Editor’s note: Ahmed Akkari is a Danish teacher of Lebanese origin who became known for his involvement in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006. Shortly after the Danish newspaper published its Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005, Ahmed embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group that led protests against the cartoons. In August 2013, Akkari publicly reversed course and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons. He is now the most vocal Muslim thinker against radicalism in Denmark.
In April 2017, a big debate erupted in Denmark and neighboring Scandinavian countries after it was revealed that a Turkish imam in Denmark had used his religious position to inform the Turkish government on Danish-Turkish citizens’ loyalty to Ankara.
In light of this story, I want to raise questions about two important and generally unspoken issues:
One – why were so many people shocked to learn that such unsettling incidents are taking place, when this is just how bad people helping corrupt regimes work in a democracy nowadays? It is notable that authoritarian thinking seems so far away from the everyday life of ordinary Scandinavians.
Two – it shows once again that the challenges of the present and the future are authoritarian regimes and fundamentalist ideologies.
It must be stated clearly that the problem is support given to ideological Islamic groups or gangs, not individual Muslims. In most of the western world, Muslim migrants are generally law-abiding citizens who enjoy the sense of freedom and the human rights they gain from Europe’s values.
But alongside these Muslims one finds small ideological communities and factions gathering and quickly affiliating with militant or political movements linked to the countries of origin. The Iraqi, Iranian, Libyan, Pakistani and lately Turkish communities too provide examples of dictators and theocratic rulers reaching into those communities to create information gathering and recruitment centers.
Outsiders may miss this. These people work mostly in the shadows and hide behind widely accepted ideas such as strengthening the identity of a minority, religious awakening, or awareness of assimilation. For insiders, though, they often are known for their connections to officials in the dictatorships at home.
The gangs seem to work in the same manner, but with different codes, as can be seen in clear accounts in several books:
- The Fifth Column, an investigation into Islamic extremism looking at survivors of rape, terrorism, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages and the perpetrators of such heinous acts.
- Easy Meat, where Peter McLoughlin shows with documentation of a specific British incident that there was extensive evidence about the existence of grooming gangs, which have been around for decades.
- Or Barbara Lucini in “The other side of Resilience to Terrorism”, which refers to Ali Fisher’s e-book “Muslim gangs” from 2015, showing how organized gang communities have priorities similar to tribal loyalty and how their actions are similar to those of other European and American gangs studied in the past.
The gangs and groups work constantly on increasing their numbers and growing stronger among ordinary local Muslims, dividing people into for-and-against and trying to isolate other groups. In particular, they try to recruit or gain power in certain places of assembly. Over time, they can become an important factor for foreign governments, which may provide them with logistical support and money to back further growth and eventually turn them into an extended Western arm of a foreign country.
When we look at gangs and conservative or radical Islamic communities in the West, it is difficult to avoid the notion that they do require a certain amount of attention from law-enforcement organizations as terrorism gains momentum in the West. For nations in conflict with the Western democracies, the gangs, the radical imams and the missionary activists are tools in a bigger game of control. These tools increase in value as the groups gain ground in the various societies.
At one point, when the timing and conditions are right, the gangs and radical groups can stage violent demonstrations, start riots and spread chaos to serve their authoritarian backers. They are a useful thorn in the side of the Western host countries.
This is why the significance of the imam gathering information on his fellow Muslims is not that particular story, but a trend – active internal monitoring is taking place and it can help recruitment and control in mosques, Islamic centers and other social activity hubs.
I call for mapping and action on these groups now, while power and time is on our side, and before the situation becomes too hot to handle. It is also important to make a clear distinction between the gangs and the Islamists on one side and ordinary Muslims on the other in term of understanding. Any generalizations or promotion of fear of a whole religious community must be avoided.
Still I’m not sure if the focus is broad enough, since there are multiple intersections between families, tribes and gangs. Many are often connected by leadership, territorial dominance and a system of common beliefs, in this case clearly based upon Islam’s teachings.
It is easy to see, for instance when reading Barbara Lucini’s work, how gangs and ideological groups use the intertwined religious and cultural channels of communication as propaganda instruments, shepherding communities to a point of segregation from the outside world and taking hold of their views and approaches.
But when I think mapping is in order, it is the Lebanese war I have in mind. This is a story I will share in a second article.