The Attraction of Radical Ideologies

Panel discussion

The panel talk was published in 2017 within the framework of the NADIA project.

Learn more about the project

This is a retranscription of a panel talk that took place during the NADIA syposium at Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2017. The discussion is between Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan, a lecturer in education studies at Goethe University, Daniel van Klaveren the author and Dutch director of the play Nadia, Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif  an imam and Islamic theologian in Germany, currently at the Khadija mosque in Berlin-Pankow and Demian Vitanza who is a Norwegian playwright and author. Kübra Gümüşay is the Moderator, she is a journalist, online activist and works as a freelance writer for several German newspapers. If you want to learn more about the participants of the panel talk, you can find their biographies at the bottom of this article.

Kübra Gümüşay: I’d like to begin by quoting an article by Olivier Roy that was published in The Guardian in April this year:

“There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of ‘globalised’ terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly all terrorists in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: ‘We love death as you love life’. [And] this attitude toward death is inextricably linked to the fact that contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture. This aspect of modern-day jihadism is fundamental.”

And so I will open up the discussion by asking: Why are parts of our youth attracted to radical ideologies? What can we – as artists, as scientists, as people who produce and shape popular culture – do to prevent extremism?

Daniel van Klaveren: Three years ago, I wrote a play called Jamal about a boy who was very angry at the world, especially at Western society, and he was building a bomb, not knowing if he would do anything with it – but he was building it. In the end, it turns out to be a cry for help, a cry to belong. Over the last three years we have been performing it in classrooms at secondary schools through the Netherlands. After the first year I noticed that it generated such a response that I decided to write another play based on the same topic but this time from a girl’s perspective. At the time, at least in my view, there wasn’t much known about girls or women from the West leaving for the Caliphate.

I wanted the play to not just be about the attraction of radicalisation but also about what these young women are missing here. Why can’t we, as a society, hold them back? Why do they feel they don’t belong? I wanted to write a play that wouldn’t focus too much on the outcomes of terrorism but on the origins of it. I also wanted to write a play that every adolescent could relate to: a play about puberty and all the insecurities that come along with it.

I wanted to have two characters dealing with the same questions on their search for an identity. Two characters who take different paths, but who both use the medium of the internet to do so. At the end of my research, I had a conversation with a Dutch police officer who had known fifteen girls who left for Syria.

She described these girls, first of all, as not religious. That’s something I noticed: most of the time, this kind of jihadism does not start with religion, rather, it ends there. And the officer said, I quote, “They also could have become Greenpeace activists if they would have got to know other people than they had.” This struck me – in the end, they became what the media calls terrorists, though they all started as idealists.

Kübra Gümüşay: Let’s stick with this idea. There’s a quote, allegedly, by Winston Churchill that goes:

“If a man is not a socialist by the time he is twenty, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is forty, he has no brain”.

Are radical ideologies today’s socialism? Or, to be more concrete, are young people more prone to taking on radical ideologies? Demian, do you agree?

Demian Vitanza: Well, my research is based on sitting a hundred and fifty hours in prison with a guy who went to Syria.

I know him very well and would even call him a friend. He would say, “We used to be radicals”, as though they’d just hung up Che Guevara poster on their walls. And we know from the police security in Norway that three out of four of the people going to Syria radicalised after the Syrian war began. It’s a reaction to the geopolitical situation. What were they thinking before that? Well, many of them were, in fact, normal anti-imperialists. But I would say the radicalisation trend comes from a political vacuum: the left has retreated in Europe in the past two decades.

There’s no proper critique of imperialism and there’s no place to direct that kind of rage. I wouldn’t call it a new socialism, but it’s related to it in the sense that it feels like there is the lack of a critique, and also of identity.

Kübra Gümüşay: This is also part of Nadia, where the main character is constantly juggling the contrasting scenarios of, on the one hand, living in the West and enjoying life and, on the other, the war that her family is experiencing back in Palestine.

I think it’s this critique of imperialism that we experience, but it’s hard to put into words because it’s not a topic at school and there’s no social discourse about it. Meltem, you’ve been researching women and the ways they become attracted to radical ideologies. Do you think this contrast plays a role, at least based on your research?

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: It does. But it’s not the only thing. There are many things that simply aren’t scrutinised enough.One of the most surprising things is that radical ideologies issue a kind of vision for emancipation, female emancipation.

