Women and the Far Right: The Challenge to Gender Equality

Far-right extremist groups have been receiving increasing attention in the media and from policymakers, as concern grows about their interaction with anti-governmental sentiment. This article looks at how far-right ideology and anti-feminism are intertwined, as well as how such ideologies can appeal to women. One aspect of interest is the increasing number of women functioning in offline and online spaces as mouthpieces for extremist groups and ideas. Misogynistic language and sentiment are often found in the far-right and adjacent movements – as highlighted by the work of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism – with misogyny acting as a powerful motivator for male activism

With such ideologies seemingly counter to women’s interests, why is it that some women endorse such a mentality? This article suggests that women within far-right movements act as powerful recruiters and embodiments of idealised traditional values, playing on women’s frustrations and fears, to challenge not just specific notions of feminism but the core idea that gender equality is positive for society.

Equality in Far Right language

The concept that women and men are naturally unequal is consistently portrayed in far-right narratives. Podcasts and other online content highlight the biological differences between the genders to argue that a woman’s place is in the house, rearing children and ensuring that the household runs smoothly. The superiority of the male intellect is discussed openly in online spheres, such as podcasts and other forms of media that are, in some instances, managed by women. 

The promotion of far-right narratives in online spheres by women has several purposes, depending on who they are engaging with. For women, far-right discourses portray the image of what a ‘real’ woman is – a mother, a homemaker, dutifully positioned at the side of her husband. For men, far-right female activists underscore the importance of the male nature. 

These approaches are channelled through non-threatening, everyday topics and terms that are present in mainstream discussion and are often not overtly political right. Consequently, traditional gender roles are encouraged through direct yet non-aggressive content that highlights the potential benefits of being a homemaker and caretaker, whilst supplementally ‘othering’ those who choose to have a career when they do not have to. 

Insecurity

Anti-feminism caters to women and men by exploiting fears and insecurities in modern society. For instance, attacks on women during the Cologne New Year’s celebrations in 2015 were instrumentalised by far-right parties and organisations in Germany and internationally to push Islamophobic narratives. It aimed to politicise fear that women face due to existing inequalities in society, and to galvanise men to target minorities as a means of protecting both women and the security of the state. 

Harassment is one of the issues that the far-right proposes a seemingly simple solution to: by embracing traditional gender roles, women are framed as safer and more content at home raising children, whilst men  offer financial and physical security for the family unit. 

It also offers a powerful but accessible means of positively engaging with far-right movements; women are able to contribute to the cause by staying home and embracing traditional gender roles. This is often reinforced by supportive comments from far-right movements and new online communities. 

Sometimes women who take on influencer roles in the name of far-right ideologies do so in the context of the ‘tradwife’ phenomenon. The term (a concoction of ‘traditional’ and ‘wife’) emphasises the importance of rearing children, conducting household chores, and obeying their husbands. Many ‘tradwife’ influencers also tend to promote far-right ideas based on lived experiences. 

‘Choice’

To women, far-right activists portray the image of what a ‘real’ woman is, with online content including cooking and baking, etiquette, and other homecare. It draws on the feminist language of choice – influencers stating, for instance, “We gave women the choice – that’s the point! Bake banana bread until the sun comes up, if it makes you happy!”. 

In contrast, though, modern feminism is framed as forcing women in modern society to take up roles that are not suited to their skills or abilities. A society based on feminism is furthermore seen by such influencers as creating enormous pressure on women to fulfil a number of different and competing expectations – a successful career path, family and home, and marital relationship, amongst others.

To exemplify this, some far-right influencers have also highlighted the supposed threat to women from Islam and their need to be protected by men. The conceptualisation of male superiority is highlighted well in one podcast interview by a Northern Front ‘tradwife’ activist, who states that women should categorically not be allowed to vote due to their cognitive inferiority – although differences were noted by the discussants amongst women, in terms of their mental capacities.

Male-controlled Empowerment

The online ‘tradwife’ movement demonstrates the intertwined relationship of traditional gender roles and far-right movements. By camouflaging and softening the more violent elements of far-right ideologies and acting to authentically portray them in their day-to-day lives, far-right female influencers have proven successful recruiting platforms, spreading extreme ideas to more mainstream audiences. 

A certain kind of female choice and empowerment are portrayed. However, this is disconnected from traditional conceptualisations of feminism, as women are encouraged to require protection from the supposed threat that ‘other’ cultural backgrounds pose. This framing draws on a long history of Orientalist and racialised tropes and reinforces a relationship between the ‘purity’ of women and that of the nation.

Such empowerment is also determined and controlled by men. Feminism is explicitly named as an unnatural temptation for women who, not knowing better, are trying to fulfil expectations to pursue a career and a family whilst being doomed to fail. 

Such approaches aim to appeal to women who feel under pressure from societal expectations. This messaging and framing of gender roles provide an effective recruitment tool, gathering support amongst individuals who might not be otherwise connected to or interested in the far-right.

This piece analyses the main challenges encountered during the ‘Countering Radicalisation through Lifestories’ research project – which ran from 2016 to 2019 and involved the collection of roughly 300 interviews – and provides mitigation strategies that researchers could employ while engaging in collecting empirical data. The region analysed as part of this project was South Eastern Europe, specifically: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, the Republic of Kosovo, and Serbia. The challenges field researchers face while working on subjects relating to (non) violent extremism have been previously published in an in-depth report and policy brief entitled Countering and Preventing (Non) Violent Extremism: Research and Fieldwork Challenges.

This blog post aims to address the following questions: how viable is it to conduct evidence-based research on (non)violent extremism and prevention? What could be the possible impacts of such research on researchers? And what are the key preparatory strategies for researchers engaged in the collecting of interviews? 

For any researcher, the conducting of fieldwork on violent extremism trends and prevention is not barrier-free,and has been shown to be highly demanding, stressful, and exhausting. The common challenges awaiting researchers in the field largely centre around barriers to accessing the selected community, associated security risks, the politicisation of (non) violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. However, despite these significant challenges, by engaging potential mitigation strategies before entering the data collection stage, it is possible to successfully lead the research process while preventing potential harmto both the field research team and participants. 

Access Strategy

One of the common challenges faced in the field is gaining access to the selected communities. The project showed that the life story interview method, combined with the snowball sampling technique, is a best-fit strategy for gaining accessto a community. Lifestories are used to uncover voices that are excluded and/or silenced from official historical records, and thus hold the potential to deepen our understanding of marginalised groups, while offering nuanced perspectives. Snowball sampling is a proven technique in identifying individuals in the so-called culturally sensitive recruitment strategy of the more vulnerable population groups – oft-called ‘hard to reach populations’- who would be more likely to participate, as it relies on referrals from within community sources.

