Can Europe Make It?

Belgian jihadists in Syria: alienation, consumption, power

Politicians are flexing their muscles and alienated youngsters are defiantly posting their Syrian ‘adventures’ online, but in the meantime the rule of law is being eroded without much notice.  

Jaafar Alloul
27 November 2014
Demotix/Yasmin Al Tellawy. Some rights reserved

Demotix/Yasmin Al Tellawy. Some rights reserved

In October 2014, the largest ever prosecution of terrorists in Belgian history began. Members of a Salafi-Islamist affiliation called Sharia4Belgium and a set of 'Syria Fighters' are currently on trial - some in absentia. Concurrently, the new Belgian Minister of Interior and member of the conservative and separatist ‘New Flemish Alliance’ party, indicated that Belgium would also be moving in the direction of stripping such people of their citizenship, as mooted in other EU countries. Politicians are flexing their muscles and alienated youngsters are defiantly posting their Syrian ‘adventures’ online, but in the meantime the rule of law is being eroded without much notice.  

Society of spectacle

Those who take the time to look beyond the many clichés of political spectacle surrounding these ‘Syria Fighters’ often see troubled youngsters yearning for attention and personal significance. Through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram they appear especially keen on arousing a non-Syrian public. Despite their provocative slogans and grotesque militant appearances, these alleged fighters appear less ideologically and politically grounded than is often presumed. This is apparent from their discussions and performances when they themselves speak out through various (alternative) media channels, where it is plain to see their societal alienation, permeated by complex individual emotions and/or social frustrations.

Belgians in Syria: spring 2012

The presence of Belgian nationals in Syria first came to the general public’s attention in the spring of 2012. Today, nationals of many other EU member states, as well as western states further afield (US, Canada, Australia), are also implicated in this migratory dynamic. Estimates made by the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, amount to around 2,000 EU nationals amongst a total of anything between 5,000 and 17,000 ‘foreign fighters’ on site, but it is likely that overall numbers are higher. These numbers remain in flux mainly due to the fact that many such agents also return home (often disillusioned), while others’ presence is only disclosed to authorities and family members if they have died in Syria. It is important to note however that not all those who leave the EU for Syria go there to fight, or even to fight the Assad-regime. Reports have signalled that a small number have joined pro-regime forces, while European Kurds recently left to join a variety of Kurdish forces, in light of the siege of Kobane. Another misconception is that all who leave were raised in domestic Muslim households. It has become clear that next to such national minority groups of different ethnicities (Moroccan, Turkish, Pakistani, Somali) across the EU, a great deal of ‘converts’ from lower-strata segments of the population are also involved.

So, the trend cannot simply be reduced to the intrinsic inclinations of specific ethno-religious minorities, or to a particular national minority of one single EU member state, or even to an exclusively male trend (although it is male-dominated, women are involved too).

‘Our boys’ in Syria?

At present, every EU member state has developed its own jargon to refer to this phenomenon of conflict-induced, outward mobility in what is a growing set of isolated national debates: ‘Syria-fighters’ in Belgium, ‘Syria-warriors’ in Scandinavia, and ‘foreign fighters’ or ‘jihadists’ in the UK, for instance. Young women that have left for Syria are in parallel being called ‘sex-jihadists’ or ‘Syria-brides’ by various EU media outlets.

This type of vocabulary has by now acquired normative status and is rarely interrogated. It is often assumed that such an established lexicon merely refers to ‘Islamic radicalisation’. Those who dare to refer to ‘our boys’ in Syria are destined to end up in an endless and often aggressive debate that is predominantly based on popular sentiment. Although the judicial identity of the relevant agents is often deliberately ignored, a great deal of elements in their own discourses undoubtedly refer back to the context of departure rather than to events in Syria. It is, generally speaking, not only difficult to speak of a homogenous group, there is more at play than Middle Eastern conflict, ‘foreign’ ideology, or ‘exogenous’ religion. For many, exile to Syria appears to represent a search for identity, respect, partnership, quick-fix fame, and personal significance. Others clearly hope to digest personal traumas or rectify a history of (often petty) crime through such an extraordinary relocation. Yet others appear plainly motivated by a banal sort of adventurism as a convenient exit for an uninspiring existence in their country of origin.

While some Belgian critics have correlated Belgium’s overrepresentation among the EU’s affected/sender countries with its infamous practices of structural segregation, discrimination, and marginalisation of its main minority groups (Moroccans, Turks), the country’s complementary socio-psychological features are often left out of the equation.

