR.

The project is funded by NWO.

One thought on “The research: Forces that Bind and/or Divide”

  1. I find the topic very intriguing. This is exactly the kind of empirical research that is so necessary to escape from the tyranny of conventional wisdom. Please inform me of results.

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