Collaboration 

Collaboration can also facilitate access to the selected community. To ensure access to religious and far-right groups, it is necessary to collaborate with people embedded in civil society, universities, journalistic networks, workers at the governmental and municipal level, international organisations and bilateral representations, previous and running projects on the same theme, and national P/CVE coordinators. For effective communication and collaboration, it is beneficial to have researchers speaking the language of the selected community at the native level or even preferably someone from the same community. This insiders’ approach presents drawbacks as well. It may lead to researchers becoming too involved in the theme and with participants, potentially heightening participants’ expectations that their needs will be alleviated and increasing researchers’ workloads. 

Nevertheless, sometimes collaboration attempts might not be enough to successfully remove obstacles to field access due to trust issues between the interviewees and the interviewer. In fact, researchers’ attempts at collaboration can be misunderstood in the field. To illustrate this type of mistrust, for instance, an interviewee asked me the following during the research: “...but, why do you want to know? Only state agents are interested in this topic.” To mitigate these types of challenges, researchers should first be empathetic, be transparent as to the aim of the research as much as possible, collaborate with gatekeepers, and leverage former relationships with locals. 

Gender

Gender also plays a pivotal role in accessing the selected community, with female researchers in this case more likely to maintain frequent contact and provide data over time in comparison to male researchers. Attentiveness is required, so as to not reveal too many personal details to the interviewees, and countering discriminatory beliefs by utilising preventive techniques such as taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children, which can assist in establishing trust. This would not only mitigate gender related challenges; it would also ensure the safety of the researcher and maintain the quality of the research. 

Methodology

Methodological choices employed in the field affect access to selected communities. While quantitative approaches may assist in understanding phenomena based on a large-N studies, they may also cause harm – especially when dealing with hard-to-reach populations and sensitive themes such as P/CVE. Therefore, it is of importance to refrain from using it as much as possible given that the attempt to employ multiple-choice questions can hamper access to affected communities and harm P/CVE programs and local communities in the long run. This approach may alienate the community. The set-up of the questions may cause them to perceive that their voices are unwanted. Instead, one should opt for ethnographic research methods to maximise utility.

Safety

In general, the researcher and the research subjects in the field should prioritise safety. The fear of reprisals, attacks, threats, blackmailing, manipulation, and exposure to arms were among the most common fears revealed during the fieldwork conducted in South Eastern Europe between 2016 and 2019. In the presence of such risks, it is possible that some researchers, as well as interviewees, might turn away from the study. To mitigate those security risks, several steps related to an interviewer’s safety can be taken online and during one-to-one meetings, including but not limited to avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, and paying attention to using protected online communication tools, like VPN services and a separate mobile, only intended for the research project. As for the local communities’ safety, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees and keeping an eye on the authenticity of stories are of utmost significance.

Politicisation

The politicisation of (non)violent extremism can also pose threats that need to be dealt with at either the state or international levels. While researchers have no power to shift local or international discourses, assessing post-research politicisation, including unexpected scenarios, may assist the fieldwork process. For instance, access to far-right interviewees in Serbia has been difficult due to political influences, although this was not the case for reaching out to religious interviewees. This type of politicisation was also observed among some influential segments of the international community present in Serbia. This simply indicates the presence of a certain degree of information control regarding far right violent extremism in Serbia. This is done to minimise the public scrutiny of Serbia locally or internationally. The goal is to portray Serbia as a progressive and democratic actor combating religious violent extremism, rather than a source or host of far-right violent extremism.Due to the political agendas of the respective governments, there was also some degree of information control in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.

Work Life Balance

Finally, the workload of a field study can be much higher than that of conducting desk research. Most of the time, researchers must continue working after normal business hours. Furthermore, various health concerns - such as catching viruses frequently, catching urinary tract infections due to lack of sanitation, and inadequate treatment due to poor quality of health services - can be common during fieldwork. In addition, exposure to content in the particular field of P/CVE for a long period can be challenging for the mental health of researchers, something reported by former researchers during the fieldwork. For instance, a researcher became uneasy over dinner and had to leave because of a discussion on the ethics of eating meat and slaughterhouses, which he associated with an ISIS propaganda video showing prisoners as animals waiting to be slaughtered. Another researcher, on the other hand, shifted from watching online extremist propaganda to analysing court reports just to "clear the mind." Long-term exposure to stress is associated with poor health in terms of memory, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, neurohormonal, and musculoskeletal outcomes. Therefore, it is important to provide field researchers with regular debriefing opportunities and psychological support systems upon return, to diminish the risk of them experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by stress.

Concluding Remarks

While researching P/CVE is very difficult, this research project – which featured a heavy fieldwork component – shows that it is possible, if specific challenges are taken into account beforehand. Risks can be present within the following domains: accessing the targeted community, security, the politicisation of (non)violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. The research risks being halted if an appropriate fieldwork strategy is not formulated beforehand. To mitigate these risks, strategies are devised to assist researchers before entering the data collection phase, helping them to successfully spearhead the research process while preventing potential harm

First and foremost, it is important to be flexible in the field and open to changes in schedule, while keeping in mind the following key preparatory strategies.

The access strategy is a combination of snowball sampling, and a life-story interview approach. 

Collaboration can be ensured if researchers are empathetic, transparent about the aim of theirresearch, collaborate with gatekeepers, and are capable of leveraging former relationships. 

Gender discriminatory beliefs can be tackled by taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children.

Due to the potential alienation of participants and long-term harm to P/CVE research in the field, methodological choices may lean more toward qualitative in-depth interviews rather than quantitative questionnaire models. Safety steps to be followed include, but are not limited to, the following: avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, paying attention to using protected online communication like VPN services and a separate mobile, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees, and maintaining the authenticity of stories. Preferably, it is worth participating in a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course prior to such fieldwork.

Politicisation of P/CVE can be taken into account by being aware of it, even though researchers lack control over ameloritating this effect in the field.

Work-life balance is key for field researchers. Because of this, providing regular debriefing opportunities during the field and psychological support systems upon return to diminish the risk of experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by prolonged stress is recommended.

Existing work on the development of responses to extremist violence notes a widespread international turn towards favouring Prevention/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) initiatives over police-based counter-terrorism (Tsui, 2020). But in 2022, Prevention is phasing out of its decade-long obsession with ISIS. Indeed, new primary and tertiary prevention programmes are increasingly focused on an emerging contender: right-wing terrorism and political violence – with a sprinkle of male supremacism, conspiracy theorists and other growing violent groups.

But how can Jihadism-centred prevention policies apply to the emerging right-wing challenge?

Our European understanding of radicalisation and radicalisation prevention emerged in the aftermath of the 2004 Atocha and 2005 London terrorist attacks. In contrast with the inherited 9/11 status quo, terrorists were no longer considered an exterior phenomenon, but rather an inside threat to Western societies. Prevention Policy, as introduced by the EU and the key Member States, was meant to target Jihadism, a perceived new flavour of terrorists and blind-spot of European security. The identity of the terrorists, non-Caucasian and Muslim, would go on to heavily influence the perceived need for increased political action, at the national and EU level alike. Although originally conceived as an ideology-free approach to terrorism, the EU prevention model was developed in response to a security threat often framed in terms of Islam and religiosity, rather than political struggle. The theological justifications for the attack, combined with widespread mistrust of Islam in Europe, further contributed to the creation of an involuntary “Islamism bias”  in the EU’s understanding of the threat. 

