A full list of publications can be downloaded here.

Peer-Reviewed Publications

Other Publications

Phd Thesis: Islamism & the Arab Spring

My thesis explored the contemporary Islamist project – constituted by those that mobilize to restructure public life according to Islamic norms – in the context of the 2011-2013 “Arab Spring”. The thesis has two interrelated aims.  First, it aims to empirically explore changing interactions between Islamist mobilization in politics and in society, and examine the position state institutions have within these changes. Second, it aims to apply insights of studies on social movements and contentious mobilization in the analysis of these interactions.

The thesis’ main contentions are, first, that in their practice Islamist movements face a dilemma in how to react to a context that is ever more strictly divided between a social and political arena: either mobilization is aimed at societal change through organizing as social associations, or it is aimed at maximizing political influence through organizing as political parties. Irrespective of what their ideology is, all movements face the dilemma of how to reconcile a vision of a complete Islamic system with day-to-day realities. Second, I argue that common strategies addressing the perceived “secularity” of state bureaucracies and public institutions can be the basis of a shared goal for mobilization and thereby ensure the unity of the Islamist project. Two specific debates on contentious mobilization – relating to dilemmas of strategic action and the social process of “upward scale shift” – are then used in conjuncture with one another to provide insights into how these state institutions can influence the relation between Islamist mobilization in society and politics.

I substantiate these claims through a paired comparison between Syria and Tunisia. The comparison builds on, first, extensive fieldwork over the course of four years in the Arab world (mainly Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan) in which around 180 individuals have been interviewed. Second, it draws on a content analysis of primary sources from Islamist associations, state institutions, and individual autobiographies of (Islamist) actors;  third, it uses secondary sources from local, Arab and international newspapers as the empirical basis for the analysis.

T.H. Donker (2013) Phd Thesis: Islamism & the Arab Spring: A Social Movements Approach. Submitted 6 September 2013.

Unpublished, a copy can be downloaded from the EUI Cadmus repository here.

Sacred as Secular: State Control and Independence of Mosques in Post-revolutionary Tunisia

How are characteristics of state-religion relations defined? The following article provides a critical response to the competition perspective in studies on secularization, secularism and mobilized religion. It argues that actors differ in how religion and state should relate to public life, not the extent that they should be integral or separate from each other. The article substantiates its argument by exploring how in Tunisia–in a context of revolutionary, social and political instability–a variety of positions were articulated regarding the preferred position of Islam in relation to, first, national identity and, second, state authority. This is done in direct reference to one particular contentious issue: State control over mosques in name of ensuring partisan neutrality of religious spaces in the country. The article builds on multiple fieldwork visits to Tunisia and specifically Sfax, during which 32 individuals were interviewed. In addition the article builds on hundreds of primary and secondary sources.

Donker, T.H., (2018) Sacred as Secular: State Control and Independence of Mosques in Post-revolutionary Tunisia. Politics and Religion.

The article can be accessed here.

Between Rebellion and Uprising: Intersecting Networks and Discursive Strategies in Rebel Controlled Syria

In the article I explore how, at the individual level, participation in multiple networks opens up questions regarding the classification of social activism. The central contention thereby is that as mobilization networks increasingly intersect, explicit discursive designations of activism (being ‘political’ or ‘nonpolitical, social’) by individual activists becomes more prevalent. I substantiate this argument with an in-depth exploration of the Syrian uprising. I show that as two distinct networks─one that emerged around nonviolent activism, another that emerged around a violent uprising─increasingly intersected, activists began to use specific discursive strategies. On the one side, a strategy emerged that emphasized the nonpolitical nature of mobilization, thereby distancing activism discursively from intersecting networks. On the other side, a strategy emerged of politicizing collective identities, thereby bridging discursively various mobilization networks. The article thereby adds to existing studies on the intersection between network structure and individual activism. The analysis builds on more than a hundred primary sources from various rebel groups and relevant local actors in addition to thirty interviews with relevant players among activist, rebel and public services organizations.

Donker, T.H., (2018) Between Rebellion and Uprising: Intersecting Networks and Discursive Strategies in Rebel Controlled Syria. Social Movement Studies

A pre-publication version of the article can be downloaded here.

The published article can be accessed here.

Dschihadismus und Governance in Nordsyrien (Jihadism and Governance in North-Syria

In this article I explore the diverse nature contemporary jihadist governance initiatives. Focusing on the provision of public services in rebel controlled Aleppo and Raqqa between 2012 and 2016, the article highlights how pragmatic considerations regarding the position of religion in the formation of identity, legitimacy and territorial control shape these initiatives. It thereby critiques mainstream studies that take religious ideology as principle defining factor in the behavior of jihadist groups, and proposes an approach that takes the relational and pragmatic nature of jihadist governance more seriously. The analysis builds on more than a hundred primary sources from Daesh, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and relevant local jihadist actors in addition to (Arabic, English and French) secondary sources. This is on top of hundreds of sources from other governance related actors and around thirty interviews with relevant actors and governance organizations.

Donker, T.H., (2018) Dschihadismus und Governance in Nordsyrien (Jihadism and Governance in North-Syria). Mittelweg 36, vol 27, no 2: 58-85.

