The fight against “political Islam” creates a monster that is everywhere and nowhere


Is terrorism not just a question of actions, but also of ideas?

The fight against “political Islam” creates a monster that is everywhere and nowhere

The fight against “political Islam” creates a monster that is everywhere and nowhere
The fight against “political Islam” creates a monster that is everywhere and nowhere

The attacks in France and Austria reinforce the call for zero tolerance. Austrian Chancellor Kurz wants to tackle terrorism by outlawing 'political Islam', French President Macron by reforming Islam into a religion that fits the secular state. Is there a baby in the political bathwater?

© Belga

© Belga

The attacks in France and Austria reinforce the call for zero tolerance. Austrian Chancellor Kurz wants to tackle terrorism by outlawing ‘political Islam’, French President Macron and European President Charles Michel by reforming Islam into a European religion that fits in effortlessly with the secular state. Is there a baby in the political bathwater?

Radicalisation and political Islam have no place in our country,’ said Sebastian Kurz as long ago as 2018. At that time, he decided to close seven mosques and to ban a number of organisations because they were receiving foreign — and particularly Turkish — funding or because they were engaged in political — Turkish nationalist — propaganda. He himself had created the legal framework for these steps in 2015 by amending the 1912 Islam Law. Macron is moving in the same direction, with his charter of republican values presented to Muslim organisations. Le Parisien noted that in that charter, Macron wanted to lay down at least two things in black and white: the rejection of political Islam and foreign interference.

The reasoning of Kurz, Macron and an increasing number of European political leaders is that terrorist violence is not unrelated to a broader context. Terrorists and armed extremists, from New York in 2001 to France, Germany and Austria this autumn, have always justified their own actions with an appeal to God and a certain reading of Islam. That is why these leaders want to reform that very broad environment — Islam, Muslims and their associations in Europe — so that radicalisation no longer stands a chance.

Is this tough approach more likely to succeed than any previous policy response? That depends on many factors, starting with whether the analysis and presuppositions are correct this time round. An entirely different question is whether, how and to what extent a democratic constitutional state can criminalise a conviction without undermining the very foundations of that constitutional state. What does it mean to defend freedom of expression if it is restricted for that purpose? ‘If these attacks lead to excessive fear, social and political divisions; if democratic rights are curtailed in the aftermath of this bloodshed; and if the actual gaps in prevention and the fight against terrorism are not identified and remedied, then we let ISIS win,’ says child and youth lawyer Ercan Nik Nafs from Vienna.


‘Fighting terrorism by tackling Islam, political Islam or Islamism, respectively, is reminiscent of the pyramid approach in the fight against drugs’, says Werner Schiffauer from Berlin. According to some, the fight against heroin use should also start with banning cannabis. It is a pyramid that you climb step by step, or a conveyor belt that inevitably leads to the abyss. However, there is little research to confirm this theory, and all the factual experiences of recent decades show that it does not work in practice or is counterproductive’.

Schiffauer is an anthropologist who has been researching extremism among Muslim immigrants since the early 1980s. So you don’t have to convince him that extremism exists or that certain circles — often higher educated and students, he says — are radicalising. The latter term, with its implicit frame of individual trajectories and psychological dynamics, only came into vogue after 9/11 in 2001, but the reality is older. ‘The cynical advantage of such an individual, psychological frame is that collective causes and responsibilities can be avoided,’ notes Mattias De Backer, researcher at the KULeuven and the Université de Liège.

Schiffauer’s observations in Germany over the decades are fairly consistent: most extremists do not come from conservative Muslim families, but from rather secular middle-class families. Analyses after the attacks in France and Belgium in 2015-2016 confirmed that the terrorists were more educated in nightlife and crime than in political theology.

Although there is little demonstrable link between the actual violence perpetrated by individual or organised terrorists and the beliefs they invoke, the statements and policy initiatives of Kurz and Macron do not come out of the blue, says Dutch terrorism expert Peter Knoope, currently working from Brussels. ‘For years we have seen that prosecution of inadmissible acts has been extended, first to those suspected of helping to prepare and carry out those acts, then to those suspected of supporting those acts, or sympathising with those actions, until it almost inevitably reaches all those suspected of sharing ideas with the perpetrators. More and more governments no longer want to fight political violence, but radical beliefs’. The latter is pre-eminently true when it comes to radical religious ideas, because ‘Tanja Niemeijer, the Dutch woman who joined the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, can count on much more understanding for her choice as a foreign warrior than those who went to Syria’.