The Islamist Bias in Global Prevention Regimes

Biases in counter-terrorism are not unique to the European Union; there are substantial claims of “Islamist biases” existing in other Prevention regimes: the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and others (Kundnani & Hayes, 2018). Scholarship on the development of Prevention has linked these biases to “the central position acquired by the concept of radicalisation in policy, law enforcement and academia” (Coolsaet, 2016, p. 2). In the current historical context, radicalisation and Western public concerns over migration, integration and Islam have become mixed. Indeed, some authors argue that radicalisation has come to be seen as a unique contemporary process linked almost exclusively to Muslims and Muslim/immigrant-related underlying causes (Coolsaet, 2016, pp. 27–28).

Right-wing violence, the Current Challenge

Fifteen years after the attacks in Atocha, the security landscape has changed considerably. The Jihadist threat has dwindled in size and political attention. Since 2019, the EU has picked up Germany’s and other Member State’s calls to explicitly address right-wing terrorism within the EU Prevention agenda. This development is a result of increased right-wing attacks on EU soil, starting with Halle and Hanau in Germany, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The latest  EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report report points to right-wing activities as a pressing area for internal security, with increasing numbers of attacks and (thankfully) failed plots in various EU MS (Europol, 2021, p. 20). With the strong support of Germany and Denmark, the European Commission, as well as the Council of Europe, have begun to pay attention to right-wing Prevention initiatives: fostering best practice exchanges among practitioners, providing personnel training as well as policy-discussion forums, and funding new research projects oriented to right-wing ideology specifically. 

And this brings us right back to the original question: how can a system develop to cure illness “A” treat illness “B”? In the case of Prevention, so much of our underlying understanding of radicalisation is laden with meaning: from the identification of vulnerable communities, often Muslim, to the indicators for radicalisation developed in many countries, which often include items of religiosity and non-Western clothing. Such markers are lost on a white supremacist, or an incel (involuntary celibate). Moreover, we should not ignore the significant critiques already levelled against Jihadist Prevention; white and non-Muslim communities are just as likely to feel persecuted and alienated by stereotyping policy initiatives.

No Prevention without Representation?

The simple answer is that we do not know. There are two questions we must answer first. First, what is Prevention without (Muslim) religiosity? Second, can we adapt this concept to make it truly ideology-free? Such endeavour is already underway, in part thanks to the attention of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), and in part thanks to European research projects such as DRIVE. More research needs to be directed to the specific translation of Prevention policy and theory to the right-wing extremist sphere. One important area to be explored, for example, is how the religiosity/ideology dimension travels over to very different contexts, such as online communities, in-person white supremacy groups or even anti-vaxers. But everything, from radicalisation markers to the very theoretical foundations of radicalisation theory, must be revamped and refitted for the new neighbours. This will be no insignificant task and is likely to be a few years before the relevant comparative studies on Prevention can be produced. 

The second question is whether the resulting framework can still be useful to prevent violent acts. As with most things in life, the Devil is in the Details. The previous tendency on parts of academics and politicians alike to hyper-focus on the Muslim and individual-level elements of the terrorist threat yielded a biased and sometimes counter-productive model. However, a model that is far removed from the specificities of every group, or an individual trait, or even geographical spread, runs the risk of being irrelevant. In the pursuit of a more universal approach to Terrorism Prevention, attention to universal/common trends cannot eclipse the insights from the specific and the micro-level, least we risk trading a bad tool for a worse one. 

References

Coolsaet, R. (2016). ‘All radicalisation is local’: The genesis and drawbacks of an elusive concept. Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations84. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1854/LU-7243264

Europol. (2021). European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend report 2021 (TESAT) | Europol. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Kundnani, A., & Hayes, B. (2018). The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies. Undermining Human Rights, Instrumentalising Civil Society. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.

Tsui, C.-K. (2020). Interrogating the concept of (violent) extremism: A genealogical study of terrorism and counter-terrorism discourses. In Encountering extremism. Manchester University Press.

Weilnböck, H., & Kossack, O. (2019, November 26). The EU’s “Islamism” bias and its “added damage” in Central and Eastern Europe. OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/global-extremes/the-eus-islamism-bias-and-its-added-damage-in-central-and-eastern-europe/

One of the prevailing questions in the field of extremism and radicalisation is the role of religious beliefs[1] in the mobilisation towards violence. How are religious ideas and violence connected? And, are religious ideas more prone to inspiring violence compared to other ideologies? Generally, scholars agree that religious beliefs can impact mobilisation processes, but that ideas alone are not sufficient to explain violence. Disagreement lies in the weight of religious ideas in relation to other motivational and contextual factors. As a scholar of the Middle East, I would like to contribute to the debate by adding reflections from the Lebanese civil war context. However, rather than asking if belief matters, I ask how it matters and why and when. In this blog, I highlight three points that I believe have received scarce attention in the literature. First, we need to give more thought to the bidirectional relationship between religious ideas and violence; second, we need to balance top-down with bottom-up perspectives on the instrumentalisation of religious ideas; and third, more fieldwork is required to assess the role of belief in the experiences of the people we research.

To find out how religion and violence relate to each other, I spent a year in Lebanon, the site of one of the most protracted and ferocious so-called ‘sectarian’ conflicts of the twentieth century. One of the 63 militants I talked to was Jocelyne, a former militant affiliated with the right-wing, Christian-majority Kataeb party. During a meeting in her restaurant, run by her former comrades, I asked her if she was religious before the war. She seemed somewhat confused by the question. “Not too much. Normal. Like any Christian”, Jocelyne commented. “Our parents used to force us to go to church. But something happened during the war”. During one particular battle, she shared, “God came to me”. Against all odds, she and her fellow fighters, who now work in her restaurant, not only survived but prevailed. Jocelyne discovered God “on the killing fields”. The divine encounter initiated an internal transformation, in which violent engagements were reimagined in religious frameworks of meaning and direction. “I saw myself in military dress, saluting Bibles”.

“I discovered God on the killing fields”

Jocelyne was not the only militant to find religion in a violent encounter. In a range of personal recollections, Jocelyne’s account was echoed in the interviews of many of my interlocutors, both religious and non-religious. All of them found their way to scriptures and manifestos in search of protection and meaning. As the conflict drew on, the incorporation of belief not only became more common, it became expressed in ever more dogmatic formulations.

