Netherlands: Youth radicalizing, imams becoming more moderate

Young Dutch Moroccans are increasingly turning to their religion. Anthropologist Martijn de Koning says this is a direct result of the current polarisation of the debate on Islam.

"Even before 9/11 there was already an increase in interest for religion among young Moroccans," says Martijn de Koning. "But once the debate on Islam flared up, their interest increased enormously."

When during the late 1990s, Mr De Koning was finishing off his anthropology degree, he decided to research religious experience under young Moroccans at the same mosque in Gouda where he had supervised homework sessions during his study. At the time, the general perception was that young people were turning away from their religion. But things went differently.

Islam debate

During his research from 1999 until 2005, Islam suddenly found itself at the centre of attention due to the terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists in New York, Madrid and London. In the Netherlands, a Muslim radical assassinated filmmaker Theo van Gogh. These events triggered a major change in attitude towards religion among the group of around forty boys and girls that Mr De Koning observed.

While the Dutch fell over each other in a national row over the integration of Muslims, young Muslims started finding out more about their religion.

"They were continually asked about their Muslim identity; not just by the media, but also by school mates and teachers and by people at their sports club. They started looking into Islam so that they could answer these questions."

Salafi Islam

However, the Islam they found was not the traditional type from Morocco. They found their answers on the Internet in the conservative, Saudi-Arabian version called Salafism. The search by this young group of Muslims, says Mr de Koning, was a search for an identity with which they could distinguish themselves from Dutch society as well as from their parents.

"They wanted a pure Islam, without compromise. Not an Islam that had been watered down because they happened to live in the Netherlands. Nor did they want an Islam peppered with Moroccan traditions."

Salafism met their need. It is a form of Islam with clear rules, which makes a clear distinction between good and evil. An Islam which is stricter and more orthodox than that of the older generation, but nevertheless seemed to provide better answers to their complicated lives in modern Dutch society. "Only a few actually converted to Salafism," says Mr De Koning.

"Most of them only sporadically dabbled in religion. But it was an important source of inspiration for almost all of them."

Generation gap

The young Moroccans' religious preference sparked a generation conflict that was fought out in the mosque. To attract young Muslims to the Gouda house of prayer a Salafi imam was employed at the end of 2001. Mr De Koning says:

"Initially everyone was enthusiastic, as more young people came to the mosque. But after a while, the imam began to forbid everything. Music was not allowed, women could not cycle bikes, work or go to school. It was the older generation that revolted. They said: ‘Wait a minute! We live in the Netherlands and our young people have to be able to function here!' But the young people thought it was great that the imam was so stubborn. ‘Look', they said, ‘He doesn't bend. He doesn't adapt Islam, he didn't do it in Morocco and he doesn't do it here.'"

Avoiding conflict

Mr De Koning stresses that the type of Islam that young ethnic Moroccans have embraced has not taken on a solid character. Whether it will, depends mainly on the development of the Islam debate in the public arena. The researcher expects young ethnic Moroccans to get involved in the debate, which they have avoided so far. Now that appears to have changed.

"A group of more politically committed young people have gradually come to feel strong enough verbally and well educated enough to engage in a direct confrontation."


Imams who were previously considered radical are becoming more moderate, concludes anthropologist Martijn de Koning. He will be awarded his doctorate today at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam.

The intelligence service AIVD had already observed in a recent report that radical Muslims who wish the Netherlands to be governed by Islam have changed their strategy in recent years. While they previously used violence or threats, they now present themselves as moderate to win sympathy, the AIVD warned.

De Koning confirms that Muslims have grown more moderate, which he attributes largely to media pressure and AIVD attention. Unlike the AIVD, though, he does not think there is a hidden motive. Their change in behaviour "is certainly genuine", he said in newspaper Nederlands Dagblad. "Radical imams also act more moderately towards their own followers," he explained.

An example given by the anthropologist is Mohammed Cheppih. He was previously chairman of the Arab-European League in the Netherlands (AEL-NL) and supported suicide attacks. Nowadays he works for the Dutch government.

Like other Salafist (ultra orthodox) imams, Cheppih was shocked by the murder of Theo van Gogh by a terrorist, De Koning believes. "Cheppih realises that you must give direction to young people who are turning radical".

Sources: Radio Netherlands, NIS news (English)

See also: Netherlands: Summary of AIVD report on neo-radicalism

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