The girls want to be good Muslim wives for pious Muslim men who will protect them, and they struggle with gender roles in Western society, especially in Germany. They are told they can do anything but, after school, while looking for an internship or a job, they realise women cannot do everything.

The structures are not developed enough to allow women to do everything they want. And, as to why young women and girls are attracted by radical and neo-Salafist networks, it’s not initially about religion, you’re absolutely right: it’s about direction and belonging. It’s about doing something good for the community, for the environment and for God, who protects people all over the world.

That’s the first reason. The second is – in terms of imperialism – that radicalised and neo-Salafist networks are criticising the destruction of social environments and natural resources. All of Western society is capitalist to them. “Capitalism destroys the world and we, as real Muslims, have to do it better.”

And the young people, especially the young women, believe there’s something waiting for them in another life. Another important point that has already come up is that many of the young girls and women are not from religious families. Quite the opposite. The kids from religious or religiously educated families – whether secular or orthodox – are generally immune from radical ideologies.

Ola E. Bo, Kübra Gümüşay and Demian Vitanza. © Arno Declair

Kübra Gümüşay: I think gender issues play a huge role in Nadia. Was that something you wanted to touch upon?

Daniel van Klaveren: Yes, that is a big part of the play. Both of the girls are dealing with sexism and the way women are portrayed in the media. Anna actively expresses her thoughts about it on her blog. And in the end they have this discussion about oppression – is it deciding whether to wear a headscarf or is it feeling like you have to be sexy all the time? And isn’t it the same, in a way?

Kübra Gümüşay: All three of you mentioned belonging as a part of the problem. Imam Saïd, you gave a very interesting interview in which you state that there have been no religiously motivated attacks by members of the Ahmadiyya community since 1889. In it, you also say, “Even children know that ISIS has more to do with politics than with religion”. Does the Ahmadiyya Jamaat create a different sense of belonging than other Muslim communities or society in general?

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: I think the sense of belonging is very important, but it’s not just that.

The main factor is religious teaching and religious upbringing. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community has sub organisations – one is dedicated to taking care of the women of our community, another is a youth organisation, another is for men. All these organisations are independent, make up their own programmes and elect their own leaders. This structure helps to pass on religious teaching, which is necessary to combat religious extremism, and save someone who might be inclined to extremism through theology. But that’s only one tiny factor.

Theology alone cannot save someone from getting radicalised. If someone doesn’t have a sense of belonging in their home, their community or their society, that’s the main problem. I was telling Daniel earlier how the play reminded me of one incident I had with a lady who wanted to convert.

She wrote me an email and said “I want to convert”. And I thought, wait, that’s not how you convert! I told her she should come and meet us so the community could get to know her and vice versa. So she came and I gave her some books. I felt a kind of emptiness in her – she had no questions. We had about eight sittings with her to make sure there were some thoughts behind her actions. Then she converted. I didn’t want to tell someone not to be part of our community only because she didn’t ask questions. So she joined and the next day I received a message from her asking if we had something like a marriage office. I told her we had an organisation that helps with those things, but that it took time, at least a year. I wanted to make sure she didn’t only convert for this reason. But the next day, my wife received a message from her saying she was in touch with a guy from Syria and she wanted to go there now. She asked some basic questions: she knew nothing about Islam. Whatever I had told her, whatever was in her books, she didn’t remember – but the guy on the internet promised to marry her. I couldn’t promise her that.

She had wanted to be part of something she didn’t have at home; she wanted an emotional attachment. But that was a minor incident. I think having a religious upbringing, being taken care of by the community, and having a solid family structure – they all play a part. But those are secondary to psychological issues. I found out later that this young woman had attempted suicide before. I think many people who radicalise have psychological issues. The suicide attacker from Ansbach, for instance, had made two suicide attempts.

Kübra Gümüşay: But who do we call a terrorist and who alone wolf with psychological problems? In Nadia, one of the opening statements is “What holds you back?” I think that’s also a part of the journey.

There’s one paragraph in your book, Demian, in which one of the boys is talking about the process of leaving for Syria. I quote:

“We forgot everything, we forgot that we had a family, we forgot that we had a future, we forgot that we had dreams, we forgot ourselves – who we were. Forgotten everything, only so we managed to keep the course. I could not be wrong where we were heading for, that was what we said to ourselves, that Assad is the face of evil.”