Although the influence of religious beliefs on radicalisation leading to violence is often disputed, the impact of violence on the radicalisation of religious ideas receives much less attention. Nonetheless, this dynamic has an obvious component. Being part of a conflict may come with great prices, such as the dread of dying, the willingness to kill, or the pain of defeat. Existential worries, according to Jenny Edkins,  must be ‘tamed’ in order to maintain the apparent order of self and society. Religious concepts, as well as other intellectual frameworks, as reported by Harald Wydra and Ziya Meral, may provide crucial stages in establishing a feeling of security, comfort, and harmony. Beliefs, both religious and non-religious, may serve as bulwarks against the dread of meaninglessness. In the subject of extremism and radicalisation, the bi-directional link between religious concepts and violence is still understudied.

“No one is ready to die for something he does not believe in”

Another imbalance can be found in conceptualisations of the instrumentalisation of religion. Religion is typically portrayed as a tool, both used and abused, by militia leaders to serve personal interests. Less attention is given to the fact that religion can also be instrumentalised by militants. Militants are not only followers, they engage with the world on their own terms. One prevalent example relates to the Druze experience during the Lebanese civil war. Full knowledge of the Druze faith, influenced by Twelver Islam and Gnosticism, is traditionally preserved for ‘initiated’ members. Amira, who I interviewed on a hot summer day in the centre of Beirut, recalls how the war propelled ‘uninitiated’ militants to engage with Druze texts and beliefs. Militants started discussing theological dilemmas and sacred texts that they were not allowed to engage with before. “The whole society became more religious”, Amira recounts. “If you just go for coffee, you will now also discuss religion”.

Experiencing high levels of existential anxiety, several uninitiated members started to read, discuss, and share religious texts. Despite opposition from ‘above’, the people ‘below’ demanded the popularisation of their faith. They expressed the desire for an ideational anchor. This dynamic is not particular to militias that adhere to religious ideas. For example, Ziad, a former Lebanese Communist Party militant who I interviewed several times, explains: “No one is ready to die for something he does not believe in. For free. He thinks a lot. He thinks what he is doing is a holy issue. Even if he is not a believer”. Ziad learned the Communist Manifesto by heart, which aided in navigating his life on the front lines. Too much of the extremism and radicalisation literature ignores the agentic powers, rational choices and emotive engagements of the people that make up militant movements.

“This is our story, and you should try to be a judge, a fair judge”

This brings me to a last but interrelated point. The vast majority of data on radicalisation and violent extremism is derived from secondary data sources, with primary data sources being scarce. While secondary perspectives can lay bare important trends in extremism and radicalisation; only primary sources, micro-perspectives in particular, can deepen understandings of the personal mobilisation towards violence.

By listening, I learned that militants’ stories do not necessarily align with the macro and meso rationales that have come to form the basis of mainstream understandings on ‘religious violence’. The emotive discernments of life histories lay bare a more delicate plane of being in which religion can transform senses of belonging, meaning, and motivation. Religion can play an important (though not exclusive) role in coping with high-risk environments.

During my year-long fieldwork, I was struck by militants’ eagerness to share their life stories. Some felt misunderstood on a personal level. Others felt religious dynamics were misrepresented on a societal level. A plane hijacker told me, “I felt it was such a shame that they [the West] could only see it as a terrorist act but not the reasons behind these actions. This is our story, and you should try to be a judge, a fair judge”. Without justifying violent acts, I tried to understand his and others’ motivations. For militants to share anything beyond clichés, disclosing the most painful and sometimes shameful parts of themselves, researchers need to spend extensive time in the field. They need to build relations based on trust. And, they need empathy. Not to justify, but to understand. Within academia, we need to develop more engaging ways of researching extremism and radicalisation that stretch beyond definitional quests and emphasise the experience of religion as articulated and contextualised by the actors that are engaged in violence. After all, both religion and violence are local expressions that are experienced through interpersonal interactions.

Moving forward in the field

Alongside the intricacies of how, why, and when religious ideas matter in the mobilisation towards violence, there are a few more caveats worth pointing out. First, it is my conviction that religious and secular beliefs can have the same effect on the mobilisation towards violence. It is important to refrain from treating religion as a static, one-dimensional or one-directional factor. Instead, we need to invest more time and effort in comparing religious dynamics to their non-religious counterparts, incorporating their complexities and interrelationships. Additionally, we need to be more specific about the impact of belief, delving into the whys, hows, and when, rather than the ifs. Second, beliefs always need to be contextualised. Although religious beliefs should not be presented as a “veneer that masks underlying grievances of economic, political or personal nature”, neither should they be disconnected from their environment. After all, all beliefs - religious or non-religious - are expressed within a setting of time and space. Third, I would welcome more conversations across geographical regions, comparing the role of religious ideas in mobilisation processes. Only through critical and comparative research, will we be able to develop more sophisticated views of the role of religious ideas in violent conflict.   


[1] This reflection is primarily focused on the role of religious beliefs and ideas, leaving reflections on the role of religious communities, resources and leadership largely on the side.

The first author of this piece is Jacob Astley, an Honorary Research Assistant at the University of Liverpool

Shortly before 11am on Sunday 14th November 2021, a day intended to be one of peaceful reflection and remembrance, ended before commemorations could begin in Liverpool, when a homemade bomb was exploded inside a taxi outside the Liverpool Women’s hospital. Since declared an act of terrorism by the UK Government and counter-terrorism police, the owner of the taxi in which the bomb exploded, David Perry, has been hailed as a hero for his incredible presence of mind and bravery in preventing further deaths in what could have been a disaster of much greater scale and consequences.

The suspected perpetrator - who died at the scene - has been named as 32-year-old, Emad al-Swealmeen, an asylum seeker whose claims for permanent residency status in the UK had previously been rejected. In a speech to an audience of journalists, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, commented that the attack in Liverpool was connected to the inadequate system for claiming asylum.

The case in Liverpool was a complete reflection of how dysfunctional, how broken, the system has been in the past…”.

However, these sentiments have been criticised by those countering that the ruling Conservative Government has had over a decade in power to address perceived difficulties with the asylum process. Notwithstanding what might be considered as distasteful political opportunism, the Home Secretary’s response has led to questions surrounding the preparedness of the UK Government to tackle the causes of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism, and the possibilities for the prevention of such attacks.

After calling for a national emergency meeting of COBRA, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, alongside the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre made the decision - announced by Home Secretary, Priti Patel - to raise the terror threat level to ‘severe’. Crucially there are five levels ranging from ‘low’ to ‘critical’ indicating the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the UK.

