15 – 17 October 2019, Congress Hotel Potsdam am Templiner See
As sarcastic as ever, Fatih Çevikkollu, political satirist from Cologne, marvelled at the meteoric rise Islamism has enjoyed since 2011: “Right to the top!” His Interner Link: performance, sniggering at the “Muslim MOT”, zeroing in on intelligence services and wittily explaining the relationship between distance from and closeness to anti-democratic ideologies, marked the closing of the “Glocal Islamism – Phenomena, Interdependencies, Prevention” conference held by the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) on 15 – 17 October 2019 in Potsdam. Before the cheerful finish, the over 400 participants, some of them international, used the three days filled with presentations, sessions and panels to shed light on different phenomena, lead animated discussions and foster international cooperation.
The “glocal” nature of today’s Islamist developments turned out to be the key aspect connecting all items on the agenda. During his opening remarks, Interner Link: Thomas Krüger, president of the bpb, reiterated that globalisation and local developments need to be taken together when investigating Islamist groups. Islamism may be a worldwide phenomenon with global aims, yet its actors operate first and foremost in local environments. He further underscored the importance of differentiated perspectives, a thread that should run through the entire conference. Islamism comes in many shapes and sizes and encompasses violent, jihadist groups as well as legalistic ones.
Interner Link: Guido Steinberg analysed how various Islamist organisations were formed, covering reformist Islam as well as international Jihadism in his historic overview of different Islamist schools of thought and concluding that everything we are dealing with today is a consequence of the reformist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The beginning of secularisation and the ensuing subjective impression of the Islamic world in deep crisis led to “reformers” being convinced that the ultimate solution for Muslims was to revert to their Muslim roots. This approach and its different interpretations were critical factors in the development of Wahhabi, Salafist and Jihadist schools of thought, all marked by increasingly radical concepts. The trend towards radicalisation could find an intellectual end as well, argued Steinberg, elaborating that, for instance, Takfirists have become so radical that they are denouncing members of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” as nonbelievers. Yet, if at some point there were only a small number of “true believers”, further radicalisation would become impossible and Islamist actions would dry up. Moreover, the political oppression of Islamist leaders in mainly Muslim regions has stopped potential Islamist reformers from sharing their ideas. This “muzzling” is one of the main challenges researchers face when trying to uncover something like “post-Islamist” trends.
Post-Arabellion trends are much easier to make out. Yet, according to Interner Link: Prof. Fawaz Gerges, they paint a rather grim picture of a region in systematic crisis that will take years to solve. Unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, corruption and debt are gnawing at state structures and opening up the political debate to alternative state concepts offered by other actors, such as the “Islamic State”. Interner Link: Dr Elisabeth Kendall was keen to agree with this hypothesis in the ensuing plenary discussion themed Interner Link: "Hijacked Revolution? Global Islamism after the Arab Spring” with panellists Khaled Diab, Interner Link: Daniel Gerlach and Dr Shadi Hamid. Analysing Twitter activities of an al-Qaida branch in Yemen, she found that only three percent of tweets described acts of war or punishments, whereas 13 percent talked about festivities and more than 50 percent offered information on societal development projects like street building. To a certain extent, all panellists agreed on the fact that not only proponents of violent Jihadism but also political parties with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood had gained in importance since 2011. Yet when asked how to deal with the rise of these parties, the debate both in the plenary and in the audience became more controversial. Shadi Hamid made the case for “small-d democracy” and criticised the connection all too often made between democracy and liberalism, arguing that democracy should not mean choosing “correctly” but having the right to choose and vote for something “wrong” like Islamist parties. By contrast, Khaled Diab had doubts that Islamist parties would ever accept values intrinsic to democracy like gender equality or protection of minorities. A legal framework within which Islamists would have to operate seemed a necessary prerequisite for them to participate in the political process, he argued. Daniel Gerlach further remarked that, due to their gains in power in some Arab countries, Islamist parties – unlike for instance the National Democratic Party of Germany – posed a very real threat to state institutions and structures in the respective countries.
As the first conference day came to a close, there was no end in sight for the controversial debate on how to handle militant Islamist organisations. On the contrary, the question kept coming up during the plenary and inspired active discussions. The same was true for Interner Link: Dr Shadi Hamid’s opening remarks on Interner Link: “Islamism beyond the Eurocentric Perspective” on the second day. In line with Dr Steinberg, Dr Hamid also believed the modernisation and secularisation of the 18th and 19th centuries to be the root cause for Islamism. Yet, he described the phenomenon not as a mere reaction to, but rather as a result of the modernisation, stating that without secularisation there would be no need for Islamism, as it can only exist as part of its opposite. In his opinion, this societal rift between secular and Islamist is still discernible today and has even deepened. Yet, he underscored, the majority of the population in Arab states do fear Islamists and, for politicians like Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi, secularism is often merely an empty word to hide behind, while still making use of Islamist narratives in foreign and domestic policy-making. The sharp division of societies marked as Muslim over the role Islam should play in public life and political processes is clear, regardless of their regimes. He further argued that, since religion was of existential and decisive meaning for many people, it would be difficult at best and impossible at worst to solve this conflict. The underlying challenge, therefore, was to find a way for people to coexist and peacefully despise each other.
