“Islands in a sea of disbelief” – Militant activism in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

It took us six years, but I’m very pleased to announce that, at last, our book: Islamic Militant Activism in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – ‘Islands in a sea of disbelief’ (Palgrave 2020) has been published. The book, written with my wonderful colleagues Carmen Becker and Ineke Roex, is a revised and updated version of our Dutch research report on Sharia4Belgium, Sharia4Holland, Behind Bars/Streetdawah, Millatu Ibrahim, Tauhied Germany, Die Wahre Religion and Einladung zum Paradies.

Whereas much of the research on militant Islamic activism and jihadism has been focused on the issue of the foreign fighters (and many of interlocutors were part of an early contingent of Syria volunteers), this ethnographic study examines the years before this period and on the activists who remained in (or returned to) Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. We bring together a Foucault-inspired perspective on resistance (counter-conduct) and research which has been conducted on activism, to explore the interaction between the militant Islamic networks, the state and the media. The point of departure for this book is the daily realities of the lives of members of networks of European Muslim militant activists in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany at a crucial but underexamined period of the time in their existence: the years before their departure to Syria.

Activism and counter-conduct

We actually began the project in 2011 (so in that sense it is nine years, but hey, who is counting?) after Ineke Roex (then University of Amsterdam) and I (Radboud University Nijmegen and from 2013 onwards also at University of Amsterdam) noted that some of the interlocutors we had ‘lost’ during our previous work on Dutch Salafism resurfaced in the networks of Sharia4Belgium in Belgium and Behind Bars in the Netherlands. Albeit in different ways, both networks engaged in what we call ‘spectacle activism’ a type of activism that refers to modes and styles of protest that are meant to create situations to which third parties are almost forced to respond. The aim is to create controversy through spectacle and to relay their vision through, and because of, the spectacle. On wider examination we found similar spectacles occurring in Germany too and, with Carmen Becker (Radboud University) and a student assistant, we started a small project looking at these three countries. The project was funded by Radboud University, NCTV and NWO via the Forces that Bind and/or Divide Project (University of Amsterdam, department of Anthropology and supervised by Annelies Moors).

Social relations and interactions

Our aim was not to analyse why people migrated to Syria, or how and why a potential radicalisation process took place or who might be responsible for this. What we wanted to know was how the activism of the militant networks from 2009 to 2014 interacted with the practices of, and attention given by, the state and media. Our research perspective focused on a particular form of activism and resistance: counter-conduct and spectacle activism. This redirected our attention toward the less visible practices of resistance and to those that are very visible as deviant acts to the public and the state but do not appear to follow an obvious political register with clear demands and objectives. Instead of looking at claims-making, collective identities, and trajectories of radicalisation, we focused on the practices, mentalities and subjectivities of resistance, and on the interaction between power/conformity and resistance/dissent. In particular, we interrogated specific dissenting practices often categorised by the state and media as repugnant, dangerous or unacceptable that aim to resist the oppression/conduct/ of Muslims in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Protest against and protest for

We have been able to analyse how Muslim militant activists in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany (often having become the principal targets of counter-radicalisation policies) understand and constitute themselves as Muslims and as activists. This perspective allows us to examine people’s agency and active participation without imposing a particular set of positions (such as moderate or radical, Salafi or otherwise) but instead to take into account the ambiguous, ambivalent and, at times, contradictory positionalities that people adopt. Our focus on counter-conduct also means that we move away from heroic, emancipatory interpretations (or claims) of resistance and reveal the unstable, contradictory and sometimes downright intolerant and aggressive practices and subjectivities. Controversially, our focus hasn’t just been on the protests of militant activists against the regulations of Muslims but also on the activism centred on finding an alternative ways of engagement and the care of the self that comes with it: how people fashion themselves as ‘steadfast’ Muslims and activists. The internal disputes and social control, the differences of opinion and practices toward unbelievers, how to dress oneself, how to convey a message, are all parts of this care of the self that is created through interaction with the state and media.

Coping with politicisation and securitisation as academics

After many of our interlocutors left for Syria to join the violent struggles in 2012 and 2013, we decided to maintain our research focus on activism. Yet, (or perhaps therefore) we got caught up in the politicisation and securitisation of our interlocutors and our work. This book is also a way of coming to terms with this and of exploring the predicaments and productiveness that these developments had on us as researchers. We do this by focusing on boundary maintenance, complicity and on the ethical questions which emerged during, and in the aftermath of, the project when many of interlocutors were either dead, missing or still active in Syria and others were arrested and facing charges of membership of a criminal organisation with terrorist intent in the Netherlands.