Not only is Belgium one of the world’s most affluent countries, situated in the industrial and logistical heart of the EU, but this advanced capitalist model is also home to one of the largest number of professional burn-outs and suicide rates in the 28-member EU bloc. It is therefore interesting to point out that the overwhelming bulk of those leaving for Syria either held residence in the northern Flemish region or the Brussels capital region; the most productive areas of the country. The same can be said about the EU overall: the overwhelming majority of agents involved had been resident in western Europe, with France, the UK, Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands respectively topping the list. This does not imply that those involved all held jobs – while EU aggregates are once again diverse, significantly, only a minority of these Belgians held steady, long-term occupations – but rather they were residents in the fast-paced context of advanced market societies.  

Masculine image building

When asserting their self-acclaimed and highly mediated roles as so-called jihadists, the portrayal of their newly acquired lives on site appears full of conservative stereotypes surrounding potent masculinity: adventure, lawlessness, weapons, cars, villas, wealth, and women. In short: testosterone, adrenaline, sex and power. These are all features that might not have been exerted or attained as easily in the country of origin – some barriers surely due to stigma.

And despite their pious appearances as Salafi-Islamists, many of these agents do consciously enact a profane type of image building on tech-savvy social media platforms. Dominant masculinities, along with the greatest possible accumulation of power and wealth, are still structural commodities of interest that permeate and drive most western societies, exemplified in a Freudian manner by the huge blockbuster success of movies like the Wolf of Wall Street – but does the interest arise from disgust, indignation or latent veneration? - that remains the question. Jordan Belfort, as impersonated by Leonardo DiCaprio, today travels the world to lecture youngsters on how easy it is to get rich, gaining in real life further iconic status as a white male in an anxious, post-crisis climate.

Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalytic work on colonized mindsets described how the oppressed often enviously desire to change position with the oppressor in search of possession, symbolic comfort and status, and out of sheer primordial lust – ‘to sleep in his bed with his wife’. Not only do many Belgians pose with rifles in Syria to post on their Facebook profiles, as if it were all an egocentric game, but some explicitly brag that in Syria, they are the police. Others boast about the fact that they have cars, (abandoned) villa complexes with swimming pools, and Syrian women - or ‘Yazidi slaves’ - at their disposal.

It is on this note that one could claim that the jihadists also pay effective tribute to contemporary consumer society, comfortably appropriating a delineated ‘jihadi personality’ that is today not only shallowly marketed as a counter-product amongst the wretched of the urban space, but that furthermore operates socio-psychologically as the antagonist of a Wall Street descendant of WASP-ish masculinity and supremacy, which many of them yearn for but cannot attain. This ‘jihadi’ binary ultimately mirrors the same characteristics as that of the Wolf of Wall Street.

Along such parameters, they are primarily seen as challenging their own imaginations of ‘the West’, out of a private desire to participate in the same hierarchic frenzy, rather than out of social concern for the entire constellation of structured oppression. This type of dramatic performance provides more insight into this alarming social phenomenon than when trying to exhaustively answer the urgent question of ‘why are they going?’

So, can the subaltern speak? Yes, but they can also scream out violently, or migrate as a symbolic way of communicating. They have effectively carved out a mediated space of importance for themselves, but their acts need not be read as emancipatory. On the contrary, and far more important than making a moral judgment, is that their symbolic performances are de facto decoded and not merely described as the unique epitome of ‘irrational radicalism’ arising out of intellectual neglect and bourgeois disdain.

Contemporary counter-culture and escapism

Despite the dominant belief that relevant members of Sharia4Belgium and the ‘Syria Fighters’ (the principal defendants of the terrorism trial in Belgium) simply embody a spill-over from the Middle East to Europe, many of those involved appear motivated by divergent lived experiences in their country of origin; some specifically referring to the ban on headscarves on the municipal level when slandering the Belgian population from abroad. The contextual point of departure - whether amplified best by structural factors like unemployment and racism, or through a domestic or personal drama of any sort - must therefore certainly play a role in any sociological analysis of their agency.

We are reminded of such underlying realities by the simple fact that many take part in the creation of YouTube videos in Syria – a country in complete disintegration - that convey the ritual burning of passports, accompanied by slogans like ‘We are honored that we have nothing more to do with you’.

