In our IMES Series Report ‘Islands in a sea of unbelief’ – The resistance of activist daʿwa networks in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, the sort of activism employed in networks like Sharia4Belgium and Sharia4Holland is analysed. We address how the activism of such networks interact with practices of the government and media during the period 2009-2013. We argue that the actions of the da’wa networks in the public space and the reaction of the government to those actions, rendered visible the tensions that already existed in these societies such as: distrust of the government, Islamophobia, the position of the established Muslim organizations, the position of religion and militant-political forms of religion in the public domain, the idea that freedom of speech for Muslims is limited and international military interventions.
In this report we analyze the sort of activism employed by Sharia4Belgium, Sharia4Holland, Die Wahre Religion, the Pierre-Vogel network, Millatu Ibrahim (and its successor Tauhid Germany), Behind Bars and Street Dawah. The central question we ask here is how the activism of the daʿwa networks during the period 2009-2013 interact with the practices of the government and media.
Counter-conduct and spectacle activism
In analyzing the activist daʿwa networks we treat their activism as a particular mode of resistance which we, following Foucault, term counter-conduct. This type of activism is not only about activities that are directly aimed at protesting against the state and its regulation of Muslims, but also about activities that engender an alternative regulation and self-regulation. Counter-conduct is not just about activism against something, but also involves the creation of one’s ‘own’ space, a space in which people can regulate themselves free from government interference, media interference and the insults of Islam, and in which the individual can work on self-realization, determining this in their own terms.
In the case of the present networks practicing daʿwa as counter-conduct also translates into a specific form of protest we call spectacle activism. This is a form of protest in which not only content, but also visual and auditory forms create a situation which a third party is almost bound to respond to. Through spectacle activism daʿwa activists create an oppositional argument: they express grievances and objections – in both form and content – at a given situation. In this case, it is also about creating media-shows or media events: forms of verbal rhetoric that combine content, auditory and visual forms, with the aim of criticizing and producing controversies that reach the media.
In sum, we analyze the nature of the daʿwa networks activism and, in particular, how it develops in a continuous interaction between the networks, the media and the government. More concretely we investigate the following themes and questions:
- What do the protests focus on and what are the answers provided by the activists?
- How do activists support their claims? What are their knowledge channels?
- What kind of techniques and practices are used: demonstrations, disturbances, public sermons, slogans, flag-waving, clothing, etc.? How do these techniques relate to the claims made by opponents?
- What concepts of self and identity are hidden behind the various aspects of activism and how do these forms of protest engender new identities and subjectivities through their interaction with media and government?
Belgium – The Activism of Sharia4Belgium
In the relatively short time that Sharia4Belgium was active after March 2010, it was able to generate enormous attention from media, politicians, security services and policy-makers. The activists wanted this attention, but it has ultimately had a destructive effect on the group. In a context of increasing pressure the majority of activists left Belgium to join in the struggle against the regime of al-Assad, whilst others were arrested and indicted or gave up their activism. In this report, we describe the nature of the activism of Sharia4Belgium, which was mainly characterized by spectacle activism through which ‘image events’ were created. The group finally disbanded with the majority leaving for Syria, or any other Muslim country; others were arrested or relinquished their activism completely. The name Sharia4Belgium, however, remains and speaks to the imagination of public, activists and security forces. Whilst Sharia4Belgium may officially no longer exist, the legacy of the group is a specific type of activism whose content and form may inspire a new generation of activists.
The Netherlands – The Activism of Team Free Saddik / Behind Bars, Street Dawah and Sharia4Holland
The emergence of the daʿwa activist networks in the Netherlands was the result of a complex interplay between personal factors, the counter-radicalization and integration policies, media attention and developments within the Muslim communities. This did not lead to the creation of strong and tightly run organizations, but to loose associations of friends, relatives and acquaintances who found each other in a shared ideology, camaraderie and brotherhood and in the ways they responded to specific issues. In the case of The Hague network, the War on Terror was brought close to home and subsequently rendered concrete and tangible through the arrests and incarceration of several of their friends. This experience led to the formation of Free Saddik and Behind Bars, groups formed in support of the prisoners.
In the midst of the debate about Islam, and later on about the Dutch fighters in Syria, the activists presented themselves (as a response to that debate) as fighters defending Muslims in a war against Islam conducted by the West. On the one hand they tried to shield their own environment from undesirable influences and focus on life as a devout Muslim, and on the other hand they sought to change that environment through their activism. It was also about creating an alternative subjectivity, one that differs from what is accepted and considered ‘normal’ within the dominant policies and debates.
