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The struggle for justice of Dutch young Muslims in Syria

Date:06 January 2014
Author:S Klein Schaarsberg
VOA News: Scott Bobb
VOA News: Scott Bobb

“I am powerless. (…) Please do something. Do not forsake me and all the other mothers”. 18-year-old Robin converted to Islam one and a half years ago. In November he and his friend left their homes departing for Syria to take part in the armed conflict against Bashar al-Assad. Robin’s mother, Joland, is crying out for help on the Dutch television programme EenVandaag. The question Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg tries to tease out today is who or what is it that “should do something?”

When it comes to the public discussions on the departure of young men to Syria, the different parties involved are blaming each other. Desperate parents such as Jolanda call on the government to take responsibility for this growing social phenomenon and demand swift action. Government officials continuously claim that they lack sufficient information as to who or what it is that they should be combating and call on the religious communities to allow for more transparency.[1] The public debate seems to be heavily coursed around a public/private divide along the lines of the religious and the secular realms.

The number of Dutch citizens leaving to fight in Syria has increased over the last year. Official estimates range between 50 and 100 people.[2] Most of them are young men between the age of 17 and 30.[3] Edwin Baker, Professor in Terrorism at the University of Leiden explains that they are mostly motivated by their religious beliefs, wanting to fight for the cause of Islam.[4] Most Dutch men are fighting for the Mujahideen Shura Council which is an umbrella organization of Islamic group, and not for the notorious Jabha Al-Nusra, which has close ties with Al Qaeda.[5]  Abu Moussa is suspected by the Dutch Ministry of Justice to have recruited Dutch forces. But he claims there was “no need to recruit them” as these men “wanted to go out of their own motivation” because they want to bring peace to Syria when the rest of the world omits it. [6] Yet he argues, the main reason Dutch men travel to Syria is to do something for the Islamic society. They see their brothers and sisters deprived of their human rights, killed and raped by the Syrian President. These young men are sick of watching these terrible developments and despise the passive response of the Dutch government. In that respect, Moussa argues, the departed feel as if they are on a peace mission, a mission that should in their opinion, have been undertaken by the Dutch army. [7]

The war in Syria increasingly became a sectarian war. The polarization among the different rebel groups catalysed the Islamization of the armed movement.[8] From the start, the aggression was directed towards President Assad, whose family belongs to the Shia Alawite minority. More and more is the conflict turning into a confrontation between Shia and Sunni Muslims as the polarization amongst different rebel groups automatically brings religion to the fore. It functions as a tool to deal with the impact of war, as a means to receive money from foreign donors or as an ideological motive.[9] However, it would be wrong to claim that all the rebels are fighting in the name of Jihad. It is still only a minority of the well-organized, small and differentiated groups that fight on such grounds, however their ideological impact on the conflict is substantial.[10]

Abu Fidaa is the spokesperson for group Dutch jihad fighters in Syria. He argues that the Ummah is to blame for the situation in Syria if Muslims refrain from taking action: “Muslims should learn from their passivity and betrayal. See how the Palestinians have been deprived of their land and after a century still live in an inhumane situation. Do we want the same to happen to the Syrians?”[11] The call for action is spread over the internet through social media. See in the Netherlands for example the Facebook page named Shaam al-Ghareeba. The page shows Youtube videos in which a religious leader calls out to youngster to leave for the land of al-Shaam (the Levant) and posts stories and pictures of Dutch martyrs who have died on the battle grounds.[12]

According to jihadists who returned from Syria, the Dutch men form a close group. They live fulfilled lives as they feel they can finally help the innocent people in Syria and prove their dedication to the Islamic Ummah.[13] They say they’ve “never felt this close to Paradise”.[14] Abu Fidaa claims that “killing Assad’s forces finally bestowed peace on our hearts.”[15] To him, fighting for the cause in Syria “has a therapeutic effect.”[16] As the status of Martyr is highly-esteemed in Islam, the men fighting in Syria are not afraid to die. They came to strive for a noble goal and would be honoured to die for the good cause. To die striving for Islamic justice and for the freedom of other Muslims is the ultimate dream of these young men. Contrary to non-religious conceptions of life and death, in the Islam, the real life only starts after death and Muslims believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife for their good deeds on earth.[17]