You’ve been interested in the way people dissociate themselves from the environment they live in and become estranged. How they completely idealise another world. How is that kind of dissociation possible?

Demian Vitanza: I like to look at the reasons for going and the reasons for not staying. There is a slight difference between the two.

To use a metaphor, think about what you need to start a fire: an inflammable material, oxygen, and a source of heat. When I think about the inflammable material, I think about the personal and psychological aspects.

Where do you come from? Lots of people who go down don’t have a father figure – it’s common that a father has died or, as in my story, has gone to prison. Other factors are related to vulnerability: having been neglected or coming from a war zone. All these personal aspects that influence the psychology. I’m sure the woman Imam Saïd described had something going on there, on the inflammable material side. The oxygen is the environment and also the ideology. It can start on the internet, but there are almost always meetings in real life with groups or a community of the same ideology. The third aspect is the heat, which I see as geopolitics. So there’s psychology, sociology and politics. And there’s suffering involved at every step. At a personal level, there’s social pressure and there’s political pressure. And there’s the way religion or the interpretation of a religion can bind this together as a narrative of oppression. There’s a needle that sews together these layers of suffering, you could say.

Those are my ideas about the reasons for going. But there are also so many reasons for staying! If you have a job, a girlfriend who doesn’t want to leave or parents you’re close to, it’s very unlikely you’re going to leave. My guy was inspired by Tupac’s words: “If you don’t find something to live for, find something to die for”.

Daniel van Klaveren and Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif. © Arno Declair

Kübra Gümüşay: Did you see a fascination with death in general, like Olivier Roy, who I quoted earlier?

Demian Vitanza: It took a long time. When I first I asked Isaac why he left, he said, “Because I wanted to help people”.

And that’s absolutely true: he wanted to help people in Syria. The second time I asked him, a few months later, when we knew each other better, he said it felt like a religious duty; maybe he even mentioned the Caliphate. I asked him again, two months later, when we were even closer. He then admitted he wanted to die. So, yes, it was a part of it. But I think it was also reassurance – if we cannot bring down Assad, at least I will go to heaven for a good cause.

You think there’s one clear answer, but things change over time. Yes, he wanted to die at first. But then he went down there and, suddenly, he wanted to have a family and live in an eco-village in Syria. And then, again, he wanted to die, to take the Kalashnikov. So death was an element.

Kübra Gümüşay: This idealisation of another world is very interesting. In Nadia, you beautifully show the contrast between the two girls: how one of them uses the internet as a tool of empowerment and the other as a tool of estrangement from society, her friends and family. I think it’s symbolic of the way we use the internet in general.

Do you think that kind of estrangement would have been possible without the Internet?

Daniel van Klaveren: I don’t know if it would’ve been possible or not, but the internet plays a central role in radicalising and recruiting young people.

It’s a world you can go into and make your own private place no one knows about. You can experiment, search for boundaries, go a bit further, onto another page and lose yourself in it. This second world starts to become very real at some point. If I believe what I read about it, the phrase “Salam. Who are you? What are you doing?” is often how it starts. One recruiting tactic is to look for people who have ‘liked’ violent film clips on YouTube, find them on social media and contact them – and it develops from there.

Kübra Gümüşay: Meltem, this is also part of your research. How do neo-Salafist movements create a sense of belonging? Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: The first step for youngsters is the internet or in-person encounters with neo-Salafists. A lot of young people use the internet to ask questions about where and how to go, and sometimes about Islam, too. ‘Imam Google’ provides a lot of answers based on a Manichean, black-and-white way of thinking.

This is a first step for many young people to get involved with radical networks, not just neo-Salafist ones. Recently, we were confronted with radical nationalist networks, too, which strongly appeal to many young people with their powerful narratives. This was a very important discovery we made: a lot of radical Islamists and neo-Salafists misuse narratives about the history of Islam and the prophet Muhammad:“He was a foreigner in his own environment just like you. You do not belong in Europe or to this society: you feel the way the prophet Muhammad did. You must go away – the prophet went away, too. You are strong like him.”

