KT: Gabriel, your research details how “antipathic attitudes in Swedish society towards Islamic religious expressions on both macro- and micro-levels” were exploited by ISIS recruiters. “Society was in fact at war with the religion of Islam and with Muslims.”1 Could you please give some detail on what had gone on in Sweden previously for those narratives to resonate with youth?
GSF: This goes back to the fact that Sweden is one of the most secular, liberal countries in Europe where the preferred type of religious freedom is what I call ‘negative religious freedom’: it is freedom from religious expressions that’s favoured in the public sphere, rather than including different faiths into secular society on an equal footing. Historically, the Church [as an institution] used to be very powerful in Sweden, it occupied a prominent place in public life. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, modernizing movements curbed the power of the Church, what is seen as one of the foundational myths of modern Sweden: they broke the monopoly of the Church and pushed Christianity back into the private sphere from [the] public sphere. Sweden has been a culturally, ethnically, religiously homogenous country until about 40 years ago. There were maybe some regional differences, like in Germany, between various parts, but basically still the same culture from North to South.
So when Muslim immigrants began to settle in Sweden and brought with them religious and cultural practices from their countries of origin, this was seen as a social and political assertiveness of sorts, a challenge against the prevailing order of society: This caused friction, along the lines of “we managed to get rid of these medieval, superstitious ideas. Now these people are bringing them back into our society.” And with time it became seen as a threat against the secular foundations of the modern state, that if you leave a space for these beliefs and practices, it legitimizes them, and they’re going to grow and undermine the liberal order of society.
BW: Would you say these policies were too lenient, taking so much of a laissez-faire approach that the result was a loss of a coherent national identity, leading to parallel structures in society which now prevent a balanced integrative approach to immigration? And are the resulting segregated communities observable across a spectrum of ethnicities and nationalities, or is this phenomenon particular to immigration from Muslim – or Muslim-majority countries?
GSF: So unfortunately, there’s been a mentality that we need to marginalize religious and cultural expressions. So, over the past 10 years, we had debates emerge about the freedom of religious expression in the public sphere –about the hijab, religious schools, separated bath times in bath houses for men and women, prayer times at work. This is similar to debates occurring in France, for example.2 And a dominant discourse, especially propagated through media, was that we cannot allow religious manifestations – that prayer should not be allowed at work, no public celebration of various religious holidays etc – because to make provision for them, allow them to be part of Swedish society would be “backtracking on our liberal successes”.
It creates friction, especially within the young generation. Often, for immigrant groups that are especially marginalized, the media might be their only link to mainstream society: what they see on TV, social media or the radio is what they take for the attitude of all of society – when it might not be representative. Yet when they hear even just certain politicians continuously saying “we’ll ban your religious practices”, they think it’s all of society against them. This creates a siege mentality.
KT: I can imagine that after 9/11, it was mostly Islam that was seen as a ‘backwards other’. But what you describe – an almost fundamentalist secularism- was also directed against other faiths, such as very traditional, pious Christian movements?
GSF: Yes, there are some very prominent, conservative Pentecostal churches in Nordic countries. But the difference is that they’re firmly rooted in the country. They can deal with push-back [such as proposed bans of certain practices as part of public life] because they know how to navigate the system.
Whereas Muslim communities often didn’t have the same resources: they don’t know society well enough to be able to navigate, or they don’t know the country well enough. So when they experience similar opposition, it causes more shock and distress about exactly why this is happening: “why are they doing this to us?” And especially when you come from cultures where Islam is the dominant religion, you don’t have experience in facing the challenges that come from being a minority.
KT: You identify a “feeling of societal rootlessness and lack of belonging” as a recurring theme in radicalization journeys in the Swedish context. This void was then being filled by what purported to be a new, a different version of Islam than previously known. Could you elaborate on this, please?
GSF: Many Muslim communities suffer from a type of societal identity confusion – regarding themselves, their faith and their place in society: how do you live as a devout minority and articulate your faith in a sometimes deeply secular post-Christian Europe that often views your faith with scepticism and as a mere superstition?
One manifestation of this lived reality of tensions and dilemmas is the enmeshment of religious and cultural practices, where some groups or communities may zealously defend purely cultural habits (from their land of origin) as if they were fundamental religious tenets. This is especially problematic when it comes to practices such as arranged or forced (sometimes underage) marriages, FGM etc.