The Belgian researchers Mattias De Backer (KULeuven/UdLiège), Erik Claes (Odisee), Hassan Bousetta (UdLiège) and youth workers Tom Flachet and Ali Moustatine (both working in the Brussels youth association D’Broej) also warn in their article De radicaliseringsmachine (The radicalisation machine) of the limitations and dangers involved in combating “radicalisation”. ‘It gives a government and security services far-reaching powers in tracing people with “radical” religious or political convictions before they have done anything illegal. As long as a term such as radicalisation is used — a term that therefore refers not only to the preparation or perpetration of terrorist violence but also to individuals with extreme opinions — a government and its security actors will also find it legitimate to identify and categorise vulnerable, ‘radicalisable’ individuals and groups by means of large-scale surveillance and data screenings on the internet. As a result, entire groups will be falsely targeted and individuals will discover that they have ended up on a “blacklist” in a non-transparent manner.’

This warning applies even more now that the discourse is widened to include outlawing ‘political Islam’. In the article Politischer Islam: Muslime in Mithaftung that appeared on the website of Die Zeit on 16 November, journalist Hannes Leitlein points out that as early as 2016, the conservative Bavarian Christian Democrats voted a resolution that identified ‘political Islam as the greatest challenge of our time’. Leitlein quotes the Berlin Islam expert Gudrun Krämer who states that the vague definition of ‘political Islam’ could lead to the term being ‘used and instrumentalised in every possible way. In this vagueness, the term becomes completely useless. A monster is being created here that is everywhere and nowhere,’ said Krämer.

Actually, all the experts I contact agree on this. Mattias De Backer adds that the broad and vaguely defined preventive action proposed is also highly questionable from a legal point of view. ‘Such an intervention conflicts with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of ideas and with the separation of church and state. It is rather strange that the state wants to promote one form of Islam and ban another. It is very ironic that a state that advocates strict secularism should at the same time say what religion some of its subjects are allowed to adhere to’.

‘History teaches us how to strengthen the resilience of society and politics’, replies Ercan Nik Nafs. ‘We need to strengthen the democratic rule of law and its institutions, together with a clear fight against the actions and ideologies of both Islamist and right-wing extremist groups’. Johan Leman, anthropologist, inspirer of the Foyer in Molenbeek and between 1989 and 2004 the central figure in Belgian policy for equal opportunities and the fight against racism, does feel that it can and should be investigated whether certain forms of Islamism exceed the limits of freedom of expression. The current anti-racism legislation could provide the legal paradigm for this, he thinks. Nadia Fadil, senior lecturer in anthropology at the KULeuven, points out that Sharia4Belgium was already indicted for the first time in 2010 and later convicted of propagating hatred. ‘The current legislation therefore already covers all forms of systematic hate propaganda or incitement to violence. But one must continue to focus on actions, not on groups as such. This also applies to the extreme right. The new law in France wants to do exactly the opposite: it targets organisations — including human rights organisations — instead of concrete actions and deeds’. Nadia Fadil has been in relevant research on the issue since 2016 and authored, together with Francesco Ragazzi and Martijn De Koning Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands. Critical Perspectives on Violence and Security (2019_)_.

Johan Leman also emphasises that the government must be particularly careful with this approach. ‘As long as it is purely an expression of an opinion, it must be tolerated. However, as soon as unlawful discrimination, hatred or violence is incited in this way, the law must be applied, as in the case of racism. This distinction can indeed be made, but to do so, the government must have an appropriate centre of expertise that follows up any complaints and, if necessary, submits a dossier to the courts in good time. Organisations that specialise in constantly pushing the borders in order to encourage others to cross it, may, if it is systematic, be banned. Individual and occasional violations can be allowed. As is the case with the anti-racism law’.

The need for caution soon became apparent in France, where, in the days following the murder of Samuel Paty, some seventeen young people, including even four ten-year-olds, were arrested and questioned for ten hours ‘because they were defending terrorism’ in a class conversation. There is a real chance, says Werner Schiffauer, ‘that this kind of harsh approach contributes even more to the experience among Muslims in European countries and cities that they are all being targeted. And if there is one factor that creates understanding for the political violence of extremists, it is the continuing experience of discrimination and being targeted.’

Ken Hawkins (CC BY 2.0)

Ken Hawkins (CC BY 2.0)

‘The deradicalisation policy of recent years has already strengthened the experience of being constantly and increasingly stigmatised,’ says Erik Claes of Odisee Hogeschool, based on action research with young people and youth workers in Brussels.  However, according to Schiffauer, it should be precisely the intention to separate perpetrators and potential perpetrators of political violence from the wider community. This requires not only that anti-terrorism policy applies a clear and targeted distinction, but also that the broad community of Muslims be assured of full citizenship and equal opportunities in a credible manner.


