Research Projects

Fields and Strategies of Mobilized Islam

In my research I apply a strategic approach from studies on contentious politics to explore Islamist mobilization strategies in Tunisia, Syria and Turkey. Using a combination of quantitative field analysis (specifically Multiple Correspondence Analysis in R) and an extensive ethnography among Islamist activists, I analyze how the specific position of activists in socio-religious fields influences the range of possible strategies in their mobilization efforts.

My recent projects are directly related to this research.

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 Northern-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

In this project I use Correspondence Analysis (CA) to map the position of religion in society and politics; and more generally make the case for the use of CA in political and social analyses. CA is a method to visualize and quantify the principal axes along which categorical data varies within a data set. In other words, it is Principal Component Analysis optimized for categorical data. The method can be used to map social and political fields on the basis of survey data (as done by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu). Individual surveys can then be positioned within these fields. The method can also be used to visualize and quantify internal structures of linguistic corpora. The latter constitutes an unsupervised method for automated content analysis.

In addition to the use of CA in my general research, in a recent article I combined a text mining of original political statements by Syrian opposition groups with a CA, to explore if and how Islamist components of the Syrian uprising are structured along theological positions. The results suggest that religion is not so much a structuring factor, but rather a resource that can be–and is–used strategically in politics and society. In addition the analysis shows how CA can be used to map ideological divisions with a political context, and the position of specific actors within this context.

  • Donker, T.H. For God or Country: Islamism and the Principal Components of the Syrian Uprising.

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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