A study published earlier this year by the International Center for Counterterrorism (ICCT) in The Hague looks at the effects of Salafism on certain Muslim communities in the Netherlands. In the study, 15 interviews were conducted with members of the Dutch Muslim community. Some of the main takeaways and conclusions of the report highlight failures of state interventionist policies to curb the spread of Salafism in the country. The study also details some of the more misunderstood aspects regarding the sudden popularity of the radical Islamist movement.
In general, generalizations about the Dutch Muslim community made by public political figures have discouraged ordinary and moderate Dutch Muslims from cooperating with state security. Instead of alienating the fringe radical movement, government policies have managed to alienate the entire Muslim segment, which has deterred efforts to stop the spread of Salafism and, in fact, led to the opposite impulse.
The study first makes an important distinction by emphasizing that Salafism comes in many forms. While academics paint the movement as a reformist Sunni one which interprets the religion of Islam in its most traditional and literal form according to the first three generations of Islam, it is far more complex. While this definition was fitting decades ago, the movement has since evolved and now scholars prefer to further divide Salafists into three categories: purists and apolitical Salafists, political Salafists, and jihadist Salafists. The study stresses that in order to understand the current problem facing Dutch society, it is important to understand that Salafism is not monolithic.
Origins of Schism
The study points to the year of 2004 where a schism occurred in Dutch society marked by the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, a film director that made a short film depicting how Islam mistreats women. He was killed by a jihadist-Salafist named Mohammed Bouyeri and the event was a catalyst for anti-Islamic rhetoric and attitudes in society. This was the event that marked the beginning of a securitization of radical Islam which has permeated society in the decades after the terrorist attack.
Fast forward to 2019, and a report by the Verwey-Jonker Institute emerged which provided compelling evidence of how misunderstood and under-researched the phenomenon of Salafism was. After analyzing 15 years of Dutch literature on the issue, its conclusion was that the categorization of non-violent Salafist groups as a security threat was a counterproductive method which alienated large portions of non-violent Dutch Muslims. As a result, more than 50 percent of Dutch Muslims believed that the West wished to eradicate their religion entirely. The 2019 study suggested that reliance on secondary, instead of primary, sources undermined the ability to correctly understand the problem and generate more effective solutions to combat it.
Securitization policies further enforced an “us vs them” mentality, the report points out. This translated into ordinary Muslim interactions with security services which were characterized by an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia. Muslims felt they were being singled-out, targeted and marginalized by a society which held them in contempt simply because of their faith.
During the course of the interviews conducted for the purpose of the study it was concluded that respondents became hyper aware and sensitive over their projected religiosity levels. Those interviewed for the study were fearful that the government’s generalization of Salafism, and its incorrect definition of what it means to be practicing “strict” Islam, led many mainstream Muslims to believe they would be viewed as Salafists as well. This produced a sense of “hypervigilance” among Dutch Muslims where many felt compelled to moderate their behavior due to fear that they might be seen or viewed as an extremist. They truly felt that Islam would never be accepted fully by Dutch society because of the constant stereotypical rhetoric against Islam being invoked by the media, government, and schools. As a result, this produced self-censorship practices in Muslim communities.
An interview subject named Sara described the term ‘Salafism’ as a “catch-all term” where differentiations between the different types of Salafism were not recognized or understood by society. This misunderstanding, of course, heightened Islamophobia in Dutch society. An overwhelming majority of respondents viewed policymakers as ill-informed which did not properly analyze and study the matter in an objective manner. As a result of these political shortcomings, the study showed that bureaucratic hurdles prevented society from overcoming Islamophobic attitudes and clearing up misconceptions towards Salafism and Islam as a whole.
Respondents highlighted an example of just how ill-informed policymakers were, pointing to the state notion that radical Salafists were largely concentrated in large metropolitan areas. In fact, the respondents challenged this notion and said that, in fact, there was a heavier presence in smaller cities due to the fact that these areas were less surveilled and policed. Places such as Geleen, Oss, Delft, Leidschendam, Roermond, Maastricht, Ede, Den Bosch, Zeeland, and Nijmegen had been named by interviewees as other locations where radical Salafists have settled.
