With the siege of the Capitol in the US and the role of far-right groups such as Proud Boys, and recent terrorist attacks in France, questions about relation between democratic governance and extremist groups have once again proven to be highly relevant and urgent. We are pleased the Research and Documentation Center (WODC) has published our research on policy instruments and extremist world views in the Netherlands. The continuing presence of jihadists, far-right and far-left activism and violence across the world, shows how important it is to do research from a comparative perspective.
In our study, Beleidsinstrumenten en extremistische wereldbeelden – Een verkennend rapport [Policy Instruments and Extremist World Views – An Exploratory Study], we focus on how different extremist groups or individuals perceive government policy instruments, how they respond to them, and how government policies relate to their self-identification. In doing so, it explores the paradox of modern democracy: How does a democratic society deal with the undemocratic elements in its midst? Whether it is the use of repressive means against demonstrations, or the reintegration programmes for repatriating the Dutch foreign fighters in Syria, the government is involved in the ‘governance’ of possibly undemocratic elements. Conversely, extremist groups react to government policies; a key aspect of political activism, whether extremist or not, is to challenge the status quo.
In this blog contribution, we provide a brief overview of the main questions, methods, and conclusions. Our argument is twofold. Firstly, it is imperative to consider the perceptions and experiences of those labelled as extremists in order to evaluate government policies regarding countering extremism and counter-radicalization. Secondly, we show how the interaction is more than a merely reaction and counter-reaction based upon mutual antagonism, but rather a complex web of different styles of interactions.
The main question this research concerned itself with was:
What does the government aim to effectuate with policy instrument directed at religiously motivated extremists as such compared to other extremist groups? How do these groups perceive such policy instruments and how does that relate to their actions and self-identification?
We consider the idea that the groups concerned may use different labels and concepts, or the same labels and concepts differently, as the government does. In addition, the labels used reflect policy choices and political debates, and are thus a substantive part of the policy (Fadil, De Koning, & Ragazzi, 2019; Lakoff, 2010). The focus is not so much how a top-down approach works and what the effects are, but instead we delve in the nature and workings of possible forms of self-identification, motivations, and perceptions of government policy among the groups concerned.
In the different chapters of the study we deal with the purposes of the current policies (ch. 2); the action repertoires of the government and relevant groups (ch. 3); the knowledge regimes applied by the government and groups involved (ch. 4); the forms of categorisation and (self-)identification constructed through the interaction between government and the so-called extremists (ch.5); and, finally, we elaborate on what we may learn from this interaction between government, policies, and the groups involved (concl.).
Extremism and zones of activity: far-right, far-left and jihadism
Instead of using categories which label groups as ideologically or legally extremist, we conceptualize extremism as a field which makes it possible to analyse extremism as a so-called ‘zone of activity’, (see also Klandermans et al. (2016)) and take into account the processes of securitization (Cesari 2012, De Graaf 2011). In order to determine different modalities of extremism, we are inspired by the research that conceptualizes extremism as a collective term for movements that seek to homogenise society based on dogmatic principles, suppressing all opposition, and to subjugate minorities (Mudde 2007, Schmid 2013). Extremists are groups and individuals who want to achieve their goals irregularly (i.e., not according to liberal democratic principles and ways) or where those goals themselves are contrary to the principles of the liberal democratic rule of law. It is difficult to find characteristics that are specific and exclusive to extremist groups. Some elements are reflected in previous research, such as the rejection of the rule of law and a preference or legitimisation of the use of clandestine violence (Olsson 2020, Schmid 2014, 2013, Della Porta 2013), as well as forms of meaning-making about the world in which monocausal relationships are central and often directed against religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities (Coolsaet 2015, Lowe 2017, Schmid 2013) who are labelled ‘outgroup’ (Berger 2018).
The above aspects apply to the far-right, the far-left, and jihadism. We consider these to be different manifestations within an extremist field, defined from a normative and dominant political centre that considers itself predominantly liberal and ‘mainstream’. On this basis, policies are formed to defend the liberal democratic order, claimed by politicians and public institutions (Mondon and Winter 2020, 58-60). It should be noted that different groups and individuals who are considered ‘extreme’ are not equal when it comes to structural positions in Dutch history and society. To arrive at a concrete answer to the research question, three cases have been selected that are present in the extremist field. For this selection, comprehensive research has been conducted on the far-right, the far-left, and jihadism, and definitions used by the government have been taken into account (in particular Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst – General Intelligence and Security Service, AIVD and Nationale Coördinator voor Terrorisme en Veiligheid – National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism and Security, NCTV). On this basis, three case studies have been placed within the outlined field: Pegida Netherlands (far-right), AFA Netherlands (far-left) and Jihadism NL. The analyses of the jihadist field are not, as in the case of the left and right extremist field, focused on specific organisational links, but on individuals and themes (such as global solidarity and struggle) and also includes previously collected research material that relates to the above-mentioned organisations.
Open source study
Given the short course of this research which was conducted when COVID-19 restrictions were in place (January 2020 – September 2020), an open-source study was initially chosen in which social media analysis was undertaken. Data collection began on 17 February 2020. The starting point was to analyse all available posts from 1 January 2018 to 11 September 2020 for the groups Pegida Netherlands, AFA Netherlands and ‘Jihadism NL’.
In addition to an analysis of policy documents and social media channels of the groups involved, this research also carried out interviews with various individuals. Conducting these interviews was made more difficult because of the restrictive measures imposed in connection with COVID-19. Moreover, not everyone was willing to take part in an investigation on ‘extremism’. In the end, 8 interviews were conducted with those involved, 2 with (former) members of Pegida Netherlands, and 6 with those involved in ‘Jihadism NL’. Jihadism NL also uses research material from project Islamic Mission’s long-term research (De Koning, Becker, & Roex, 2020) with, for the most part, previously unpublished material. Although several attempts have been made to get in touch with AFA Netherlands, they have shown no interest in participating in this research.
