Jihadist Radicalisation: The Case of Belgo-Syrian Jihadism by Prof. Johan Leman

Prof. Leman gave a presentation about the so-called “foreign fighters” to give an idea about the current reality of extremism in Europe. His presentation is based upon his anthropological fieldwork where he conducted research and interviews on 20 young people who left or planed to leave Belgium for jihad in the Middle East. According to security sources, Prof. Leman reported, about 3000 people from all over Europe have been involved in fighting with jihadists, out of which about 430 are from Belgium. These figures include those who came back or are now preparing to leave to fight.

In the Belgian case, forty percent are younger than 18, most have a week economic position but do not feel financially responsible for their family, most have no contacts with a mosque and their knowledge about Islam is very limited, about thirty percent have “antecedents with the police.”

Prof. Leman suggested “a hermeneutic of three-fields theory” to better analyse the motivation and recruitment of new jihadists. At the “macro-horizon level”, these people view that Sunnism has long been in total repression and absence of Caliphate was decisive in due process. Besides, they are attracted by an apocalyptical vision legitimized by the literalist interpretations of certain hadith on the critical role of the current Syria region before the end of the time. At the “micro-horizon level,” though Salafism is not a homogenous ideology, the absolutist views promoted by certain (jihadist) Salafists support an “Islamist counter-culture” which addresses frustrations felt by young Muslims suffering from identity crises in the Western context. At the “agency level,” Prof. Leman observed a seven-step process of becoming a foreign fighter. The candidate jihadists i) are usually “confused” by their identity; ii) are “deeply traumatized by the massacres of Muslims” in various parts of the world, iii) they do not feel “bound by strong material and financial responsibilities vis-à-vis their family;” iv) they find a “new identity” thanks to the sharp and aggressive Salafi ideology which triggers v) both a “mental and physical isolation process” supported by new affiliations; vi) they are asked for a “commitment” where vii) they are supposed to “split emotions” in order to realize the apocalyptic vision and ensure Heaven after death.

Hizmet on Extremism: A Proactive Approach to Deradicalisation by Dr. Ismail M. Sezgin

In his presentation, Dr. Sezgin spoke more directly about the stance of Hizmet on extremism. In his view, the Hizmet organizations and activities lead to “deradicalisation by default” via both theory and practice. While its theory offers an Islamic interpretative framework for engaging with issues of modernity, identity and purpose of life, its practice exemplifies an Islamic activism which encourages an open-minded, emphatic and peace-seeking approach. As such, Hizmet targets by default, Sezgin argued, the main causes of radicalisation such as identity crisis, victimhood mindset, abused sense of Islamic responsibility and absolutist ideology promoted by charismatic jihadist recruiters.

For Sezgin, Mr Gülen is not just a Muslim scholar and intellectual but also a devout practitioner, hence he has “street credibility” among Muslims. His theology is mutually exclusive with the extremist ideology. For Gülen, denying ‘free will’ means denying God’s purpose of creation and diversity, including the diversity of belief, was in fact intended by God Himself. Religion is not a purpose but a means in attaining the ‘good pleasure’ of God (rida), which is, Gülen insists, the ultimate aim that a Muslim should pursue. Therefore, the emphasis is on meaning over form. Moreover, in his view, Islam necessitates an enquiring, engaging and exploring mind, hence endorses reason, discussion and scientific exploration. It calls respect for basic dignity of all creation, both animate and inanimate. Rather than promoting a Reformation in Islam, Gülen advocates a ‘renewal’ (tajdid) whereby the normative sources are reflected afresh with the acknowledgement of the needs of the present age. Renewal should be “gradual” and realized “by conduct.” For Gülen, establishing an ‘Islamic State’ is not an Islamic objective; Islam rather necessitates non-instrumentalisation of religion. Democracy is probably the best and most viable system of governance and Islam calls for human rights, equality, proactive citizenship and democratic engagement. Besides, not just the outcome but also the method must be legitimate on Islamic grounds and violent extremism is a sin in this regard. For Gülen, those who commit acts of terror cannot remain as Muslim believers.

The theory outlined by the teachings of Gülen is put into practise by the participants of the Hizmet Movement. For Sezgin, Hizmet Movement exemplifies an Islamic activism which encourages positive, proactive and cooperative action. It favours values such as compassion, empathy, diversity, responsibility and care. Though it is faith-inspired, its manifestation is faith-neutral.

The movement particularly invests in education. Dr. Sezgin underlined that education in fact tackles the “defeatist mindset” because it leads upward social mobility, provides confidence to change circumstances and exposes the people to different religions and cultures. The teachers and educators in Hizmet-inspired schools also provide mentoring and become positive role models for the youngsters. Furthermore, the movement helps the vulnerable students via bursary and supplementary education. The movement also engages in dialogue and relief work which are, in turn, transformative for the participants towards a more inclusive and sympathetic approach. According to Sezgin, the outcome of Hizmet activities is self-confident, rational, educated, exposed and open-minded people.

Dr. Sezgin concluded his presentation with the following recommendations for policy-makers.

  • Provide funding not solely for ‘preventive projects’ but also projects that achieve the same result, as an outcome of doing something positive. Recognise and support projects that promote dialogue, understanding, tolerance and social cohesion from an Islamic perspective and motivation.
  • Encourage Muslim dialogue groups to become more active in contributing to the local and national debate.
  • Encourage Islamic organizations to be more active in writing and/or translation of publications that expound the theoretical/scriptural and practical justification for dialogue values in Islam.
  • Encourage and equip organizations and workers in the theory and practice of dialogue.
  • Encourage and support mosques to operate as community centres open to and welcoming non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
  • Provide alternative channels/fill the vacuum. Provide weekly topical Friday-prayer sermons. This must be a community led initiative for use by, and designed specifically for young Muslims.

Dr. Sezgin will publish his observations and analyses in a separate and comprehensive publication soon.


Prof. Johan Leman

Professor Leman is an emeritus professor in social and cultural anthropology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at K.U. Leuven. He had PhD in anthropology, MA in philosophy, MA in eastern philology and history at KU Leuven. He has taught ‘migration and minority policies and its anthropological implications’, ‘ethnicity and its application at Mediterranean cultures’, ‘interethnic majority-minority relations in Europe’, ‘introduction in social and cultural anthropology, and criminological issues’ and ‘anthropology of religion’.

He guides PhD research on multiculturalism, interethnic relations, border and boundary crossing (conversion studies), Mediterranean cultures. He has been the former chief of cabinet of the Royal Commissioner for Migrant Policy in Belgium and the former director of the Federal Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition against Racism.

Prof. Leman was the chairholder of the Gülen Chair for Intercultural Studies (GCIS) at KU Leuven between 2010 and 2014 and he is the president of FOYER, a regional integration centre in Brussels.

Dr. Ismail M. Sezgin                

Ismail Mesut Sezgin is a researcher at the Institute for Spirituality, Religion and Public Life at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He has recently defended his PhD thesis titled “Moral Responsibility in Contemporary Islam: A Critical Examination of Fethullah Gülen’s Contribution”. His research interests include religion and society relations, ethics, Islam, Sufism, political Islam and Turkish politics.

Dr. Sezgin is currently the director of UK-based Center for Hizmet Studies which aims at providing access to reliable information and resources for serious study and critical analysis of Hizmet Movement.

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