Such hyper-media is clearly manufactured to arouse the emotions of a non-Syrian public. Contemporary appropriations of neo-conservative Salafi-Islamism appear to function as a front for an adolescent counter-culture in Belgium and the EU, while the abstract delusion of ‘jihad’ towards Syria seems to operate as an opportunist kind of escapism. In this sense, it is probably no coincidence that Denis Cuspert, a German national and former rapper who has continued to stir debate in Germany due to his relocation to Syria continues to associate himself with oppressed blackness – the videos he partakes in often featuring pictures of Malcolm X, for instance.

The suspicion that his various roles are probably connected to lived experiences in Germany is confirmed by his adoption of ‘Abu Talha al-Almani’ as his current nom de guerre , where the selected Arabic adjective of ‘al-Almani’ revealingly refers to his German roots in terms of self-identification in Syria. We can now ask whether physical mobility towards a war-torn Syria represents in such cases a sign of defeatism in the face of subtle but structural oppression in the place of departure. Has the potential for an anti-racist struggle amongst minority groups in the EU collapsed into reactionary conservatism? Due to the media-hype that continues to feast on them, we can easily forget about the daily suffering of the ordinary Syrian people, along with the phenomenon’s unfounded backlash on hyper-diverse Muslim minorities across the EU, inflicted by its more established populations.

Lost in geopolitical translation

We could claim that the ideological and political shallowness that regularly emanates from many of these Syria-bound migrants is quite exemplary of the post-ideological and post-political society in which they grew up. Moreover, bearing in mind how fixated they often remain on their images back in Belgium, and how often they actively communicate back to Belgium in order to rectify what is said/written about them, we might question whether they have in fact departed from what constitutes home, and also whether they are aware of what they are getting themselves into in Syria.

It is no surprise that some Belgian researchers, who have been in direct contact with such ‘fighters’, have insinuated that it is often “not clear who they are fighting against”.[1] While many Belgian agents like Jejoen Bontinck or Brian De Mulder claim that they have immersed themselves easily into local Syrian society, and quickly acquired Arab language skills, a deeper gaze into many subaltern accounts of such EU ‘jihadists’ indicates that many of them are in no position to claim such easygoing ‘Muslim transnationalism’. They are, or were very likely operating outside any really embedded social reality on the ground – reductionist imaginations along the lines of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thus remain redundant.

The fact that alienated youngsters of Muslim minority groups in Belgium, as well as those who seek to convert to Islam both often end up adopting Salafist strands of Islamic practices, urges one to reflect upon the supply-side concerning religious recreation in Belgium.

For several decades, the Belgian government has given extra-regional states and commercial allies like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates a free hand to regulate the religious landscape in Belgium. Given enormous budgets for ‘cultural diplomacy’ which the latter have invested across post-industrial western capitals, it should not come as a surprise that many youngsters have left for Syria specifically, rather than Bahrain, Libya, or Egypt – and that their narratives are rife with sectarian – i.e. anti-Shia – rhetoric.

Some Gulf monarchies might today hold a degree of mobilizing soft power among a disillusioned people in the EU. Moreover, it also needs to be pointed out that in the earliest stages of outward migration of EU nationals to Syria, many EU governments did not seem to greatly care. Hiding behind a discourse of liberal state-speke, the rationale was that not much could be done without infringing upon civil liberties like freedom of movement. Feigning a strong uninterest was convenient then, as the phenomenon was primarily endemic to lower-strata minorities, while there was no public talk yet of neo-conservative Islamist organizations on site (ISIS, Al-Nusra).

Moreover, the Assad regime remained a prime geopolitical antagonist, affiliated to Iran and Russia in the EU’s immediate vicinity. The fact that militarily inexperienced men and women from the EU’s post-industrial fringes head to, and stay in, Syria is probably also related to the cash and weapons flows that have been pouring into this Levantine country. In what seemed an orchestrated diplomatic spat, US Vice President, Joe Biden, reprimanded the UAE in early October 2014 for their financial support to neo-conservative Islamist rebel groups on site. It thus appears that many EU youngsters, often quite young, have ended up in what Louise Arbour, the head of the International Crisis Group, has dubbed “a regional war with an epicenter in Syria”.

Punish ‘them’!

The Anglo-Saxon political class is systematically declaring that those who leave for Syria had better stay there. Moreover, the executive branch of power is increasingly stripping such agents of their citizenship while still there, in clear defiance of the rule of law. This does not only lead to statelessness, in contravention of European Human Rights legislation to which EU member states like the UK are signatories and thus accountable, but also depletes the de facto possibility for affected agents to appeal in a court of law.

People structure and make sense of the outside world through the application of language as a system. However, language is also an expression of power relations, where emotionally charged terms assert and reinforce a set of social hierarchies that are constantly negotiated – not least through the application of physical power or violence.

