Understanding Violent Jihadism with Pieter Stockmans


(c) Xander Stockmans

On the 12th of February, we received a visit from Pieter Stockmans. Pieter is a freelance journalist and human rights activist specialized in the Middle East, with — as he puts it himself — a focus on Freedom and Happiness. Pieter came to tell us about the seeds of radicalization and the reasons young muslims join the IS front. He has conducted research on the topic in poor neighborhoods in Jordan from where important Jihad leaders like Abdullah Azzam and Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi originated.

Pieter is a natural storyteller and brought us a beautiful narrative that combined the bigger picture of the Jihad with personal histories. He pointed two important things out to us. First, the fact that all occurrences within the region are interconnected: the occupation of Palestine, the war in Iraq, poverty and the youth bulge in Jordan, the occupation of the Tahrir square, al-Qaeda and IS are to be seen as incidents in a larger whole that influence one another. Second, his stories illustrated that even the worst terrorists are still human beings. Far from condoning their actions, this focus allows for empathizing with their motivations. It shows how once ‘normal’ youth, disillusioned with their personal situation and that of Islam in the world, can develop into IS combatants. And how, once they’ve perpetrated their first violent act, the threshold to commit cruelty in the future becomes much lower. But even then, they remain fathers of daughters that they spoil with toys and stuffed animals and husbands of wives whom they love. The violent jihadist ideology is only a layer that they have taken on. Underneath, every individual has a personal story.

Pieter calls for more open discussion and dialogue on the subject, to not repress it but to realize what we are dealing with and what we can do about it. Education can be a powerful weapon in this process, where young people’s feelings and thoughts can be channeled before they look for their outlet through other means such as violence. With this newfound understanding, it is now up to us to figure out what we must do with it. Pieter’s coming can be seen as the kick-off into a period where we figure out how we can establish a better link between the ‘here’ and ‘there’, since the flight of radicalized youngsters to Syria and Iraq is now also a hot topic in the West. It is important that we start our own search as to what our role should be in this issue, as a large peace organization operating both in the Netherlands and the Middle East.

Look at these photo reports Pieter used during the presentation (click the images for an explanation, in Dutch):
Palestinian Intifada in Syria
Jihadists in Russeifah
Read this series of articles on the jihad movement (in Dutch, for MO* Magazine, co-author Montasser AlDe'emeh)