Webs of interaction
Based upon our findings we argue that the interaction between the government and these groups can be conceptualised as a complex web deploying a wide range of action repertoires, exploiting different knowledge channels, and attributing and owning subjectivities. The interaction between the government and the groups it identifies as extremist therefore does not follow an apparently unambiguous action-response pattern. Both the government and the extremist groups are part of a political-social context that is partly polarised, in which there are structural inequalities and systemic racism, and in which numerous civil society actors play a role in the amplification, transmission and reduction of social divisions. Groups and individuals agitate against the government, against each other, and against other civil society actors. The government uses a particular range of action and policy instruments to respond to this social phenomenon in society. This policy reaches groups and individuals through a multitude of channels. They tailor their action repertoire, relying partly on the same sources of information as government and media, and partly on their own sources. This makes the interaction between government and the extremist groups extremely erratic and hardly unambiguous. In other words, the way extremist groups perceive the government and respond to policies ranges from antagonism, to accommodation to opportunism to evasion, and is not solely dependent on the public authorities themselves.
Modes of interaction: spectacles, confirmation, and concealment
Obviously, given the different historical trajectories of extremist’s groups, differences in ideology and structure and in political opportunities and societal positions, there are differences between the three groups involved in this research.
The relation between Pegida Netherlands and the government is marked by actions that provoke reactions. Both parties’ action repertoires are attuned to each other and interact with their subjectivities and knowledge channels. The policy tools used to limit the visibility of Pegida Netherlands may (inadvertently) create action repertoires that impact the government. The fact that the government’s knowledge channels and subjectivities are instrumentalised by the group concerned reinforces Pegida’s message.
In the case of AFA Netherlands, a circular movement between the action repertoires of AFA Netherlands and the government is observed, which is fuelled by the various subjectivities and knowledge channels that are employed. The policy instruments AFA Netherlands face serve as confirmation of the status quo. Again, the relationships are not straightforward: there is a certain ambivalence given that AFA Netherlands also needs the government to maintain its own subjectivity as an anarchist victim.
There is a strong interaction between jihadists and government agencies. To some extent, a struggle over the definition and use of terms in a shared socio-political context is observed. As a result, non-violent collective action among jihadists is now virtually non-existent, with some marginal exceptions which, among other things, express a hostile and distrustful attitude towards government agencies. As with the other groups, however, this is a relationship with the necessary ambivalence and ambiguity. Government policy is scrutinised by the jihadists through their own ideological frames of reference, with specific attention to any aspects they believe could indicate the use of double standards by the government. There is an ongoing interplay between the self-image and self-presentation of jihadists and their perceptions of government policy in relation to securitisation of extremism.
Regardless of the differences mentioned in our study, we find four main patterns with regard to the interaction between government and the governed. Firstly, antagonistic interactions pertain to the reactions and counter-reactions between government and the groups concerned, often involving the creation of public spectacles with demand reactions from other parties (cf. De Koning, Becker, and Roex 2020). Secondly, besides presenting each other as adversaries, accommodative interaction occurs as well whereby the groups and individuals remain within the boundaries of the law. Related to both, is, thirdly, opportunistic interaction, whereby specific acts of the government are used to underpin one’s own argument in the public debates in particular with regard to one of the other parties in the extremism field. Yet, besides engagement there is also a deliberate evasion of government policies to avoid public attention and to keep the interaction with authorities to a minimum. These interactions provide a mosaic of self-perceptions, sometimes adopting the categories the government utilises for themselves and sometimes resisting them.
Rethinking counter-radicalization and countering extremism
Based on the above, this research partially complicates the discussions about success and effectiveness of CVE and PVE policies. Previous studies have shown mixed results on the potential for ‘deradicalisation’. This research confirms this from the perspectives of the parties themselves and the meanings they attach to policy. The groups often do not distinguish between ‘policy’ or ‘politics’. This can put policy makers in a difficult position. Whether government policy ‘works’ and how it works depends in part on how groups who are object of that policy, perceive the policies and government agencies.
This study shows how significant this is for the actions of the groups in question. Recurring themes are trust in the government and the importance of an individual approach. More research focusing on other groups and multiple actors (and, for example, looking at the role of politics and the media) would be advisable to obtain a better view of the complex social dynamics that the groups involved, but also the public authorities, do not always have a grip on. Given the important role played by police officers in local communities, such research should also be carried out locally and with a comparative component. After all, it is there that the government is given a face in interaction with citizens and where the citizen experiences the government. At a time of escalating tensions, research is crucial to gain better understanding of the relationship between government and citizens, including in the case of so-called extremist groups. After all, how these groups act is not separate from government policy: they react to it and shape their language, action repertoires, knowledge channels and identities accordingly.
Maria Vliek received her doctorate at the Radboud University Nijmegen. This project focussed on the narratives and experiences of former Muslims in contemporary Europe. She is currently working as a lecturer and associated researcher at the department of Islam Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen. Her research interests include the anthropology of religion, secularism, and religious conversion. Previously, she researched identity development among Muslim youth in Mombasa, Kenya.
Martijn de Koning is an anthropologist and teaches at the Department of Islamic Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. His work focuses on Islam in Europe, (militant) activism, counter-radicalization, Islamophobia and racialization. Together with Francesco Ragazzi and Nadia Fadil he published Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands – Critical Perspectives on Violence and Security (IB Tauris 2019) and together with Carmen Becker and Ineke Roex Islamic Militant Activism in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany – “Islands in a Sea of Disbelief” (Palgrave 2020).
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