Given that many Belgian activists locally ventilate feelings that appear related to the reasons for their departure, we are urged to reflect on terms such as ‘Syria Fighter’, ‘foreign fighter’, or ‘jihadist’, which refer to extra-national topographies in combination with the enactment of violence or a ‘foreign’ ideology. The way societies have tried to categorize these citizens’ agency deliberately dissociates their agency from the domestic society that is allegedly peaceful and democratic, and which could not possibly be responsible for breeding such ‘barbaric behavior’.

But it appears that gradually a sub-group of citizens is being engineered. In the UK this occurs on the basis of controversial terrorism legislation and ‘confidential’ procedures, adopted in the post-9/11 and 7/7 era upon which very little judicial or democratic supervision remains. More so, the actual use of such legislation seems to have exponentially risen ever since this specific phenomenon of outward migration toward Syria commenced.

In mid-November, David Cameron even announced the introduction of yet a new counter-terrorism bill. Similarly, in Australia, the government of Tony Abbott is trying to get parliament to vote on a bill that would lower the judicial requirements for physical and virtual search warrants, while advocating that national security agencies are granted the power to cancel citizenship where it is deemed ‘appropriate’. Local human rights activists are worried, claiming that such Orwellian practices symbolize the gradual erosion of the civil liberties of the population and that they could even be read as an assault on the basic judicial logics that underpin certain legal systems – i.e. the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

Belgian examples of such conservative political announcements are legion. Members of the Flemish conservative and separatist New Flemish Alliance party – the largest political force in the Flemish federal region – often capitalize on ‘Syria Fighters’ to inculcate fear and press for more public resources to be directed towards policing forces.

The chairman of this party, and current mayor of the city of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, also utilises ‘them’ as a binary 'Other' to advocate for the investment of millions of euros in increased camera surveillance in his city. By metaphorically comparing ‘them’ to the image of threatening dogs – ‘they are biting the hand that used to feed them’ – he conveniently downplays legitimate public debates surrounding matters of privacy regarding his grand security plans. With reference to punitive measures taken by other countries, his party members in parliament have over the past few years consistently advocated looking into the possibility of stripping ‘them’ of their citizenship.

The presumption across the board that a constitutional entitlement like the institution of citizenship is up for ad hoc negotiation is striking. It is precisely such symbolic pretensions that threaten the democratic basis of our societies. The latter is rarely pointed out in the panicky spectacle that surrounds these alleged Jihadists. Moreover, not only does it appear that policing forces are today exempt from public budget cuts in times of ‘inevitable’ austerity measures, but this too seems to correlate with an executive power that is keen on coopting judicial competences, in contravention of the rule of law. The fear that is instigated by European nationals’ involvement in the Syrian crisis seems to have heralded this particular cluster of effects in many western societies in this age of security.

Alternating myths and oppression

Asserting that those who leave for Syria are somehow representative of the Belgian Muslim minority amounts to an ideological myth that has been fabricated and sustained in the past few years not only for the benefit of the political agendas of established political parties, but also to accord with an ardent form of locally entrenched racism.

It is only through this very operation of divisive propaganda that we can rationalize the ongoing and even disproportionate attention that is ascribed to such proto-organizations as Sharia4Belgium and the ‘Syria Fighters’: they function as a catalyst for right-wing sentiment, blaming one branch of monotheism for the nation’s discomfort.

Minority groups are increasingly taking the brunt of the negative renderings of the financial and institutional crises in the EU, and for the ensuing popular discomfort in the wake of its accelerated market-integration and liberalization process. It should not come as a surprise that the European Network Against Racism’s latest reports indicate that racism has effectively taken on the form of Islamophobia in many parts of the EU.

Despite the fact that many of the activists involved from Belgium and the EU reproduce rather western stereotypes about both political Islam and the Middle East, they appear nevertheless capable of instilling fear and awe within the societies they grew up in. This rather powerful ability to generate a disproportional mix of fear and attention amongst the population and ruling classes of the country of origin is probably the existential and emotional fuel that drives many of them. It must be doubted whether a similar show of power politics could be projected onto a Syrian public, who would undoubtedly have more on their minds than the psychological concerns of disgruntled Belgians.  

