Research Projects


Mobilizing Faith: Constructing Political Islam in Tunisia and Syria

From Narendra Modi’s use of Hinduism in nationalist mobilization, European right wing movements referring to a Christian heritage, and transnational jihadist movements across the globe: religion is a divisive topic in contemporary societies today and a crucial component of contentious mobilization around the globe. The same holds true for the Arab world. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, religion has once again moved center stage as element in contentious politics and social movements across the region.

In my current research I ask how religion gains social and political relevance in the Arab world. 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). Drawing on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, I compare the different ways that religion shapes individual subjectivities, is used to challenge or sustain institutionalized authority, and intersects with existing forms of material inequalities.

The variety between these two cases 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, it shows the importance of historical specificities in the emergence of a ‘religious field’ in defining this relevance in each case, and the often unexpected ways that such a religious field relates to individual sensitivities, social inequalities and political struggles.

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 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

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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