The article can be ordered here.

Social Movements and Civil War: When protests for democratization fail

This co-authored book theorizes the mechanisms behind the process through which mobilization for democracy can turn into civil war. It builds on four in-depth case studies (Syria, Libya, Yemen and Yugoslavia) to trace the process and specific causal mechanisms at work in each country. The overall aim of the book is to theorize what causal mechanism, and in which particular constellations, constituted the processes behind the transformation of mobilization into civil war.

My specific contribution is chapter 3 that traces the emergence of the Syrian uprising for democratic change in March 2011 and its subsequent descent into a civil war. It shows how activists were aware of the context in which they mobilized, but were still taken over by the escalation of the ensuing conflict. As with the other case studies, this chapter seeks to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this process. It pinpoints three country specific issues – increasing sectarian polarization, security (rather than accountability) as source of political legitimacy, and an unstable international context – that influenced mechanisms in the process of turning the Syrian uprising into a civil war.

Della Porta, D.; Donker, T.H.; Hall, B.; Poljarevic, E.; Ritter, D. (2017) Social Movements and Civil War: When protests for democratization fail, Routledge.

The book can be ordered on Amazon.

The Tunisian Revolution & Governance of Religion 

How has the Tunisian revolution and subsequent political transition influenced the relationship between state power and Islam? In this co-authored article we aim to provide an in-depth and historically informed analysis of these relations through an exploration of one specific case: The attempts by successive minister of religious affairs to reform state’s management of Tunisian religious institutions after January 2011. The article builds on multiple fieldwork visits to Tunisia by both authors, in addition to an extensive set of primary and secondary sources. We find that relations between state and religious authority have changed considerably throughout the 2011-2015 period, and that a wide variety of actors, interests and political conflicts intersected with the question of state-religion relations. The fact that non-Islamist actors played such a crucial role in shaping governance of the Tunisian religious field underlines the necessity for scholars to give more attention to the role non-Islamist actors play in shaping the institutionalisation public religion in Arab and Muslim Majority countries.

Donker, T.H., Netterstrom, K.L. (2017) The Tunisian Revolution and the Governance of Religion, Middle East Critique, vol. 26, no. 2.

The article can be downloaded here.

Bureaucratic Mobilization: Islamists vs. Bureaucrats after the Arab Spring

In this conference paper I explore contemporary Islamist mobilization – collective mobilization aimed at structuring the public sphere along Islamic norms – in the context of the 2011-2013 Arab Spring. The central contention is that in a context where state organizations are caught in mobilized social cleavages – what I call “bureaucratic mobilization” – they can alter the relation between social and political activism within an Islamist project. More specifically, I take a social process, upward scale shift, to draw attention to these changes and argue that bureaucratic mobilization can cause a seeming “secularization” of Islamist demands in the political arena.

Donker, T.H. (2013, October). Bureaucratic Mobilization: Islamists vs. Bureaucrats after the Arab Spring. Paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Conference, New Orleans.

The article can be downloaded here.

Reemerging Islamism in Tunisia

In this peer-reviewed article a widening divergence is observed between Islamist activism aimed at societal change and Islamist activism aimed at political influence in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Both forms of activism remain closely linked through an enduring common Islamist ideology that renders convergence in daily practice inescapable; a convergence that is most clearly observable, it is argued, through shared attempts at Islamizing specific public organizations and state administrations. These attempts are often highly contested between actors both internal and external to the Islamist project. These struggles will be central to defining the future position of public Islam versus state and politics in the country.

Donker, T.H. (2013) Reemerging Islamism in Tunisia: Repositioning Religion in Politics and Society. Mediterranean Politics, vol. 18, no. 2: 207–224.

The article can be downloaded here. A limited number of free copies are available via my site.

Shifting Patterns of Control

In the peer-reviewed chapter Islamic Social Movements and the Syrian Authoritarian Regime: Shifting Patterns of Control and Accommodation (2013), I argue that multiple Islamic movements exist within Syria. Within these Islamic movements we can see a number of “elite” actors, including the best-known Syrian sheikhs, muftis, and ‘ulama. Though very much part of Islamic movements, these religious elites often also belong to networks of economic and political significance.

The specific Syrian political context encourages 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.

The concept of brokerage can describe how the regime and religious movements are bound together; this could explain the pervasiveness of private (as opposed to public) forms of contentious mobilization, in addition to sustaining the perception among religious actors of their vulnerability to regime repression.

Donker, T.H. (2013) Islamic Social Movements and the Syrian Authoritarian Regime: Shifting Patterns of Control and Accommodation. In: Heydemann, S. and Leenders, R. (eds.) Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran. Stanford University press. pp. 107-124.

This chapter can be found in the book Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.

Supporting the Syrian Summer

The CRU policy paper (co-authored with Floor Janssen) was published when the Syrian crisis entered its sixth month. It argued that to effectively support the uprising, the international community should engage with the Syrian opposition in preparation for a post-Assad polity. To that end, unity among domestic Syrian opposition and opposition members in exile should be promoted. Cautiousness in supporting projects aimed to form a Syrian “government in exile” is required; the international response needs to be based on a comprehensive picture of Syrian opposition, and as such should include both domestic opposition and activists based abroad.