Research provides little or no arguments in favour of the radicalisation pyramid. And the choice to focus more and more on ‘political Islam’ threatens to undermine constitutional freedoms and broaden and deepen the experience of exclusion. The first question,’ insists Nadia Fadil, ‘is what is meant when one talks about political Islam or Salafism? It is also a question raised by Hannes Leitlein. He refers to political theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and J.B. Metz, who advocated an explicit political reading of the Christian faith. The liberation theology that later took shape in Latin America was perhaps the most remarkable translation of this. Fadil: ‘Someone who, on the basis of his religious beliefs, engages in politics and subscribes to a democratic model, is practising ‘political Islam’. By the way, most Muslims see politics as an inherent part of their faith, just as Christians do’.

But, according to Nadia Fadil, ‘most Salafists in Europe are rather a- or anti-political. They seek a pure spirituality and attitude to life. Everything that could possibly come from another culture is seen as a renewal (bid’a) and rejected for these reasons, and the idea is to go back to the prophetic model — in its most authentic form — in order to get as close as possible to the core of Islam’.

Nevertheless, the observation remains that Muslims in the West are actively ‘Islamised’. Salafists but also other missionary movements want to protect Muslims in the diaspora from the temptations of the West and convert them into believers who live strictly according to doctrine, and encourage others to do the same. ‘The Saudis took a close look at how the colonial powers used and organised missionary activity in the 19th and 20th centuries,’ says Peter Knoope. ‘So, yes, with all the oil money the Gulf States, they set up a global effort to convert Muslims in the four corners of the globe to their own barren and doctrinal version of the faith.’

Salafist missionaries with their rock-solid and unchanging certainties appeal to people living in uncertainty and confusion, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as in European cities. But did they also create a breeding ground for extremism or terrorism? ‘Not on purpose’,’ thinks Knoope. I think that Saudi Arabia is just as shocked as the rest of the world by the violent spirit they have let out of the bottle.’ The Arab emirates and kingdoms are indeed reacting harshly to the violent and revolutionary turn that Salafism has taken around the world.

That does not necessarily prevent them from continuing to push for separatism and ultimately for undermining the secular, liberal democracy that is the supreme standard of citizens, does it? Knoope: ‘Apparently, no evidence is needed for such claims, which makes the suspicion very similar to McCarthyism from the 1950s. What then seemed to be a large-scale conspiracy by the Communist Party, in which all progressives were suspected, is now a conspiracy under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhoof, and once again everyone who does not condemn the conspiracy theory out loud is suspected’.

‘The relationship between non-violent orthodox and extremist violence is very nuanced’, says Mattias De Backer. ‘Some terrorists may have resorted to violence in part because extremist ideas were accepted in their environment. But at the same time there is English research showing that Orthodox Muslim groups have been successful in stopping young people wanting to go to IS in Syria. This is also the case in Belgium’. Werner Schiffauer confirms: ‘My research shows that conservative Islam is precisely the best buffer against the derailment that is Islamist terrorism. Conservative parents and imams deeply fear that their young people would fall for the siren song of Islamic State or other violent extremists’.

However, the question is not only whether the suppression of a more tolerant popular Islam by a fundamentalist lecture leads to terrorism — for that causal link seems negligible. The question is also whether Islamist or Salafist thought creates the context in which an extremist faction thrives — because they use the same language of holiness and purity, because they place the same emphasis on outward piety and feminine modesty, because they confront ordinary believers with their sins and shortcomings?

A difficult question’, replies Johan Leman. ‘One conservative faith is not the other. The parents who hold on to their village faith with which they grew up are conservative. There are conservative Salafists who are convinced to be non-violent. But there is also the conservative Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, which sometimes overlaps with the jihadi Salafism of IS. This is a dangerous alliance, actively sought by the IS structure, not the other way round. In these circles, it is often the hardliners who ultimately prevail and determine both policy and practice, because in a competition of purity, the defender of human or worldly laws seldom wins’.

If the ground zero of jihadist terrorism — Afghanistan, Pakistan, but also Indonesia and South-East Asian nations with Muslim minorities — teaches us anything about the relationship between conservative Islam and armed struggle, it is that within the universe of doctrinaire conservative believers there is a power struggle going on. Young radicals, shaped more by online theology or ‘war madrassas’ than by classical and established institutions or scholars, want to take power from older spiritual leaders who are seen as weak and too conformist. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, this resulted a decade ago in the physical elimination of dozens of village and religious leaders. In Europe, it is not the life, but the authority of the older leaders that is at stake, as the are often direct immigrants and therefore have little connection with the young people who were born and educated here.


‘The panic that arose following the recent attacks in France and Austria is unjustified’, says Peter Knoope. ‘To begin with, both the number of attacks and the number of victims have been considerably reduced in recent years. Each attack is one too many and each victim is one too many, but one can only conclude that the security approach is producing results in Europe. Moreover, Islamist terrorism is not a European problem, but a global one, which in 2020 will mainly have caused deaths in Africa, the Middle East and Asia’.