This is the third act of single actor domestic terrorism in as many months - the Liverpool explosion, the murder of Sir David Amess MP and the Plymouth shootings. Though not officially classified as an act of terrorism, the motives of the Plymouth perpetrator can be perceived as having terroristic intent (extreme ideas and values which were acted upon to cause harm). All of these attacks were perpetrated by individuals who appear to be motivated by different values, but all of whom have reported mental health issues. Jake Davison, the alleged perpetrator of the Plymouth attacks was affiliated with an online network calling themselves ‘incels’. Incels are self-identified ‘involuntary celibate’ men who espouse sexist ideology and openly advocate misogynistic violence; the connections between these attitudes, terrorism and violence against women are being increasingly recognised in academic research (see, McCulloch et al. 2019; and Smith 2019). Sir David Amess was murdered whilst holding a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The attacker, a 25-year-old British citizen, Ali Harbi Ali was thought to have been partially driven by religious and ideological motives. Investigations about Emad al-Swealmeen’s reasons for arriving at a hospital with a bomb are on-going. However, researchers have highlighted commonalities between what may appear, superficially at least, as discrete motivations:

While anti-immigrant, incel, and radical masculinist groups subscribe to different ideologies, one commonality lies in the belief among some of their adherents that violence can lead to recognition of injustice and catalyse socio-political change or else protect and restore a threatened social order” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Taking this observation seriously requires that attention be directed towards media reports which suggest that Emad al-Swealmeen had intermittent mental health problems. Parallel attention might also be afforded to the Plymouth shooter, Jake Davison, who was in contact with a mental health helpline during the eighteen months prior to his attack. Simplistic causal associations between terroristic acts of violence and an individual’s mental health should be avoided, but the proliferation of single actor attacks in the UK and elsewhere indicates that mental health issues are a factor in such incidents that require further attention.

The process of radicalisation to violence is influenced by individual and social psychological processes both in local communities and larger networks. Current psychological theories emphasize the confluence of factors involving needs (individual vulnerability and motivation, which may include personality traits, developmental crises, and threats to identity), narratives (ideological justifications of violence, ways of framing situations of injustice and appropriate courses of action, and of dehumanizing the other) and networks (processes of communicating, establishing and amplifying group belonging as well as alienation and marginalization)” (Rousseau, Aggarwal and Kirmayer, 2021).

Raising the UK terrorist threat level to ‘severe’ suggests, in metric terms, that an attack is perceived to be ‘highly likely’. Clearly single actor terrorist attacks constitute a significant security risk in this regard. However, the relationship between acts of terrorism and the process of raising the national threat level remains oblique. A substantive body of criminological research evidence illustrates that the causes of terroristic acts are complex and motivated by several factors which may simultaneously include, but also move beyond mental ill-health as a contributory factor. We are members of the EU funded DRIVE European research project. The project seeks to explore the relationship between radicalisation and material and spatial dynamics (social, economic and cultural exclusion); intergenerational change; identity politics; reciprocal radicalidsation (the extent to which opposing groups become more extreme in response to one another) and mental health in Northern Europe, to comprehensively inform future terrorism prevention policies and strategies across the EU and beyond.  

Hardening the political focus on the deleterious actions of individuals with serious mental health issues and drawing public attention to problematic aspects of the UK asylum system are not unfounded nor unwarranted exercises. However, in this context - and in the aftermath of such a tragic incident - ignoring the complexity of motivations influencing those who perpetrate terroristic acts of violence would be a mistake. It is unlikely that raising the national UK terrorist threat level will address the drivers and motivations that result in acts of extreme violence. This raises a range of unanswered questions that policy makers and researchers need to address, preferably together, with urgency.

Have the UK Government ‘acted’ in order to be seen to be responding to single actor attacks?

How effective has the UK Government’s counter-radicalisation strategy been in identifying individuals at risk and preventing terrorism?

What are the implications of recent attacks in the UK in terms of joining up safeguarding policies, procedures and responses to mitigate against such attacks occurring in future?

The gaps in our understanding of these vital issues is marked and there is much to do to address the void.

*This has been reproduced with the kind permission of The University of Liverpool, The Liverpool View

This third interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Laura Zahra McDonald, who is a founding director of ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation.

"The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested."

Within the DRIVE project, you represent ConnectFutures, an independent civil society organisation based in the UK, that works with young people, communities and professionals to prevent violence, extremism and exploitation. Can you tell us more about your role within the DRIVE and what perspectives you seek to bring to the project?

We are one of two civil society organisations on the DRIVE project, so we bring a different perspective or set of skills and understanding, with a focus on practice and the practical. We are very interested in ways to harness knowledge from research and academia in an applied way, so being part of the DRIVE project is exciting and important to us. So, our involvement works both ways as we are learning new things that will contribute to our own evidence-based practice and learning frameworks. We hope we can bring our experiences of working in the field with young people, communities and practitioners to help contribute to the research and its interpretation, especially helping to contextualise information within social spaces, both on and offline, and contribute to the project outcomes.

Why is it crucial to implement a multifaceted and “whole-of-society approach”, with an emphasis on community partnership with young people when tackling radicalisation?

The social, political and personal implications of this subject matter – around extremism, violent extremism, and the concept of radicalisation is extremely sensitive and contested. Over decades, internationally, we have seen top-down approaches fail, which in many cases have also violated human rights, rendering such attempts both ethically bankrupt and usually ineffective. This is a double failure and has created long-term exacerbation of the issues, and a highly politicised, hostile backdrop to tackling violent radicalisation. These issues are complex and intersectional and require partnership work to tackle them, within an explicit human rights framework. Co-creating knowledge and practice from the grassroots up, with inclusivity, is crucial to effective, impactful and sustainable work that has the credibility and nuance required. The DRIVE project is taking these issues into account, working across communities within and between the country partners involved, to glean knowledge from a whole spectrum of people and perspectives.

In what ways can we bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the P/CVE?

There can be a perception of hostility between academics and practitioners, in which the two elements are pitched as antagonistic, one without thought, the other without action. I would argue that academic and experiential knowledge are two sides of the same coin, required to illuminate, understand, and make a change. By working together as we are in DRIVE, in a collaborative and creative way, we can harness interdisciplinary and multifaceted approaches to tackling the issues at hand. It is fantastic to see CSOs involved more deeply in a large research project but also the diversity of expertise from psychology, public health, sociology, religious studies, politics – a wide and deep range of methods and traditions which enable both theory and practice to gain in ways far deeper than sticking to traditional boundaries and limitations. I am also excited that the end results of the research will be able to inform practice, that is working both ways from start to end.

Your research work related to P/CVE significantly focuses on the gender dimension. Why do you think it is important to bring gender perspective - and a more inclusive approach in general - to enhance our understanding of radicalisation and violent extremism?