It is an exaggeration and a reduction to interpret these Belgian activists as the local embodiments of an international network that efficiently recruits fighters for ISIS or Al-Nusra. It is much more complex than that. Today it is easy to attain radical ideas that deviate from established norms through individual surfing online. For those who are in need of such aggressive paradigms, a plentiful supply is on offer. Especially for those without a domestic or social network that could help channel personal expressions of alienation or social frustrations. Hence, technological globalization and the socio-psychological context of these departures need to be taken into consideration when trying to make sense of this conflict-induced dynamic.

While contemporary media headlines herald the advent of ISIS to places like the Sinai Peninsula or Libya, a look at the structural or recent histories of these topographies ( their marginalization and recent warfare) would be more likely to disclose an unrelated set of disgruntled people who have found a way to capture attention for their divergent plights, together with a mode of behaviour guaranteed to instill fear at their capabilities and their methods.

To the delight of neo-conservative commentators and Middle East ‘specialists’ in the west, along with its military industries, after Al-Qaeda, ISIS now appears to function as the new franchise signifier that is conveniently floating around without any substantiated content in the world of politics. In the particular case of the EU, one needs to come to terms with the inconvenient truth that when an alarming dynamic is over-represented among different ethnic minority groups in different member states, one is bound to be confronted with the societal expression of intricate, underlying power dynamics that signal the need for top-down intervention and redress. There is no natural correlation between a black complexion and gang culture or crime, yet black people are still over-represented in US prisons.

In the light of this migratory dynamic, it is time for the EU to embark on a serious discussion regarding the inclusion of minorities, away from merely framing it as an ‘Islamic’ issue, and towards addressing the nexus of exclusion, exploitation, and oppression.

Urban pluralism

Instead of focusing on marginal associations like Sharia4Belgium, we need to highlight the fact that today, apart from hate preachers of every order – including those cognitively closer to ‘home’, like Norwegian national, Anders Behring Breivik – a great deal of pluralism is at hand in the creative urban spaces that will continue to dominate the twenty first century. Let us not elevate the peripheral phenomena to the standing of noteworthy protagonists. The same could be said of what is all too easily referred to as IS in the disintegrated territories of both Syria and Iraq. It should not come as a surprise that such reactionary groups emerge in a context of utter existential insecurity. More importantly, to reduce the political settlements of the Middle East to such mischief – blinded by a neo-colonial gaze that feigns intrinsic superiority - one is bound to forget about the massive popular emancipations that preceded this phenomenon so recently. Rather than being conservative in nature, the Arab Spring paid homage first and foremost to a humane outcry in defiance at both the political authoritarianism and structural underdevelopment that have plagued the region for decades; an expression of dignity.

The rule of law

The Belgian judiciary will play its role, certainly, in cases in which nationals are involved in dehumanizing and degrading criminal practices in Syria. However, instead of needlessly politicizing these actors any further, it is worth emphasising that their impact is confined to the individual actions of a numerically small number of primarily Belgian citizens.

Not only does the alleged danger that emanates from this small group require attention, but also the way in which a society, its institutions, and its branches of power deal with such a dynamic. If we continue to merely focus on punitive mechanisms, whilst concurrently eroding the institution of citizenship, then democratic forms of coexistence will end up being challenged once more in continental Europe.

It is time to venture into a public discussion that investigates the solid inclusion of a set of preventative and curative measures in the highly resonant policy dialectics surrounding this phenomenon. Here, a comparative analysis of governance across the EU should foster such a dialogue in itself, and additionally provide the inspiration to conceive of longer-term policies.

Countries like Germany and Sweden, which have extensive experience with neo-Nazi deradicalization campaigns, have, for instance, started formatting these programmes onto the current focus groups. More instruments like these need to be developed and applied, that is, if we hope to see fewer Belgian and EU citizens turn up in tomorrow’s conflicts. Belgium’s political class and its disdainful bourgeois are slowly starting to come to terms with the fact that the orchestrated (and even sexist) dubbing of its nationals with the impressionistic and legally degrading markers of ‘Syria Fighters’ or ‘Sex-jihadists’ will not resolve this matter. Citizens do often return to their country of origin.

In the meantime male and female Belgian and EU citizens - not ‘Jihadists’, ‘Syria Fighters’, or ‘Syria Brides’ - continue to die abroad, in what appears to be ultimately a poignant search for meaning, self-identification, and personal significance. It is a worrisome phenomenon that should urge us to rethink the ways in which we seek to inspire future generations. It is a challenge, but let us go beyond fear and polarisation.

[1] Stockmans, P. & Alde’meh, M., ‘Vlaamse Jongen Wordt Jihadstrijder’, Knack (Print Media), No. 12, published between March 19-25, 2014, p. 30.

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