This global view helps, underscores Knoope, to see what is going on. In his view, it immediately puts into perspective the cry that these are attacks ‘against our way of life’. ‘The jihadist violence in Burkina Faso, Northern Nigeria, Mali, Northern Mozambique, Iraq or Libya always has very local, concrete causes, but there are two threads that weave all this into one story. First and most important: the uprisings are a desperate cry for better and fairer governance. Secondly, the current injustices almost always have colonial roots or are seen as the continuation of colonial injustice. The latter explains the use of Islam as a mobilising narrative: it still feels like a way of resisting the seizure of power by foreign, and then domestic, Christians. That is why Boko Haram refers to the fight against Western education under British colonial rule’.

Johan Leman agrees: ‘In some countries in North Africa, but also beyond, there is resistance in certain circles against the continued Western domination that sometimes develops into a true hatred of the West. It is not only extremist jihadis who cultivate this, but those in power, such as the Turkish President Erdogan, also play on this feeling from time to time. Certainly when the West intervenes militarily in the Middle East, it can clearly become a trigger for the use of force’.

Johnny Silvercloud (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Johnny Silvercloud (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Islamic countries, people have been hungry for more democracy for decades,’ says Ercan Nik Nafs. ‘But when they eventually flee and hope to live in freedom and prosperity in Europe, governments do not accept their responsibility and all too often leave the newcomers to reactionary, anti-democratic and anti-Western groups. This gives extra room to political leaders, parties and Islamic organisations in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Iran to dismiss any action against Islamism as Islamophobia. In this way they secure their own political power’.

The ‘neo-colonial’ aspect of jihadism, says Leman, is sometimes intertwined in Europe with the narrative that the West compensates for the excess of power with a lack of values. ‘At that point, there is an extremism that rejects and possibly attacks secular society. It is necessary and right for the democratic state to defend itself. There are, however, many questions about states who actively participate in the spiral of polarisation. After all, that is what the harsh reactions of recent weeks have done, according to the French lawyer Rim**-Sarah Alouane**, among others. At the beginning of October she wrote in The Weaponization of Laïcité: ‘What started out as a legal measure to keep religion out of government affairs has since metastized into open bigotry towards Muslims’.

According to Alouane, the original meaning of secularism and laicité, namely a defence of religious freedom against the interventions of the state, is being exchanged for an ideology aimed at making Muslims invisible. As a result, opportunities to combat extremism and isolate terrorists are being lost, says Werner Schiffauer. He has seen it happen many times. ‘An initiative from a rather conservative Islamic background to campaign against forced marriages did not receive subsidies because the government did not trust the initiators. A German feminist group did receive government support. They produced a series of posters and had zero impact’.

Distrust. Distrust of the government towards its Muslim citizens. From the migrants and Muslims towards the forces of la wand order. Of the white majority against the super-diverse society. Of the populations in the Global South against their elites. Of marginalised farmers and workers against shareholder capitalism. And so on. ‘The angry citizen will always look for an outlet for his anger,’ says Peter Knoope. ‘In my parents’ post-war Netherlands they could turn to the Communist Party of the Netherlands. It brought the anger to the streets and translated it into political power in parliament. And in the South, Marxist-inspired liberation movements made a promise of justice’. Today, society divides into a recalcitrant white majority and a growing but discriminated group of minorities. Their angers feed mutual rejection and radicalisation, with both right-wing extremism, white nationalism and fundamentalist Islamism as mobilising ideologies’, according to Knoope.

The government must, as far as possible, eliminate the feelings of unjust and discriminatory treatment on both sides,’ says Johan Leman, ‘because frustration and trauma undoubtedly play a role when individuals turn to extremism. The protest voice exists, just as the anti-establishment voice exists. But you can’t reduce the success of the extremisms to that. The doctrinaire racist and the doctrinaire jihadist also exist. In my view, both can be treated equally. The fascist exists. The KKK Christian exists. The Islamofascist also exists. Only, they must be consistently distinguished from ordinary religious people’. Schiffauer agrees, and he would add: the Grey Wolves exist, but they must be distinguished from ordinary migrants of Turkish origin. And Nik Nafs says: ‘Islamist and extreme right-wing organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Grey Wolves spread anti-democratic ideologies in European cities. Europe does not have an adequate response to this’.

‘What most migrants desire, is a mixed neighbourhood. That makes them feel safer than a homogenous neighbourhood, and it gives their children a better chance of success in the future. They want to be a full part of Western society, but not by denying themselves. They want to be citizens who step into the future with a straight back,’ concludes Schiffauer.