AMSTERDAM — The Muslim mayor of Rotterdam made a bold, blunt statement in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris: “If you don’t like freedom, for the love of God, pack your bags and leave,” said Ahmed Aboutaleb, speaking to the restive youth of The Netherlands on a national news broadcast. “Maybe there is a place in this world where you do fit it.”
“Be honest with yourself and don’t start killing innocent journalists,” the mayor, of Moroccan descent, declared with ice-cold anger. “Disappear if you can’t find your place in The Netherlands.” He could hardly have made himself clearer. “If you don’t like it here because you don’t like satirists who make a newspaper … piss off.”
But, as gratifying as such words may be to an increasingly worried population, it’s not good news that more and more young Muslims in The Netherlands are doing exactly that: leaving Europe to join what they call jihad. And many of their parents are desperately seeking ways to keep them home. To answer that need, volunteers have just set up a hotline. It went into operation, as luck would have it. two days before the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the events in France have given the whole operation a new sense of urgency.
“A mother of a 13-year-old called us because she believes her daughter is about to leave the country for the Islamic State,” says Chakib Lamnadi, manager at the Dutch RadicalizationHotline. “A father called me because his young son vanished two days ago,” Lamnadi told The Daily Beast. “He said, ‘I don’t care if you have him arrested.’ He’d rather have his son in jail than in the hands of ISIS.”
Lamnadi and his team of 20 volunteers offer advice and psychological support to parents and other relatives of young men and women who have fallen under the spell of jihadist recruiters or are seduced by the ISIS propaganda machine. And there is plenty of demand for their services. Many parents from the large Dutch Moroccan community live in fear of losing their kids to the Middle Eastern battlefields.
That these wars have a significant attraction for many young Muslims is clear. The number of jihadists traveling from small countries like The Netherlands and Belgium is alarming. A conservative estimate of 450 to 500 young men and women left for Syria and Iraq in the last two years, a majority of them fighting or living in the self-proclaimed Islamic State. When it comes to Europeans joining ISIS and other militant groups, France tops the charts with at least 700 to 800 people joining the jihadist war. But it also has the largest Muslim community in Europe, in the range of five to seven million. There are fewer than a 1.5 million Muslims in Belgium and The Netherlands put together, so the proportional numbers embracing the black banner of jihad is much higher.
“It always starts the same way” says Halima, who teaches at a Dutch academy and volunteers at the hotline. “They start watching a lot of ISIS videos online. Social media has an enormous impact on radicalization.”
“Most immigrants’ children have no stable identity,” she goes on. “This ideology is a source of self-confidence for them. It is an escape from their emotions, too.” They are told that if they die as martyrs they will enter Paradise. “By focusing on the afterlife they don’t have to deal with their reality in the here and now. Add to that the suffering of the Umma [the global community of Muslims] and their own problems become insignificant.”
Halima carefully explains the attraction for young women lured by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. “The girls live under restrictive rule within their community [in The Netherlands] and find it hard,” she says. “They can see the rules are very different in Dutch society. At home they are taught to be obedient and harmonize with the family’s wishes, and outside of it they are expected to stand up for their rights and emancipate. It conflicts. The ISIS woman stands for strength, she can fight a war, but she also represents harmony, she’s ‘modest,’ and wearing the niqab [full face veil] wins respect for her. This is a perfect combination of both worlds.”
(Conceivably it was just this sort of image that appealed to Hayat Boumedienne, the wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered a policewoman and four hostages at a kosher grocery in Paris last week. She has since traveled to Syria, to territory held by ISIS, where she can expect to be treated with the honor of a woman who was wed to a shahid, or martyr.)
Most of the people the Dutch hotline is dealing with are from the Dutch-Moroccan community. “We know that around 70 percent of jihadists in The Netherlands and a big part of all jihadists from Europe are second-generation Moroccan,” says Lamnadi. “They are from big European cities. Their educational level is not high. Many of them have left school. There are only a few highly educated ones. The average age is young, starting as early as thirteen.”
Lamnadi knows his community needs help. The hotline was established because of a demand from within the Dutch Moroccan community. An essential part of the its work is to provide parents access to Dutch institutions, from the police to crisis centers. “Many parents don’t dare to go to the authorities,” says Halima. “They’ve heard about passports being confiscated and legal measures. Nobody wants to see their kid behind bars, but it is the first scenario they think of. We listen and advise, we give them all the options: police, aid organizations, youth or religious aid workers, etc.”
Because of the high numbers, the question of why these small countries produce so many of the homegrown Islamists becomes unavoidable. “The community in The Netherlands has no Muslim elite to speak of and it is hopelessly divided,” says Edwin Bakker, professor of counter-terrorism at the Dutch Leiden University. “It has little appeal for the young. We have no important think tanks like the Quilliam Foundation or thinkers like Tariq Ramadan or even the Muslim Brotherhood for that matter, which is why any 26-year-old preacher can create quite a gathering.”
“There’s no broad organized religion and the part that is fairly well organized, is radicalized,” says Bakker, who thinks that the Dutch and Belgian national identity are much weaker to begin with than the French. “What is a young Muslim actually supposed to integrate with?” he asks.
The problem seems so intractable that even Bakker is tempted to repeat the mayor or Rotterdam’s declaration, “If you don’t like it here, piss off!” But that, obviously, is no solution. Those who leave in bitterness may well return with a new taste for violence honed on the battlefields of Syria or Iraq, Libya or Yemen.
Better by far to call the Radicalization Hotline. There, at least, are people who understand and who are ready to help young people unhappy with their lives discover they do not need to become a shahid to be happy.