Many young Dutch Muslims are attracted to the fundamentalist Salafi movement. Anthropologist Ineke Roex has been researching the attitudes of the movement’s followers to democracy. "Accept them as part of Dutch society, and then they become more democratic."
Salafists condemn the idea of democracy in principle, explains Roex. Laws can only be made by God – or Allah – and not by mankind. Nevertheless, most Salafists in the Netherlands believe they should respect the Dutch democratic state. “Salafists accept the democratic rule of law for pragmatic reasons. They’re very aware that they enjoy rights in the Netherlands that they would not have in some Arab countries. They reason that you should accept the laws of the country where you live as long as you can fulfill your religious obligations."
There’s been concern about this form of Islam in the Netherlands since Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Salafist in 2004. An investigation carried out by the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD, concluded that only a tiny minority of the movement’s followers believes in jihad – or holy war – but questions about Salafists' acceptance of democratic values remain. Roex researched the ideology and behaviour of a number of Salafist networks in the Netherlands and concluded that apart from a handful of radicals, they do not form a threat to the democratic rule of law.
Roex acknowledges that it’s an extremely intolerant ideology. Salafists believe that theirs is the only true and correct interpretation of Islam. This intolerance does not necessarily lead to approving intolerant behaviour. “The majority of Dutch Salafists disapprove of force and judging or demonising those with different beliefs. For instance, homosexuality is forbidden but so is violence against homosexuals. The only way in which you can bring others to follow the right path is through upbringing and education.”
Their ideological intolerance means Salafists don’t readily accept the idea that everyone can have their own interpretation of ‘the truth’. But that very inflexibility means it’s actually a very diverse movement, according to Roex. “Because of all the quibbling, there are many schisms and factions within Salafism. In the end that means there’s actually more freedom for individuals within the movement, which itself is a democratic value.”
Dutch Salafism is full of contradictions, says Roex. If the Dutch authorities want to stimulate the movement’s democratic tendencies, they must be careful not to stigmatise its followers. “Don’t isolate them but encourage them to participate, which will make them more democratic.”
While the religious principles of Salafism may be in conflict with democratic values, the Amsterdam-based anthropologist believes it’s not unthinkable that at some point believers will call themselves both Salafist and Democrat. “Don’t forget that there are many religious people in the Netherlands who already do this, not just Muslims but also fundamentalist Protestants for instance. They say: I have my religious ideals and I believe in democracy alongside that.”
Ineke Roex’s thesis Leven als de Profeet in Nederland [Living Like the Prophet in the Netherlands] will be published in book form by the Amsterdam University Press in September.