The discussion on the phenomenon of legalist Islamism focussed not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but also on Millî Görüş. Investigating the transnational nature of the community, Dr Thomas Schmidinger pointed out that the diaspora had taken on greater significance since the Millî Görüş-friendly Fazilet Partisi party split into AKP and Saadet Partisi in 2001. This concluded in a shift in decision-making power from Ankara to Cologne (where Millî Görüş is based). The question of whether Millî Görüş has adopted democratic standards to strengthen its influence was cause for heated debates. While some argued that anti-Semitism and anti-democratic mindsets had ceased to feature in the legalist Islamist group, others deemed it a strategy to fly under the radar of constitution protection services in order to avoid political repression. Most lamented was the lack of critical engagement or theses relating to some of the debated opinions of the group’s leader Erbakan.
Participants showed more unity in other sessions when it came to militant Jihadi groups greatly endangering liberal societies, while currently varying considerably when it comes to mobilisation potential. With the caliphate of the “Islamic State” (IS) shattered, many disappointed fighters may turn back to al-Qaida, argued Fawaz Gerges. He elaborated that the initial mother organisation of IS offered the advantage of having been around for 30 years, proving its resilience. Dr Behnam Said, chairing the session “30 years of Al-Qaida – Local is Going Global, Global is Going Local”, emphasised the many branches that developed after 9/11 as now being one of the most prominent characteristics of al-Qaida. These daughter organisations, which have often shed the al-Qaida branding, were becoming ever more important in comparison to al-Qaida itself. Unlike other Jihadist movements, al-Qaida is still a global actor due to its close cooperation with local branches – a prime example for the glocal nature of Islamist movements.
On the evening of the second day, Interner Link: Maria Toorpakai’s gripping story titled Interner Link: “A Different Kind of Daughter” filled the theoretical discussion of different phenomena with life. Her emotional yet humorous account of how, with the support of her parents, she managed to become the best squash player in the country despite being oppressed and threatened by the Taliban caused laughter and tears in the audience.
Beforehand, Interner Link: Dr Elham Manea’s contribution titled Interner Link: “Women and Children in the Ideology of Islamism” provided a scientific-backed introduction to the evening’s topic. She explained that, contrary to Toorpakai’s experience, women were not only victims but also perpetrators in Islamist contexts. Since their role in armed conflicts was limited in many movements, their importance to Islamist structures has often been overlooked. Yet, Dr Manea explained, women are central to building and maintaining an Islamic state, their task being not only childcare and housework while their husbands fight, but also actively supporting their husbands and children in preparation for martyrdom. Women were a decisive factor when it came to the indoctrination of young minds.
One of the best attended offers was the session on prevention work with returnees. Kreshnik Gashi and Arber Kadriu brought practical examples from Kosovo and, together with Annelies Jansen from Radicalisation Awareness Network, they drew parallels to the challenges coming up in other prevention projects, for instance in prisons. All emphasised the importance of following a “multi-agency” approach, involving different stakeholders – judicial and security authorities but also civil society actors and psychological and social counselling make a profound difference. They elaborated that one of the decisive factors was working closely with the social environment, such as the family, employer or schools in the case of children. One of the main obstacles was professional confidentiality. A “multi-agency” approach becomes close to impossible when information cannot be shared readily between different stakeholders.
The diverse content in the panels as well as their international lineup not only showed once again the multiple layers of Islamist radicalisation but also the phenomenon’s transnational character. For the 12 panels the bpb successfully found experts from a total of 18 different states, including the US, Spain, Italy, France, Singapore, Tunisia, Interner Link: Morocco, Uganda, Jordan and Iraq.
This was one of the aspects both Hanne Wurzel and Lobna Jamal mentioned in their concluding remarks on the third conference day, praising the conference’s internationality as a distinct development. The bpb had reached its goal of examining different topics from an international perspective. Beyond the programme and content displaying the international perspective, experts from the scientific field had accepted the invitation to Potsdam to foster exchange on a transnational level. Factual debates on different phenomena and current developments, expert exchanges on various international prevention approaches but mostly animated and controversial discussions characterised the conference.
Franziska Jostmeier studies her M.A. in Comparative & Middle East Politics and Society (CMEPS) at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen und the American University in Cairo. She graduated her B.A. in political science, sociology and law at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn. After working for the bpb in the department of "Extremism" as a student assistant from 2017 to 2018, she continued to support the team as a freelancer.