Beyond the obvious ethical problem, the exclusion of any group in the understanding of an issue is creating a vacuum or a blind spot. This is especially true for the subject of violence and extremism which has traditionally been mired by problematic approaches to gender, both by violent extremist groups and individuals operating and perpetuating negative gendered frameworks (often misogyny), but also by those of us studying, interpreting and practicing in the arena. The ‘boys with guns’ imagery and interest in a certain perception of masculinity and violence have limited our understanding of gender dynamics in the creation of extremist violence and its prevention. Research has revealed some of the ways intersections of gender and violence operate, for example, the relationship between domestic violence and terrorist violence by perpetrators, and also our wider social contexts in which gender dynamics - cross-culturally - shape the landscape and heighten the likelihood of violence and reduced chances of preventing it. Gender is an absolutely central intersection in understanding the issues at hand, and tackling them effectively, alongside many other factors - social, personal, environmental, and political. Even at a very practical level, for example, engaging young people within a school assembly – the way we talk about the issues, the imagery we use, the vulnerabilities we address, must all be fully inclusive, or we are failing the young people in front of us, and indeed the whole of our societies.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

This second interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Mark Sedgwick, who is the Principle Investigator at Aarhus University.

"Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism."

As a Principal Investigator for the DRIVE Project, what perspectives are you bringing to the project?

I originally trained as a historian, and I think this still has a lot of impact on my perspectives. I like to look at the long term and the big picture. This is one reason why I am so keen on looking at the whole issue of social exclusion, which DRIVE does: it is precisely the sort of big factor that historians like, and that I feel has been missing from much recent work on radicalisation in the West. I also bring perspectives related to my earlier work on Islam, which is the main focus of my research. Radicalisation is absolutely not all about Islam, but Islam does have something important to do with it, and I know Islam from many perspectives, not just its relationship with radicalisation. I have also worked on the history of terrorism, and most recently published a chapter about anti-colonial terrorism in Egypt. I am probably best known for my work on definitional and conceptual issues related to radicalisation, and I think these issues are really important, even though they are also really difficult. Finally, I have worked on the ideology of the radical right, and I recently edited an anthology on this. So, for the DRIVE project, I have perspectives on both sides, so to speak.

In your book Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age (2016), you provide a dense historical examination of the many manifestations of Sufism in Western cultures since the seventeenth century. What is the state of Western Sufism today?

That is a very good question, even though it has very little to do with radicalisation or DRIVE – except, perhaps, to remind us that Muslims in the West do many things that have nothing to do with radicalisation or terrorism. Although I must admit that there was actually a Sufi group in London in the 1970s that was almost as radical as it was possible to be. Nowadays they would probably all have been arrested, but in those days the world was very different, and so far, as we know nobody got at all worried about them. And in fact, they never got anywhere much towards launching the jihad had that they hoped for, and ended up doing high-quality translations of scholarly texts instead. In a way, they ended up fighting “the jihad of the pen”. That is something that is important for Western Sufism today: a lot of work towards explaining Islamic theology in Western languages and in terms that appeal to Westerners is done by Sufis. Sufism in the West started off appealing to non-Muslim Westerners who were engaged in the spiritual search, at a time when there were very, very few Muslims in the West. Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism. So Western Sufism today is doing quite well, and is increasingly Islamic as well as distinctively Western.

Could Sufism be considered as a “positive branding of Islam”, providing a counter-narrative to Salafist-inspired religious extremism?

Certainly, many people see it that way. If the jihadis are the “bad Muslims”, people want to find the “good Muslims”, and Sufis seem to fit that role quite nicely. In fact, though, engagement in Sufism and attitudes towards jihad have very little to do with each other. It is true that most jihadis nowadays are Salafis, and one of the few things that different types of Salafis all agree on is that they disapprove of Sufis, but that is about it. In the nineteenth century, when there were very few Salafis, most jihadis were actually Sufis, and there is nothing about being a Sufi that means that you can’t be a jihadi as well. It is not about theology, but about politics, identity, and social conditions. Among other things! Theology matters, because jihad is an action that is understood to bring religious rewards, but there is no particular disagreement about this. Sufis, Salafis, and nearly everyone else agree that engaging in jihad is a good thing – so long as it is a proper jihad. That is what there is disagreement about, and the question of whether something is a proper jihad or just murder or criminal activity is more of a political question than a theological one.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the upcoming interviews!

Co-authored by Anne-Marie Martindale & Jacob Astley

The recent killings perpetrated by a young man, Jake Davison, in Plymouth in the UK - first of his mother and then of four strangers - have drawn attention once more to an internet organisation calling themselves ‘Incels’. This group of ‘involuntarily celibate’ men - which Davison was believed to be affiliated with - espouse sexist ideology and openly promote misogyny. Incel-related misogynistic driven violence is not a new phenomenon. The recent incident in the UK, however, hastens the need not only to recognise it but, moreover, to address the dangerous reality of Incel culture.

The nascent debate that the Plymouth attack generated was rapidly overshadowed by events in Afghanistan. There, ISIS-Khorosan (ISIS-K) - targeting those trying to flee the country at Kabul airport - killed over 175 people and injured many more, detonating an explosive device at the entrance to the airport. In contrast to the incident in Plymouth, the attack at Kabul airport was immediately ascribed as an act of terrorism by security experts and understood as such in the media and political circles. Although there was some debate about the drivers for the Plymouth perpetrator - most notably stimulated by the comments made by Jonathan Hall, QC, the UK Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism - the attacks in Plymouth were not defined as terroristic.

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations.

Given that - on the surface at least - it would seem that both the violent attacks in Afghanistan and Plymouth were motivated by ingrained values and beliefs that can be defined as ‘extremist’. This raises some interesting questions. Should those inspired to undertake acts of violence by Incel culture be considered terrorists? Indeed, should the Incel network itself be classified as a terrorist organisation?

In observing the growing presence of misogynistic online groups, Incels appear to meet traditional criteria used to define terrorist organisations. After all, members of the extreme Incel culture share an ideology, form part of a horizontal global network of individuals with dangerous views and provoke subscribers to undertake indiscriminate violence against women. Yet, with no clear guidelines on what constitutes a terrorist organisation and what does not, Incels continue to slip the net.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.The speed, scope and scale of the internet affords opportunities for those that incite violence and presents sizeable challenges for those trying to prevent it. The evolving nature of the online realm, its widespread accessibility and the possibility of anonymity are factors which Incels - like terrorists - seek to exploit to propagate hate and violence.

The attacks in Plymouth were certainly not the first nor the only act of organised and extreme violence perpetrated by individuals affiliating with this group. Demonstrable connections have been made with similar acts of violence in Canada and the United States in recent years. Yet still, as a group, Incels are not formally recognised as a terrorist organisation. It could be that reluctance to recognise them as such lies in their ideology which is rooted in hatred against women, or indeed psychosocial circumstances that affect young men who may already be socially vulnerable in different ways.

In recent years, criminological researchers have been paying increasing attention to the links to be found between men who abuse women and their tendencies toward political and religiously motivated violence. The work of Joan Smith (2019) is the most recent in a long history of feminist informed work which has made these links explicit. From the intervention of Frances Power Cobbe in 1879 - who labelled wife abuse as torture - to Morgan’s powerful observations in The Demon Lover first published in 1989 and updated post 9/11, 2001, to Elizabeth Stanko’s (1997) analysis of women’s fear of crime as a technology of the soul, alongside the work of Johnson (1995) defining domestic abuse as intimate terrorism, to the work of McCulloch et al (2019) on so-called ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism.