And this [is] especially problematic for some Muslim groups who have theological limits to full secular assimilation and hence grapple with profound dilemmas: should you conform, find a middle ground or act as opposition to the status quo? What is your proper place in society, an assimilated, but still only tolerated minority or segregated withdrawal to preserve your faith and cultural heritage? How do you deal with the tension between liberal ideals and sometimes illiberal policies in regard to your group?
Even when they are willing to assimilate, there is a prevalent belief amongst especially the youth that Swedish society is ‘closed’, where chances of success are limited – even if you got a university degree, you would still face discrimination, simply by virtue of being a Muslim or immigrant, so the attitude can be “don’t bother with it”.3 This has led to some identifying more strongly with their faith, friendship networks, local immigrant areas, religious ideologies, or sometimes criminal gangs.
KT: The French scholar Olivier Roy objects to seeing ISIS violence as a result of radicalized Islam; he instead called the phenomenon “the Islamisation of radicalism”, explaining how “rebellious youths have found in Islam the paradigm of their total revolt”. To Roy, a nihilist dimension is central: “what seduces and fascinates is the idea of pure revolt. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself.” To ISIS youth from Europe, Islam is just an empty signifier, a symbolic vehicle for their revolt; the actual theological content does not matter. From your experience, do you agree with Roy’s take, or elements of it?
GSF: Jihadism in Sweden, and more widely in Europe, draws much of its strength from its ability to appear to provide a tangible alternative lifestyle – much like other subcultures. In particular, it seems to offer refuge from the challenging socioeconomic or sociocultural realities faced by significant parts of the Muslim communities. But unlike criminal gangs or secular political activism, jihadism presents itself as a pure and celestial path to God and salvation in the next life – which a Muslim, devout or lapsed, may adopt with a good conscience. It provides a transcendental purpose in life, identity, a mission, redemption, adventure, and a belief in a moral paradigm beyond that of temporal societies.
KT: What I found particularly fascinating in your research was your mention of a certain community of charismatic leaders whose appeal wasn’t so much at the doctrinal level but came through their passionate calls for righteous action, what you call religious activism “with a focus on contemporary political issues, such as the war in Syria/Iraq, other global or domestic injustices, the suffering of Muslims or the perceived ungodliness of contemporary societies.” Also considering the role of the media, would you say the way the Syrian conflict and ISIS were reported on may have had an effect too? I am thinking of how the rise of citizen journalism changed our mediated reality –it used to be hierarchical where only certain news organizations or state media had the means to document events. But now, the proliferation of smart phone means the official narrative can be contested much more easily.
GSF: The visibility of the Syrian conflict played a very large role in this activism. Because you could see videos and images on Facebook, on Twitter, on TikTok, you could see war scenes, families being bombed and people getting tortured. You could just pick up your phone and see. One of my interview subjects who has been an imam for a long time noted that there was much more engagement for the Syrian conflict than for the Tigrinya conflict in Ethiopia for example. And that it was because in Ethiopia, they couldn’t film what was going on because they didn’t have smartphones.
So when all of these scenes of horror and war and torture became accessible, when war became mainstream so to speak, Jihadi groups were able to capitalize on this. Muslims being killed by the secular Baathist regime in Syria raised questions and anxiety in especially the Muslim youth here. Many young people started to ask themselves and others, “ What’s going on? What should our attitudes to this be? What should we do?” And as the conflict and the horror wore on, it became an everyday subject of conversation among people basically, “ What can we do about this? How can we try to stop this, how can peace come?”
Militant Islamist and Jihadi groups saw this as a sort of divine gift, where ‘finally all Muslims have become awakened to the injustices; whereas before, many maybe sympathized but only very few talked about it; now everyone is talking about it. So jihadi groups activated themselves on a grassroot level and they would participate in these debates, whether they happened online or in real life. And they would inject the latest video that came out of Syria and Iraq, of for example someone being tortured. And they would say, “Oh, you want to do something about these atrocities? We have the solution; we know what you can do about this.” So they entered those spaces to deliberately shape and steer the social and political narratives that were developing within in the Muslim community, to offer their “solutions”. To this end, they initiated social activities, like football or barbecues, where they hire a room in a local community centre, invite the local youth, get takeaway food and socialize. They’d eat and as everyone is having a good time, they would start talking about Syria: “What’s going on down there? What should we do about it?” They would show films or footage from down there, with all the violence, and play the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, followed by a call to action. “You know, you want to do something about this.”