This illustrates that the anxiety of the mothers of these young men is not uncalled for. Parents report that the passports of their sons have been taken away by extremist recruiters to prevent them from returning to their home countries.[18] The Dutch authorities simply respond that as any other Dutch citizen, these men can report their missing passports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  At least 7 Dutch nationals have already lost their life; three people from Delft and Rotterdam, two from Zoetermeer, and two living in The Hague.[19]  The Dutch authorities are alarmed by the matter.[20]  Yet they are not preventing these young men from leaving as they claim to have too little information.[21] The government in addition argues it cannot undertake any action against the departed, as most men who left for Syria are above 18 and thus legally of age and have left the Netherlands voluntarily.[22]  At the same time, however, the government is closely monitoring any fighters who return to the Netherlands. The Dutch Intelligence Agency (AIVD) is afraid the returned Muslims have radicalized as they have been aligned in Syria with extremist groups.[23] The Dutch National Coordinator of Terrorism Dick Schoof has raised the potential threat rate for our country to ‘substantial’.[24] According to Schoof, the Dutch fighters are trained upon their arrival in Syria for 1,5 months in Mumbai-style attacks,  a style he links to the three-day terror attacks in India in 2008.[25] In fact, when these men return to Dutch territory, they can be prosecuted for the preparation of murder.[26]

Malika El Mouridi, member of the city council in Arnhem argues that the local authorities are not doing nearly enough and underestimate the seriousness of the problem. She feels parents do not step forward because they have lost faith in the government. She fears the Dutch authorities have no clear insight into this group of young ideologically-driven Islamic believers and advocates quick action to be taken by the municipality.

As the above illustrates, most of these young men want to bring justice to their fellow believers who they feel are being deprived of their human rights. Not only do they want to right this wrong, another motivation is that they want to prove their worth to the Islamic society. They attempt to take the responsibility they feel the Dutch government should be taking.  Ahmed Marcouch, Member of Parliament (PvdA), contrary to El Mouridi, argues that it is not primarily the government who has a responsibility to tackle this issue, but that it belongs foremost to the Islamic community. As these men have religious motives, Marcouch argues that solution should also be sought in a “religious correction” he argues.[27] This correction can only come from inside the religious community itself. However the problem is that 70% of the Islamic community support these young men in their cause and subscribes to the moral motivations these men have to join the fighters in Syria. [28]

So who it is the mother of Robin, Jolanda is crying out to for help? Who or what should “do something?” It seems to me that the public debate up till now has revolved a lot around a strict separation of the secular and the religious sphere. Whereas this is predominantly an issue in which religious and ‘secular’ authorities should be cooperating, the government focuses on combating extremist tendencies instead of engaging in a sustainable conversation with the Islamic community.

As Malika El Mouridi underlines, the trust between both parties is far from excellent. It seems to me that prosecuting these men upon their return is not very efficient when you want a better insight into what moves them. Focus is placed on the jihadist intention of these men. I am not saying jihadist notions do not play a role in this issue – to the contrary. Part of the rebels in Syria does want to implement the Sharia when Assad is defeated. But what is easily overlooked in the public debate is their motivation to help out innocent people in Syria when the international society fails to take any responsibility. It is the ‘stand by and watch’ part that makes many people, religious and non-religious alike, feel powerless. Part of the solution might be, that the Dutch government provides these men (and others) with opportunities to feel less helpless, for example by allowing them to organize humanitarian aid or fundraising programmes. But this won’t happen unless both the government and the Islamic community engage in substantial dialogue with one another.

On the side of the religious community, a constructive dialogue might also open up the space for some answers.  As Ahmed Marcouch argues, it might help the concerned parents to speak up inside the Islamic community.[29] This could give way to an internal debate about this feeling of helplessness people experience. As a result, it might be easier to voice such concerns towards the local government which could in turn foster a better relationship between the religious and the secular authorities.

And from fostering a better relationship between these two kinds of authority, it might be possible to construct a form of cooperation that does not depend upon a strict separation of realms but that is able to deal with feelings of helplessness across religious/secular boundaries. Whereas the worldview that moves these young men is grounded on religious sources, questions of justice, responsibility and human rights do not limit themselves to the religious or the secular domain. To the contrary, these issues concern every human being.  An open dialogue about such matters, in my opinion, could not just bridge the gap between religious and secular discourses but carries within it the tools needed to discard this divide altogether.

 Suzanne Klein Schaarsberg is a graduate student in Religion, Conflict and Globalization. She has a Master’s degree in International Relations from Aberystwyth University.

[1] Hear for example the Mayor of Arnhem:




















[21] Hear for example the Mayor of Arnhem:

[22] Hear for example the Mayor of Arnhem:










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