A sense of national identity was also cited by respondents as a dissuading force to join radical Salafism. Respondents of Turkish nationality pointed to the low number of extremist individuals in their community which they attribute to the fact of a sense of belonging to a Turkish community. Because of this community’s high cultural resources, this diminished Turkish youth’s need to look for social capital in other places. They were less vulnerable and susceptible to fall prey to radical propaganda and recruitment tactics.
Conversely, Dutch Muslims of Moroccan or Algerian background were cited as more vulnerable due to their lack of cohesion as an ethnic society and social capital. Salafist recruiters were able to seize on these vulnerable communities looking for a sense of belonging and exploit perceptions of discrimination and Islamophobia to benefit their recruitment agenda.
The Power of the Internet
The study then moves on to discuss the challenges associated with policing jihadist online propaganda. Internet presence scored third highest in the survey category of ‘radical Salafism influence’. This is largely due to the emergence of Generation Z which are technologically savvy and immersed in online culture. Because these young individuals only know a world where information is readily available on their electronic devices, this makes them more susceptible to online recruitment, and less towards face-to-face recruitment. The ability to reach these young minds, who have not yet been fully-developed and, therefore, highly malleable, is an extraordinary force that is hard to properly combat.
The reason why online methods are preferred and are being heavily employed also have to do with the fact that it carries a low-detection risk, unlike face-to-face recruitment. Its covertness is also matched with the speed and volume in which information can be consumed and reshared. A radical speaker does not need to work to build a physical audience for him to address, he simply needs a camera and his sermon can be shared exponentially online and reach thousands of people. When coupled with poor access to education, particularly proper Islamic knowledge, this only increases the propensity of an individual to buy into radical ideology, having no solid base to exercise critical thinking and judgement.
Poor Knowledge of Islam
This is inherent in the fact that the need for an identity scored higher than religion under the recruitment category, which means individuals are largely drawn towards radicalization because of social isolation rather than religious conviction. In fact, respondents characterized jihadist Salafists as mostly low-faith individuals who were recruited in their youth, rather than being highly religious before their recruitment. In fact, one respondent said: “99.9 percent of [radicalized] young people have no knowledge and cannot read the Qur’an, and do not know the traditions well.”
Current government counterterrorism measures being implemented include: keeping public lists of active Salafist organizations, banning Salafist asylum centers, barring government relations with known Salafist institutions, banning Salafist preachers from entering the Netherlands and barring financing from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, among other steps. However, the study concludes that one essential missing component of the strategy is involving Muslim communities in the prevention of political or jihadist Salafism. This enforces the wrong approach where terrorism acts are punished but not prevented, only putting a Band-Aid on the problem and not fixing it at its core. This is not inherent to the Netherlands, but is a general misstep when it comes to counterterrorism efforts worldwide. So, not only are the steps taken against radicalization in the Netherlands not pre-emptive, they are, in fact, counterproductive as they are encouraging more radicalization.
In conclusion, there is a fundamental problem with the state’s approach to combating radicalization, as the study clearly outlines. The reasons for the proliferation of Salafist radicals have to do with a combination of factors including the ease and secrecy associated with online recruitment methods, the growing societal intolerance and misunderstanding of Salafism and Islam in general, the feeling of marginalization and lack of belonging that Dutch Muslims carry with them, and the intense securitization which has created a sense of paranoia and fear within Muslim communities of appearing “too strict” in their Muslim faith.
A more effective counterterrorism approach would be one of inclusion that looks towards preventing the main sources of radicalization, rather than just dealing with radicals after they have already committed crimes or imposed a threat on society. A key method to achieve this would be working alongside Muslim communities and helping them to identify and tackle the sources of radicalization before their fruition.