KT: Can you share more details on how these developments have affected Muslim communities in Sweden?
GSF: Most communities would try to address the issue in some way or another from within their own theological interpretations. The communities where I conducted fieldwork realized the urgency of the situation and quickly responded with their own counter-campaigns, both in real life and online, publicly as well as privately: preaching and lecturing against the new jihadi ideology, trying to expose it as deviant, theologically unsound and in direct opposition to classical Islamic scholarship.
The communities’ ability to engage IS-propagandists, claiming to be ‘true believers’, from their own theological canon served as an important barrier to their influence. Here, the fact that many community leaders themselves had grown up in these environments was key – having built up trust and credibility for years was a determining factor in their success (unlike outsiders coming in).4
Unfortunately, in some communities, especially in vulnerable areas, despite awareness of the way IS ideology was making inroads, choices were made not to confront it.
This is because existential struggles were not only occurring against the threat from IS and in relation to wider society but also within communities, about the very nature of their faith itself. An intense rivalry between Islamists, Jihadis, Salafis, traditionalists, modernists and ordinary Muslim believers is playing out where different groups clash over how to reinterpret their faith in the face of a reality that their historical experiences did not really prepare them for.
Some were afraid that emboldened IS-supporters would try to attack imams or community figures that openly voiced opposition to IS, while others felt they needed to give IS the ”benefit of the doubt” for a while, for ideological reasons. Some communities also felt distrust towards authorities who were not properly equipped to deal with the situation.5
IS-inspired terror attacks across Europe seem to have brought long-standing concerns and anxieties about Muslims to the surface in many Western European countries. This includes views that Muslims are an entitled minority, with an opposing value system that takes from society far more than it contributes (sticking points and prejudices revolve around cultural practices seen as problematic, such as requesting religious exemptions, an alleged rhetoric of ’demand’ from certain Islamist and community representative, the rate of crime committed by Muslims).
Many devout Muslims who perceive their faith to be under attack are prone to react by clinging harder to those beliefs or values, thereby segregating further. Some Muslim parents are afraid of the social services and avoid disciplining their children or trying to confer their beliefs on them; in some cases, this comes after having been threatened by school staff and others to be reported to the
social services when doing so. It is also cited as one of the reasons why some try to send children back to their home countries for these purposes, so called “fostering trips”, where the children (or adolescents) live with extended family or at local institutions.
Moreover, the Muslim community appears to be affected by higher levels of mental health issues, such as PTSD and traumatization from abroad, with depression and anxiety disorders that go untreated to a much greater extent than what is common in the general population. This can manifest in religious obsessive-compulsive behaviors – typically regarding acts of worship – an area where many feel they cannot be understood and correctly treated by secular psychologists; yet many imams are also not equipped to treat it and as such, these risk factors go untreated.
This opens the door to political Islamists and jihadis to capitalise on these sentiments. Since the rise of political Islamism – as a reaction to colonialism- the West has been conceptualized in the Islamist imagination as a hostile, subversive force out to disgrace Muslims and harm the Muslim faith.6 Western governments have – often unbeknownst to themselves – acted according to the Jihadi playbook by inadvertently confirming their narratives: a current example is insensitive rhetoric or blunt measures as a response to public and political frustration with those religious or cultural conduct perceived as ‘too different’ from Swedish values. Jihadis use this as ’proof’ to rally for action against the perceived aggressor: messages like ’the West is evil, hates you and wants to destroy your faith’ resonate when they seem backed by tangible manifestations. Especially when these lead to Islamophobia or even hate crimes, it starts a vicious cycle. A further risk is then posed by those individuals with PTSD or other mental health challenges ‘snapping’ and deciding to act out on their anger in the face of perceived or real discrimination.
KT: Was there much support from the authorities to deal with the problem? And what types of interventions – was it treated as more of a security and law enforcement issue, or was it equally looked at in terms of social cohesion?