The merging and blurring of online and offline realms is part of a broader picture that can be associated with the tragedy in Plymouth.

Taken together, this work demonstrates the links between misogyny and the lives women live in a culture of fear and intimidation by men; some of which result in death at the hands of those same men, like in Plymouth, where one of the victims was the young man’s mother. To put it simply, neither Incels nor other terrorist organisations - like ISIS-K - assign much value to women’s lives outside of their presence in the world to service and support men, raising the question as to why women’s safety and security is not only muted but routinely ignored.

So when is a terrorist organisation not considered terroristic? Why is an ideology that only targets women and supports indiscriminate hatred and violence against them beyond the reach of terrorism? What might be the resourcing implications of classifying Incels as terrorists? Might bringing this group more squarely under the purview of the security and intelligence service attention result in greater protection for women at risk?

Food for thought indeed for those wanting to understand terrorism and those for whom it has serious consequences. How to prevent those consequences for those subjected to its worst effects should be a priority for researchers, politicians, policy makers and security practitioners.

How is a Horizon 2020 project conducted? Who are the professionals working on DRIVE and which perspectives do they bring to the project? In this series of interviews, you will get to meet the team members of DRIVE and learn more about their areas of expertise and the role they play throughout the course of the project.

This first Meet The Team interview features Prof. Tahir Abbas, the scientific coordinator of DRIVE.

"Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society."

Apart from being the Scientific Coordinator of the DRIVE project, you hold thorough experience and expertise in the field of CT and PVE. What has led you to pursue this path?

I have been looking at issues of violent extremism for two decades. The events of 9/11 spurred me on to try to explore some of these issues in more detail, especially as before this tragic day, several related concerns were going on in the city of Birmingham that made me think twice about what was happening to young Muslims concerning identity, ideas of belonging, and issues to do with the violence that was being forged into a heady mix with significant implications.

I know several colleagues who had got into this field because of some direct and indirect experience related to extremism and radicalisation, whether it was a close friend who was routinely subjected to harassment by the police or somebody they knew at school who found themselves implicated in some plot later in life. People like me, who are born in a country different to that of our parents, are habitually challenged by questions of identity and belonging. Some of us can reconcile these issues while others can see it transformed into something far more problematic. 

Extremism and radicalisation, in my mind, are less about religion and more about politics, economics, and society. Having spent many years before the events of 9/11 exploring race relations, the understandings I was able to figure out in terms of minority experiences and the implications this had for a sense of engagement and participation is no different from some of the genuine existential problems that young people face when trying to work out their paths in life per se. But a lot of this analysis is a million miles away from the programmatic approach taken by state-centric-led initiatives concerning countering violent extremism that continues to deemphasise the bottom-up, community-oriented issues related to extremism, which are more about social exclusion than anything else.

What, according to you, makes DRIVE special?

The Drive project is a unique opportunity to bring together social scientists and public mental health experts  for the first time to explore some of the most challenging concerns facing societies in northwest Europe today. We understand that there is much that has already been written and expressed concerning questions of extremism, with a lot of it being polemical and often without any empirical support. Ours is a systematic attempt to try to enhance our understanding of radicalisation through exploring the wider issues of social exclusion in northwest Europe in a way that could not have been possible until recently.

Until recently, the far-right, alt-right and incels were not on the radar of policymakers. With a range of counter-competing and in some cases reciprocal radicalisation becoming the norm, the Drive project uniquely allows the project team to explore the synergies between diverse kinds of radicalisation based on an understanding of local area experiences. In this regard, we are interested in identity politics, intergenerational change, the idea of space and belonging associated with it, and the complex generalisable relationship between the extremism put forward by elements of the far right and the extremism put forward by elements of Jihadis because both sets of outcomes are not independent of the same social structural factors. Both sets of groups are looking for something beyond their own experience to buy in to, to believe in, and to support. In some cases, by whatever means necessary.

What are the most acute challenges the youth is facing today that might drive some vulnerable and marginalised individuals to radicalisation?

Having looked at this question for the last twenty years, the most important point is the issue of belonging. Unless young people have a sense of belonging, they do not have a sense of purpose. By not having a sense of purpose, they are easily distracted and persuaded, especially if they are young and impressionable. And then they face issues of being stuck in an echo chamber of negativity that becomes an added risk factor.

It is from these situations that we find the young people making the analytical and conceptual leap from holding frustrated grievances to enacting solutions to their problems through violence. While society considers their acts of violence as the problem, for the young people implicated, their actions are the solution. What compounds a lot of this is the unidirectional thinking on the part of states and supranational bodies which adhere to a top-down agenda based on the idea that the problem is inherited within a particular faith and the ideal would be to get to a vulnerable individual before radicalisation is operationalised from within.

All this does is enhance and legitimise Islamophobia, in the case of Islamist groups, but it also takes attention away from the genuine everyday realities that face so many people who end up with violent extremism as their solution. The need to understanding the social exclusion dynamic in radicalisation studies is to build solutions that are about looking at society, and not distinguishing these radicals as somehow separate us from the rest of us. They are remarkably like the rest of us but different enough to warrant paying further attention to their particular needs and wants.

In your recent book Countering Violent Extremism (2021), you provide a detailed critique of the concept of countering violent Islamist extremism, which according to you, is largely focused on ideology. What implications and/or unintended outcomes does this have on the marginalized Muslim communities and the wider society?

The main critique I have of the current counter violent extremism paradigm is that it reproduces Islamophobia. All the tension among groups and individuals that somehow have gone wrong are seen as being due to some internal issues that are unresolvable and that these can be defined as being a result of interpretations of religion and practice. From all of the extensive research, practice and practitioner-oriented experiences, we realise that radicalisation is often an outcome based on everyday social processes.

In parts of the global south, we have instances of not just underdevelopment, inequity, and tribalism but also corruption, cronyism, and militarism and in some cases people who end up being radicalised because it is a form of employment. The far right targets unemployed and impressionable young men and offers them employment opportunities. Many who went from various parts of North Africa to what was the Islamic State did so because they were being offered paid employment, something that was difficult to sustain in places like Tunisia especially, after the events of the Arab Spring.

Overall, we need to take attention away from the fact that radicalisation is akin to someone’s faith somehow going wrong and see it more in the round. Rather, that radicalisation is a concept which aims to elaborate on what tips individuals from various stages of being radicalised and that these are much more about wider societal experiences rather than the more wicked end of the problem that policymakers tend to fixate on due to the urgency of what is seen as the problem and the need to provide solutions in quick response.

Are you curious to learn more about the DRIVE project and its members? Stay tuned for the next interviews!