With special thanks to Annelies Moors for her support and for pushing us over the finish line! 


Introduction: Conducting Research on Militant Activist Da˓wa in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

This chapter uses a relational approach to militant Muslim activism, incorporating Michel Foucault’s concept of counter-conduct as an alternative to the dominant radicalisation perspective. Counter-conducts are forms of resistance intimately tied up with power and, concomitantly, aimed at being governed or ‘conducted’ in a different way. This perspective refocuses the researchers’ attention on the hegemonic discourses taking place on security, secularism and integration in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany which shape militant activist daʿwa in these countries. Employing ethnographic methods and trying to gain the trust of militant activists — some of whom left for Syria during the fieldwork — confronted the researchers with acute ethical questions and predicaments which are characteristic of research with ‘repugnant cultural others’ such as Jihadi or Salafi Muslims and take place in politicised environments.

Iconic Resistance: Germany

From 2011 until 2014, militant daʿwa networks in Germany went through several different phases of coherence and division. After an increasing number of bans and arrests which began in 2015, they tried, until their demise, to assert their ideas about society and living an ethical life in public spaces by using different forms of counter-conducts shaped by connective action, spectacle activism, space claiming and solidarity. Their repertoire of action, bolstered by perspectives gleaned from the concepts and notions in the discursive tradition of Islam, produced an iconography of resistance which circulated as audio visual material on social media channels and spoke to many different Muslim identities. Since 2017, militant daʿwa activism has decreased and retreated from the public sphere, with only a few preachers remaining active on social media and/or in private while public attention has been drawn towards the question of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.

“Making the Unbelievers Angry”: Sharia4Belgium

In this chapter, we outline the development of Sharia4Belgium in the context of the tensions between the Belgian activists, media attention, anti-radicalisation policy and police action. We describe what the activists were agitating against and how they tried to create a space for themselves. Their ‘counter-conduct’ involved setting themselves up in opposition to hegemonic ideas of good and evil, and certain norms and values. It was, therefore, both political and ethical in character. We will see that the activists’ counter-conduct was shaped by creating their own space separate from society, as well as by claiming a place within society. We will also see how Sharia4Belgium did this through a specific form of counter-conduct — what we call ‘spectacle activism’, using ‘image events’ and oppositional arguments.

‘The War Has Begun’: The Dutch Networks

In this chapter, we discuss three Dutch networks that were concentrated mainly in and around The Hague, but which also attracted various people from outside the area: Team Free Saddik/Behind Bars, Straat Dawah (Street Daʿwa) and Sharia4Holland. We analyse the impulsive and sometimes contradictory forms of counter-conduct which the activists in these networks engaged in; activists who sometimes did their best to remain beyond the scope of government policy and evade public discourse, but on other occasions confronted it directly  generating new and closer attention. In turn, this counter-reaction further reinforced the problematisation of these activists (and sometimes of Muslims in general). This dynamic, which none of the parties really had complete control of, is a central theme in this chapter.

The Production of ‘Radicals’: ‘Steadfast Warriors’ in the Netherlands

In this chapter we discuss one event, the so-called Battle of Hondius and one person, Abu Muhammed, to analyse how new modes of care of the self, new subjectivities, were created (and in the end collapsed) in, and through, interaction with media and the Dutch state. We show that the activists viewed themselves as being in the midst of a hostile world which was engaged in a war against Islam. Both local and global political contexts, but also the incarceration of their friends, triggered a reflection among activists to such an extent that it produced a sense of ‘something needs to be done’. And a better alternative could be found in their vision of Islam which, for some, came true in Syria.

A Comparative Discussion: The Counter-conducts of Militant Muslim Activists

In this chapter, we compare the substance and methods/styles of activism employed by the different networks and how their strategies in style and content interacted with state and media. After making a brief note on ethics, we go on to show how the networks used and mixed different methods of engagement: reject, reverse, accommodate and evade. Through these methods, the activists attempted to negotiate their ideas about being a Muslim and an activist by trying to counter what they regarded as their repression, subjection and humiliation by the unbelievers and opting for an alternative ideal instead. We close by discussing the relationship between the war in Syria, the de-politicisation of the networks and the different meanings of resistance.

The book can be ordered / downloaded HERE.

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