Research Projects


Mobilizing Faith: Constructing Political Islam in Tunisia and Syria

In my current research I ask how Islam shapes contentious episodes in Muslim majority countries. To answer this question, I apply a relational analysis to contentious episodes around ‘public Islam’ in Syria and Tunisia. In Tunisia, I focus on the issue of state control over mosques in Sfax (2011-2016); in Syria, on the implementation of ‘Islamic governance’ in rebel controlled Aleppo (2012-2016). Using a mixed method approach (combining multiple correspondence analysis with extensive ethnographic fieldwork) I map the different ways in which people see Islam in relation to the state, politics, society, public and private life. I show how these relate to the structural position of religion in these two contexts.

In the central analysis, I trace how the cognitive and structural position of religion developed between 2011 and 2016. In Tunisia, for instance, debates around Islam as representing popular authority became increasingly crucial; in Syria, instead, it was mostly debates around Islam as emboding executive authority that were central in this process. This difference shaped subsequent dynamics of these conflicts. In other words, the difference shows – in direct contrast to much of contemporary scholarship on ‘Islamism’ and ‘radicalism’ – that the social and political relevance of Islam is neither a structural trait of Islam as such, nor a psychological characteristic of individuals. Instead, the social and political relevance of Islam is defined by the ways in which religion is placed in relation to a social context.

For a precursor to this project, see my Phd thesis

My other projects all relate to this main research project.


Mobilized Islam and State Management of Religion in Tunisia

The central question guiding this project is how the Tunisian political transition relates to developments in (state management of) public religion in the country. The period between 2011 and 2016 witnessed immense change in the shape and strength of state control over religion in the Tunisia, the emergence and fragmentation of a mobilized Islamic sphere and at times polarized public debate over the position of religion in public life. In these conflicts a wide range of actors were involved while (re)defining the position of Islam in Tunisian public life.

The project explores what actors were involved in these struggles and how they used religion in their political and social mobilization. It shows the wide range of (non-Islamist) actors involved and strategies employed in reshaping the position of religion in Tunisian public life. The underlying argument is that this variety is testimony to the necessity of analyzing religion as a resource that is used dynamically and flexibly by a wide range of actors in Arab and Muslim Majority countries.


Islamist Movements and Governance in North Syria

This project builds around in-depth accounts of Islamist involvement in contentious issues around the delivery of public services in Aleppo, Raqqa and Saraqeb between 2012 and 2016. In doing so, I analyze how religion was employed by a variety of Islamist actors in these struggles and they unfolded differently within each of the three localities. The project thereby questions any uniform influence of religion on social and political mobilization, while showing how Islam as resource can be – and is – used strategically in defining the relationship between the political and everyday in rebel controlled areas.

The role and influence of Jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war has received considerable attention in academic and public debates over the past few years. Much of this attention is focused on the Islamic State and the Nusra Front (currently rebranded as the Fatah al-Sham Front) and their efforts to implement Islamic rule in Northern-Syria. Alternatively, I focus on a general contentious topic: in this case public service provision in rebel controlled areas, and explore how a wide range of actors – from Jihadist groups to Islamist associations – interacted around these issues. By analyzing the use of religion in these struggles, I provide a dynamic, micro-level, analysis of Islamist strategies at the intersection of political and everyday mobilization.


Mapping the Principal Components of Mobilized Islam

At first sight, the current Syrian conflict seems a story of a democratic uprising taken over by islamist ideologues. But does islamism constitute a distinct ideology with the ability to influence social and political behavior? In this project I apply a multivariate descriptive method (correspondence analysis) to a comprehensive corpus of self-descriptions and charters from Syrian opposition groups. I use the method to map discursive structures in this corpus, assess the extent that they reflect dimensions of the ideational field of the Syrian uprising, and analyze the extent that these are shaped by an external Islamist ideology.

The analysis shows that islamism – constituted by the ideas of an islamic community and resistance – exhibits an ideational specificity in the broader ideational field of the uprising. It implies that islamism is not just an idea, but can be considered an ideology. At the same time, islamism does not define its own ideational structure when it comes to articulating the actual practice of Islamic resistance; also, the idea of Islamic community can be combined to varied extent with local national identities. In short, following Michael Freeden (1996) I argue that islamism is a thin-centred ideology. The paper adds to discussions on the power of ideologies by showing how an ideational morphology, and its methodological representation in correspondence analysis, can be used to assess the extent that ideologies shape ideational structures of a social conflict.

  • Donker, T.H. (Draft). Islamism and the Syrian Uprising: Automated Text Analysis and Ideational Morphology.

Syria, mobilized religion and the Authoritarian Regime

An earlier research project focused on Islamic movements, elite Islamic authorities and their position between Syrian society and the political regime of Bashar al-Assad. I noted that Islamic movements often seemed to have a surprising level of independence, while practically being tied to the regime for their own survival.

The above meant that, on the one hand, the specific Syrian political context encouraged the existence of constantly shifting informal relations between regime actors and their Islamist counterparts, permitting religious elites to extend their influence beyond the religious sphere to become critical brokers in the mediation of relations between the regime and Islamic movements. On the other hand, a social dynamic emerged that created an incentive for Sunni elites to actively approach regime actors. They would thereby imply a subservience to the regime and ascribe authority to it. I thereby argued that Islamic mobilization could (unintentionally) support authoritarianism by being drawn to the very regime that suppressed them.

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