At this point, political discussions should not be about content (is the future Syria going to be an “Arab” republic, and what will be the position of Islam?), but about form (how is the future political system going to represent and safeguard the interests of Syria’s multiple social groups?). Consensus on political guidelines for a post-Assad Syria should be established through an inclusive political dialogue, including Syria’s various minority groups and Islamist movements.

Donker, T.H. and Janssen, F. (2011) CRU Policy Brief 18: Supporting the Syrian Summer: Dynamics of the Uprising and Considerations for International Engagement. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ’Clingendael’, Conflict Research Unit (CRU), 14 August.

The policy paper can be downloaded here.

No Way Back: the 2011-2013 Syrian uprising

This report discusses contentious mobilization in Syria from the beginning of Bashar’s rule in 2000 until the end of 2012. I provide an empirical overview of the structural background to the uprising, key actors in both elites and civil society and protests merging in Syria both before and during the uprising.

Two aspects stand out in the Syrian case. First, the political regime was, and is, structurally strong before and throughout the uprising. The (elite) political context had no influence, it would seem, on the start of the uprising, nor on its subsequent dynamics. More obvious structural influences on the dynamics of the uprising came from societal structures that defined options available to both protesters and the regime. Second, the importance of cognitive signaling (the resonance of a certain event on a population, sometimes referred to as “thin diffusion”) at key turning points in the uprising can hardly be overstated, especially at its start and concerning the eventual use of violent repertoires.

Donker, T.H. (2012). Working Paper. No Way Back: Actors, structures and mobilization opportunities in the 2011-2013 Syrian uprising. European University Institute: ERC Project Mobilizing 4 Democracy.

The working paper can be download here.

Tunisia:  Surprise, Change and Continuity

This working paper provides an in-depth and empirically focused overview of collective mobilization before, during and after the breakdown of the Tunisian authoritarian regime in 2010-11. It focuses on the relation between changing (political) contexts and dynamics within Tunisian collective mobilization concerning the peaceful character of the protests, the use of modern media tools, the language of human rights, the role of students, labor organizations, and the Islamists. The report provides a detailed overview of the historical and structural background of the uprising and eventual revolution. It discusses resulting (political) opportunities for social mobilization- provides an overview of key actors and – eventually gives a detailed overview of actual protest events taking place throughout this period.

It is argued that existing student, labor and “democratization” movements in Tunisia did not initiate protests, but did provide crucial existing structures for protests to endure and spread. The movements themselves were therefore not at the inception of the uprising, but were crucial in shaping it. Second, it is argued that so-called ‘political opportunity structures’ were completely closed at the inception of the uprising but that the subsequent opening of these structures led to a plethora of (re)mobilizing movements – actually showing that changes in political context influenced mobilization dynamics after the actual revolution of January 14th 2011.

Donker, T.H. (2012). Working Paper. Tunisia: Surprise, Change and Continuity: Relating actors, structures and mobilization opportunities around the 14 January 2011 Revolution. European University Institute: ERC Project Mobilizing 4 Democracy.

The working paper can be download here.

Enduring Ambiguity

Published in 2010, the peer-reviewed paper’s central thesis is that authoritarian regimes can benefit from the presence of domestic (Sunni) civil activism; through a social dynamic that creates an incentive for Sunni activists to actively approach regime actors. The article poses that they thereby imply a subservience to the regime and ascribe authority to it. This dynamic is a result of a social convention that outlines how bargaining, accommodation and coalition management between regime and Sunni actors should evolve. This convention emerges as reaction to the ambiguous nature of state repression vis-à-vis Sunni civil activism.

Donker, T.H. (2010) Enduring Ambiguity: Sunni Community-Syrian Regime Dynamics. Mediterranean Politics, vol. 15, no. 3: 435–452.

The article can be downloaded here.

Moth or Flame

The peer-reviewed paper investigates relations between the Syrian regime and the Sunni sphere by providing a brief policy oriented analysis of regime-sphere relations and their role in the resilience of the Syrian authoritarian regime. It adds to the emerging appreciation amongst scholars and practitioners in the field of civil society that civil activism does not necessarily have a positive impact on processes of democratization and/or socio-political liberalization.

It does this by questioning the extent to which civil actors are independent in the Syrian authoritarian context and assessing what influence this has on stabilizing the Syrian authoritarian system. It argues that Sunni civil activists can (unintentionally) support authoritarianism by being drawn to the very regime that suppresses them – mimicking a moth drawn to a flame.

Second, based on the outcomes of the research it provides recommendations aimed at international NGOs that hope to engage with civil actors in Syria. The paper focuses on the Sunni sphere as this has proven to be the largest and most resilient sphere of civil activism in Syria and in the Middle East in general.

Donker, T.H. (2009) Working Paper 1: Moth or Flame? The Sunni Sphere and Regime Durability in Syria. Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia. University of Amsterdam.

The paper can be downloaded here.

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