GSF: It is well-known that responding only with stricter laws, surveillance, and securitization of Muslim communities is counterproductive. Outside actors cannot really go in and meddle in the communities. So, it is important to acknowledge this is no easy challenge for Western politicians and policy makers.
Sadly, actions taken sometimes take the shape of an elephant in a porcelain shop when they are not cognisant of the sensitivities and complexities on the ground.
Solutions that predominantly focus on providing material incentives, as suggested by some politicians and policy makers, are not sufficient. Research shows that faith is often a key factor – one that creates meaning and helps in coping with problematic circumstances.7 Believing Muslims, who are the prime target audience of both Jihadis and secular statutory policies, have a deeply theocentric worldview- and it would be ill-advised to create a rift from this. Jihadism is a political as well as religious ideology that attaches the vision of a perfect order to divine and eternal perceptions, heaven or hell. So when your alternative narrative negates this, or the policy solution merely offers the prospect of material well-being, but no room for spiritual or emotional debates, it’s highly problematic. It won’t reach those who may have grown up in a religious household or have an attachment to their faith. These strategies are likely to enforce what is intended to be counteracted, namely alienation from mainstream society.
But the promotion of more value-based policies also resulted in only limited successes. This goes back to expectations of conformity inherent in Swedish policy; you could say the promotion of Swedish values is enshrined in policies. But the idea to recreate Muslim communities in ‘our own image’ doesn’t work. Not all are prepared to conform to dominant sociocultural norms and may instead withdraw further into alternative social orders, such as creating their own ‘parallel societies’. This can manifest in Muslim parents withdrawing their children from communal schools to home school or send their children abroad, or the kids themselves dropping out.
BW: What would a preventative strategy look like, to allow us to influence these young people at an early stage, so they do not fall victim to the false prophets of this world to a point where they close off and we have no way of reaching these young people?
GSF: During my six years of fieldwork, so many members of the Muslim community have told me that they want to be a part of society, but society is not allowing them as such. When they attempt to integrate, they are confronted with questions such as “what’s your belief on gender equality? What’s your belief on religious freedom? What’s your belief on this and that?” And if you don’t answer according to mainstream ideas, you don’t get the job, you don’t get the house. You’re not allowed to partake when you don’t conform. So, what society here has done is that it has basically put up a barrier that says “if you don’t have the correct values, the Swedish values, you’re not allowed to participate.” Consequently, certain types of measures typically simply force the targeted phenomena underground, rather than solving them. The city of Stockholm in particular is perceived as unfriendly and unwelcoming, which has an effect on segregation/isolationist patterns.8 And this creates marginalization, it creates alienation. Ultimately, it can lead to enclaves.
KT: I’d argue what IS has done is to rebrand Islam, as a mobilizing, deviant identity on steroids, the rambo version of classic jihad. Do you see much evidence of what has been described as the crime-terror nexus, are criminal backgrounds notably present, or even prevalent amongst Swedish jihadists?
GSF: In the last couple of years, Sweden stands out as one of the countries with the highest rate of gang-related violence and shootings in the world. The reason is found in a series of disparate gang conflicts between rival gangs mostly made up of young people of Muslim immigrant backgrounds that emerged from 2010 onward in the same marginalized areas previously mentioned. One of the consequences was an arms race of sorts, between gangs.9 As a result, there is a significant pool of illegal weapons now in circulation in these areas, easily accessible for those who know how to obtain them. One interviewee told me about how guns and other weaponry are stashed in cars which are re-parked every other day to avoid detection.
An individual coming from such circumstances and who may have acquired violent ‘street capital’, who knows how to obtain illegal arms is an even greater danger when radicalized. This is almost impossible to predict unless those surrounding him or her have recognized the signs. As such, the gang culture in Sweden represents one of the most serious challenges for the coming decade, both in fighting crime and as a potentially fertile soil for jihadi radicalisation. Jihadism and crime also overlap where jihadi ideologues find Western adherents who condone and even encouraged crime as a part of “jihad” resistance to society. Gang environments also provide fertile soil for jihadis to hide in; moreover, the increasingly sophisticated extrajudicial structures of gangs could also be copied by jihadis with ties to those gangs and replicated in their own environments.10
Clandestine networks are very dangerous in that they are notoriously hard to detect and monitor. To use European examples, it is easy for an individual with harmful intent, or already wanted by authorities to hide in areas like Molenbeek in Belgium, the banlieues of Paris or southern Järva in Sweden. Their tactics include moving from address to address (sometimes taking advantage of traditional hospitality), gathering in private homes or renting facilities through an officially unconnected third party – these are nearly impossible to monitor. According to two sources interviewed for my analysis, in some clandestine networks members typically do not display any outward Islamic manifestations (no beards or niqabs, praying or fasting etc), they do not attend any known mosques but rather gather for their activities in private homes, and do not welcome outsiders (they typically renounce mainstream imams and congregations, also to avoid being spotted).11 If traditional communities can no longer fulfil a gatekeeper
role, this could become a substantive threat in the coming years.