Germany – The Activism of Millatu Ibrahim / Tauhid Germany, Die Wahre Religion and the Pierre Vogel Network
In 2014 three daʿwa networks dominated the public daʿwa activism in Germany: the networks of Tauhid Germany (former Millatu Ibrahim), Die Wahre Religion and the Pierre Vogel network. By the end of 2010, the environment of the daʿwa scene had changed dramatically, caused in part by anti-Islamic activism and the local resistance against Salafist centers, and exacerbated by the repressive measures of the government. The riots on May 1 and 5, 2012 in Bonn and Solingen, which saw two policemen seriously injured by knife wounds, were the founding moments and also marked the end of Millatu Ibrahim as the network was banned in late May. At the end of 2013, the daʿwa activists became stronger again, especially with the return of Pierre Vogel from Egypt. Campaigns were often shaped by the logic of connective action as opposed to collective action. The activism of these three networks and their supporters expressed itself in various forms of counter-conduct. Millatu Ibrahim / Tauhid Germany withdrew and stressed the al-wala ‘wa’l-bara’ especially in dealing with the non-Muslim society and Muslims who did not follow their ideas. In contrast, the networks of Pierre Vogel and Die Wahre Religion remained open and accessible as their understanding of daʿwa made contact with non-believers necessary.
The Resistance of Activist Daʿwa
It is precisely the dual nature of counter-conduct (resisting and seeking an alternative and the interaction between both) that distinguishes it from other forms of resistance. Counter-conduct, therefore, also includes the formation of the self, a self based on ideas about a good, virtuous life and bringing those ideas into practice. At the same time, of course, these alternatives may go against the trends in policies and debates that emphasize the importance of secular values and freedoms, sexual freedoms and loyalty to the nation state.
The activists constantly (re) positioned themselves in relation to the media, government and the Islamic communities. Drawing upon the analysis made in the previous sections, four different, but not mutually exclusive positionings can be distinguished: reject, reverse, accommodate and evade. It was their interpretation of Islam, both in opposition to the governments and Islam debates as well as the creation of an alternative form of self-regulation that gave activists sense and purpose. But the concrete implementation was always dependent upon how they understood the political environment too. The activists tried, both in their daily lives and in their manifestations, to practice enmity towards unbelief and called upon others to do the same. This is an interactive process of subjectification and of establishing a strong identity, during which the activists give their own interpretation to the framing of particular actions, as an expression of their own individual subjectivity. This means that counter-conduct appears in the guise of different actions, different styles and different meanings, even within a similar practice of resistance.
The departure of large numbers of daʿwa activists to Syria ushered in a major change in the social and political context of the activists and their daʿwa. The government and the media focused even more sharply on the aspect of security, the relationship with other Muslim activists and opinion leaders became even tenser, and especially in the Netherlands, all the actions by the activists resulted in extensive media attention. In terms of counter-conduct, leaving for Syria is an example of people “voting with their feet” against the regulation of the behavior of Muslims in Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany and the most drastic step in the search to find an alternative system of regulation and self-regulation.
The daʿwa activists in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were very small in number, but they were a constant challenge for media, government and the Islamic communities nevertheless. Their actions in the public space and the reaction of the government in particular to those actions, rendered visible the tensions that already existed in these societies such as: distrust of the government, Islamophobia, the position of the established Muslim organizations, the position of religion and militant-political forms of religion in the public domain, the idea that freedom of speech for Muslims is limited, international military interventions, and so on. That daʿwa activists constituted an ongoing challenge for the government did not mean, however, that the content of the message was taken seriously by outsiders. Their critique did not lead to any serious reflection on those issues, perhaps partly because their categorization as “radical” distracted society from the content of the message and rendered their activism as something deviant and pathological. However, as media and government action not only limit the daʿwa activists but simultaneously enable them, these agencies do not have full control over daʿwa activist networks and the networks remain a challenge.
M. de Koning, I. Roex, C. Becker en P. Aarns, 2014, Eilanden in een zee van ongeloof – Het verzet van de activistische daʿwa in België, Nederland en Duitsland. Nijmegen / Amsterdam: Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen / Universiteit van Amsterdam, IMES Report Series. The project was a cooperation between the Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam, partly funded by the Ministery of Security and Justice and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO).
The full report is in Dutch but includes an English summary that can be downloaded separately via the IMES page: HERE.