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A new special issue in Ethnic and Racial Studies explores how a spatial perspective opens up novel ways to see Islam and Muslims in Europe by focusing on the geographic aspect of religion, discussing sites from Catalonia to Kazan, from halal supermarkets to a Muslim girls’ football team.

Contestations around Islam in Europe often take on specific spatial forms: right-wing groups protest the construction of mosques, legislators restrict the wearing of Islamic face coverings in public buildings, and politicians declare certain geographical areas such as the Parisian banlieues to be the battleground where the future of Europe will be decided.

This shows that the place of Islam in Europe, in both a metaphorical and a material sense, is deeply contested. However, does attention to moral panics around visible Islam in Europe provide us with an adequate understanding of how Muslims move through streets, shops and buildings? How can we understand the complex entanglement of Muslim and non-Muslims in Europe’s built environment, and what does that tell us about the idea of “inclusion”?

The way we identify what counts as “Islamic” or “Muslim”, a person, a place, a building, is deeply shaped by what we think a particular religion should look like. We often think about religious buildings such as mosques, religious dress such as hijab and religion allegedly overstepping the boundaries of its rightful place in the secular political order.

This distribution of attention is prone to neglect forms of being Muslim in Europe that have material effects in other, often unexpected ways. For instance, consider the following picture.

A group of young people gathered at Place du Luxembourg in Brussels.
© Chris Saunder

If you look at the picture, what is your first impression? Does it show Muslims in a way they are usually portrayed in media presentations and political debates? Would the term “Muslim” or “Islam” even come to mind, or is this just a mixed crowd of young people posing for a photo?

A closer look at the picture reveals several surprising layers of meaning at the intersection of Islam, space and Europe, which we discuss in detail in the introduction to the special issue I have written with Adela Taleb and Chris Moses, and which builds on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken by Adela Taleb in her doctoral research.

The picture is taken at the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels. It shows an event organised by the team of Magid Magid, then a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Green Party of England and Wales. Magid, who identifies as a “Black Muslim” was born in Somalia and came to Europe as a child refugee. He employed people from diverse backgrounds as his team to work at the heart of the EU’s institutions in a conscious effort to make EU spaces less “white”, to hire people who “would never [have] had the opportunity to work in the European Parliament either because they were from Africa […] or because they wore a headscarf”.[1] The group assembled to mark the UK’s departure from the EU with a playful “farewell party”, to address their disappointment over the rupture. It included a satirical “marriage game”, where British “refugees” who lose their residence status due to Brexit were able to enter into a sham marriage in order to gain an EU passport.

For a short time, the mini-festival transformed the Place du Luxembourg, a symbolic centre of power of EU institutions, into a space where a Muslim politician challenged the nationalist politics and the lack of minority representation at the heart of European power. A one-day event has a very different time horizon than the construction of a mosque. And yet, through this and other images that went viral via Magid’s prolific social media presence, these temporally short events produce images that travel. They become reused, shared and eternalized in the complex labyrinths of virtual places and digital archives.

While much social media fetishizes novelty and hence espouses a presentist bias, these images also appear against the background of the deep time of this history of Islam in Europe. In contrast to the current trend in migration studies that only focuses on the migration waves of the 1960s and 1970s, the perspective of deep time asks what images, discourses and stereotypes have shaped the way in which the connection between Islam and Europe have been seen throughout the last two millennia, from Islamic mathematics, to Al-Andalus, the Ottoman conquests, slavery, European empires, nation-building and military intervention in the twentieth century, to name but a few.

The way Muslims and their actions are perceived need to be understood in light of centuries of exoticizing discourse, meticulously dissected in Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism. Walking through London, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European capitals reveals the deep imprint that colonial aspirations and atrocities have left on Europe as Adela Taleb shows in her discussion of fabric of “EUrope”. Asking about the relationship between Islam in Europe is therefore not only about questioning the place of Islam, but critically investigating what kind of place “Europe” is. What does it mean that “Islam” has served as Europe’s principal “Other”, for the kind of place or territory it is today, especially if you happen to be European and Muslim? Analysing Islam in Europe through a spatial lens also draws our attention to the selective processes of remembering that follow colonial and racial mechanisms of classification and hierarchization.

This has critical implications for what we understand by “Europe”, but also of what inclusion and exclusion could mean. In a space that celebrates atrocities against Muslim populations in history books, street names and statues remembering heroes of European empires from Morocco to Indonesia, what would it mean for young Muslims to feel included? The criticism voiced against perceiving Muslims primarily through the lens of “integration” has been articulated by some of my interlocutors through the response, “integrate into what”? In the same way, a spatial perspective urges us to ask, “included into what”?

The terminology of inclusion is in itself spatial, it creates an inside and an outside. But what are the criteria for inclusion, and who has participated in creating those? This is not a mere question of a lack of representation, as the political activities of Magid demonstrate. It is also a question of how spaces and communities that are imagined in a way that is culturally and religiously particular, for instance, shaped by Christianity and its imprint on current manifestations of secularism, can accommodate difference.

To begin answering these questions, our special issue suggests, can only be found through careful observations of how people negotiate these spaces and their agency therein. The contributors come from a wide range of academic disciplines and geographic perspectives. Peter McMurray investigates how Shia Ashura processions shape the new soundscapes in the streets of Berlin and Kars. Kathrine von den Bogert investigates the struggles of young Muslim women that challenge the assumptions about who should play football in Dutch public playgrounds, and how the players should look like. Matteo Benussi discusses the emergence of a new halal economy in Russian Tartastan and how they shape the “pietascapes”, taskscapes of pious Muslims.

Mar Griera and Marian Burchardt dissect the bureaucratic hurdles faced by religious groups to stage public events in Barcelona, revealing the racialised and religion-specific interaction orders faced by Muslims in a city that prides itself on its multicultural ethos. Chris Moses digs into the deep history of a central London site where a waqf, an Islamic endowment, is constructed. Ryan Williams allows us insights into the religious-secular and security-related dynamics of a security prison ward in England. Thijl Sunier shows how local charisma and trust in Muslim leaders are crucial in their quest to normalise and institutionalise Muslim life in Dutch cities. My paper discusses how we need to rethink state, space and secularism to understand “local secularisms”, illustrated through the analysis of the failure to construct one of the largest mosques and Islamic centres in Germany. Kim Knott, one of the pioneers of the study of Islam and space, offers insightful reflection on how the special issue addresses key developments in the field and what scholars should now focus on for further study.

Together, the papers sketch how Muslims make space in Europe, shaped by love for their families, passion in their faith, reflexivity of their political judgements or, as most people do, muddling through the complexities of everyday life.

Research on radicalisation, extremism and social exclusion needs to take the nuances offered by a spatial perspective seriously as a matter of analytical exactitude and political urgency. The social and epistemological benefits of this perspective are exciting and will contribute to a debate that can better account for the deep time and complex geographies of religion and politics in Europe.


[1] Interview conducted by Adela Taleb

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