KT: Your fieldwork specifically highlights concerns from Imams that they are losing influence, for various reasons. There have for example been reports that traditional religious leaders are often seen as out of touch by youth who prefer to get their advice and answers from “Sheikh Google” instead. Could you please elaborate on this, also the impacts on being able to deal with future challenges?
GSF: Religious authorities have an important role as community shepherds, and are very often turned to for guidance, advice or as negotiators in social, personal, family and community affairs and many turn to them before, or instead of the authorities. This typically leads them to detect indications of (or being asked to resolve) problematic trends and potential threats. Their longstanding experiences and work serving their communities have awarded them with unique trust. They also play another equally important role, as a bridge to wider society. They are able to provide civic orientation assistance and engage with groups that otherwise would have very little contact with wider society and help in introducing them to society. This places them in a unique position that should not be neglected. Outside actors should offer not only economic, but also moral support to them.
The problem is that in reality, the entire burden of prevention falls on the communities themselves. This is a result of communal services being neglected or withdrawn from certain areas.
To many politicians or policymakers, the work of such communities represents a serious conundrum. While holding beliefs that are regarded as controversial and undesirable in many liberal democracies (such as a theocentric worldview, traditional gender norms, conservative faith practices, belief in validity of religious-based laws etc), these communities work on the frontlines with tangible results in the struggle against violent extremism and have the trust of many vulnerable Muslims that the authorities don’t have. It appears the dilemma for politicians and policymakers is the fear that state-sanctioned interactions and support of such communities would legitimize and normalize their beliefs. Some authorities have tried to keep very conservative groups at bay in the struggle against violent extremism, instead picking communities as partners that are seen as more ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of society. But communities chosen out of political considerations lack credibility and initiatives end up producing very little results, in spite of considerable sums of funding allocated to them.12
Additionally, community leaders interviewed during my fieldwork have raised concerns regarding ongoing trends of a decentralization in Muslim communities. This includes the decline of the traditional influence of imams and religious community leaders (who are often seen as out of touch) which leads to people drifting away from such traditional community structures and increasingly turning to external influences like online preachers and other local obscure self-styled imams. This conflict then plays out primarily in the shadows, in which they debate, argue and contest over often premodern and medieval theological interpretations that form the core of doctrinal disputes between violent and non-violent interpretations.
It could lead to secretive splinter communities – a very concerning trend, as they tend to build their own networks rather than rely on society or established Muslim communities for work opportunities, funding, housing and other forms of support. As such, you could live a day-to-day life without any connection to majority society or the Muslim community. This may create a sense of ‘semi-autonomy’ and result in clandestine networks with extremist behaviour as overzealous adherents feel they are not accountable to statutory actors.
There needs to be a deeper understanding of these processes on the side of statutory bodies, as a foundation for more tactical responses.
KT: Lastly, I want to highlight a point from a research paper you wrote earlier in 2021 with Dr Anne Speckhard 13 where you note that “suspicion towards and discomfort with conservative norms and values, and those who adhere to such, denying followers of such values equal opportunity in society has real consequences”. Is there a danger that the label “extremism” becomes an easy catch-all for religious beliefs or practices that a deeply secular, individualistic, and rationally oriented society is uncomfortable and at odds with?
GSF: The concept of “extremism” and what it constitutes must be more closely defined, it risks being applied bluntly or without reserve. At the same time, try to empower the moderate groups by changing the perception of what is extremism. We have seen this in some instances where even mainstream Sunni Islamic religious stances have been labelled as extremist, thus stigmatizing [a] large number of otherwise law-abiding Muslim citizens.14 Right now in Sweden, if you want to pray at work, it’s considered extremist. Declaring certain cultural practices of a mainstream religion as extremism is unhelpful. Even if it seems backwards and medieval to the majority, branding so much of what mainstream Muslims believe as extremism marginalizes large parts of the Muslim communities. Instead, empower moderate communities who actually teach inculturation.
KT: You mean, cultural dialogue or intercultural understanding?
GSF: Inculturation, it’s a theological term that borrows insights from anthropology. The meaning of moderate here entails religious interpretations that advocate living in harmony with surrounding society, rather than at odds with it – striving to be an integrated, partner who can contribute to the common good even based on conservative beliefs.
BW: Are you in favour of raising up more (Swedish) state-educated Muslim religious leaders, to not only prevent radicalization through overseas leaders/ influences but also to help build a bridge between Muslim communities and wider society?
KT: Or should the State even have a role in determining which interpretations of Islam are ‘valid’ and in line with those constitutionally enshrined principles and rights?
GSF: Moderate imams and other religious authorities need to be free to do their work and constructively engage their communities without overt interference from statutory bodies. Due to the nature of Jihadism as a religious-based ideology, it is primarily the responsibility of religious communities to tackle it, and authorities may have to let contestations over religious interpretations ‘play out’. One important thing to keep in mind is: you cannot illegalise or marginalise away phenomena that society does not approve of. The ‘maximum social pressure’ or ‘muscular liberalism’ strategies favoured by some in the Nordic countries create more problems than they solve, by forcing the issues into the shadows.
What should not be tolerated however are hate-speech, incitement, or subversive behaviours. This is also why it is important to support those forces within the community who have the credibility and ability to teach proper modes of engagement (how to be polite about disagreements with surrounding society), rather than giving in to Islamist/ jihadist agitation.
It is not the job of the authorities to determine which religious interpretations are valid or not, or go after eradicating pietistic practices, as long as adherents fulfil their civic responsibilities and are law-abiding citizens. Society should be able to accommodate respectful differences in the name of democracy and freedom of expression. I would say the main thing is to stop trying to shape community affairs, enforce values on communities or to try to prescribe what imams should preach in an attempt to recreate communities according to some idealized vision of a secular, culturally homogenous society.
KT: What can be done to equip and support communities to address the problem more sustainably?
BW: Is there a way to foster cooperation, with moderate Muslim movements and moderate Muslim political parties in the Muslim world, in order to start a united momentum, as a signal that joint and peaceful cooperation of the world religions is not only in all our common interest, but in fact the only way forward?
GSF: Identity problems along with rootlessness and a sense of disorientation will continue to haunt immigrant generations born in Sweden. The other ongoing issue is that of urban environments themselves, and that especially the city of Stockholm is perceived as unwelcoming, which has an effect on segregation/ isolationist patterns.
There is a need to reassess how these issues are handled by the bodies tasked with them. This is going to take strong political and social will, that will need to be both informed and inclusive. Otherwise, the burden to produce functional ‘micro-solutions’ will continue to be placed almost entirely on local actors such as the religious communities described above, alongside the individual initiative of those social workers, teachers, parents, police and trusted individuals with intimate knowledge of the particular area or issue. It is crucial that social services interventions and other government support measures are applied early, before the radicalization process gets out of hand, and that this closely involves the affected families in an inclusive manner.
The urgent need to develop holistic and realistic approaches to the challenges of evolving Jihadism dynamics is one of the top policy concerns as we move forward in the new decade. The rise of the far-right, alongside ambivalent, insensitive rhetoric from the center-right and -left in some European countries is a source of great concern for the coming years. It is very important to understand that political measures targeting specific minorities or communities risk further social stigma and antipathy. It may be tempting for politicians and policy makers to overlook complex concerns for the sake of universal top-down solutions that on the surface seem to provide security and stability, in addition to letting the minority ’know its place’; however, this is very problematic, in the light of concrete radicalization issues, as well democratically. The struggle against Islamist extremism has in some cases become indistinguishable from a wider ideological activism against conservative Islam itself, rooted in specific Nordic liberal and secular humanist thought. This is an alienating strategy which decreases credibility and the ability to reach out to target audiences. Counter-extremism work should be concerned only with trends that, at their core present a challenge to pluralism.