This is a very dangerous type of empowerment, of course. Many of these young people don’t know anything about their own religion, about the history and traditions of Islam, about the biography of the prophet Muhammad and his first community. When I started my research as a teacher at a nursing school, I met two girls from Russia who were connected to radical networks in France. It was very sad because they were very young women who came from Russia, who had good jobs in Germany, but they felt alone and out of place as foreigners. So they were searching for a husband, a partner, and got in touch with jihadist networks in France and went to Paris.One day, their teacher called me in because he felt they were losing those girls and didn’t know what to do.I said, “Don’t accuse them, we shouldn’t put more pressure on them”.

Then I talked about the history of Islam in class, not in a theological or religious way, and I noticed the two girls didn’t know anything about Islam. Another thing I saw with these girls was – and that’s an underlying element of everything we’ve been talking about – they were seeking a clear system: not a complex democratic system.

They emphasised their wish for a vigorous man or woman to give them direction, refusing plurality and so-called open society because they had no direction in it. And these two girls were from Orthodox Christian families.

Kübra Gümüşay: I find it very interesting that you talk about the lack of knowledge of religion.

Demian Vitanza: Exactly, that goes for most of the people I was talking about. However, I would caution against the arrogant idea that nobody who goes to Syria has any clue at all about their religion. it might be a misinterpretation of their religion, certainly, but they are still knowledgeable.

Plus, that kind of arrogance is not helpful in the dialogue at all. Quite a few people have a lot of non-radical knowledge, so they need to speak up to those who are not knowledgeable about their religion.

Kübra Gümüşay: This vacuum of knowledge about Islam in Germany is what led many young people to start listening to these Salafists, mostly on YouTube.

I remember seeing a huge lack of classical religious scholars who were accessible to teenagers and understood what they were feeling: people who were in touch with the community; who spoke the language and preached in German. Imam Saïd, what has been your experience with that?

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: We have a basic problem, as you stated: most imams here in Germany do not speak German fluently because they didn’t grow up and study here. Furthermore, there aren’t enough imams who record and provide knowledge in a non-radical way, for example, on YouTube. That’s changing, but the change is too slow, in my opinion. Other things are actually changing for the better. The way the politicians deal with the different communities and try to get them engaged by talking to each other or doing projects together. But it’s still going slowly. As an imam, I mostly have access to my own community
members because they can relate to me and I can relate to them. We have a similar understanding and theology Every now and then, people contact me who aren’t community members, which is a development. I think we have a lot of homework in this regard.

Kübra Gümüşay: I would like to move on to the solutions now, to what the arts can do. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

“The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

She talks about what it does to us, as a society, if we constantly only ever hear one story about a certain group of people: Africans are poor or Muslims are violent. I think culture and the arts can be part of a solution to that problem by telling multiple stories. I think you two are doing that by diving deeper into the facets of why someone is taking that path. How do you think art can provide solutions to this problem?

Daniel van Klaveren: I think it’s exactly that – an attempt to break stereotypes by showing as many different perspectives and stories as possible.

That’s also why I like to do work for children and teenagers, to show that the world is not black and white, that it’s not simple. There is no good and evil. We currently live in a world that tends to prefer simplicity in many aspects: things have to be amusing, entertaining, nice. I believe it is our responsibility in the arts, to break with that and keep on telling stories that show that the world in all its complexity; that it has a lot of angles, a lot of stories. We have to keep showing that however we can and also talk about it afterwards. Let it resonate and not forget it after the performance.

Demian Vitanza: Studies or articles on that topic are always about phenomena, not individuals. The narratives in theatre or novels have the ability to show real human complexity. Interestingly, the real theatre is the media, where the conflict is the core of the drama. So I wanted to work with people. What if I end up liking, and even befriending, the guy who has done something I could never have dreamt of doing myself? I want the readers to have the same problem.

The story and the person have to be relatable because only then will we start asking other questions. That’s the role of the arts. Because the statistics – the phenomena as seen from the outside – are already there. That’s already covered. What the arts needs to do is show the audience or the reader a face. I see the two actors here and they are reverberating from the play. You see human beings and automatically relate to a phenomenon differently.

Kübra Gümüşay: Do you think giving a face to many of the polarised topics of today’s world, which we tend to discuss on an abstract level, makes them much more relatable?

Demian Vitanza: Absolutely, I think so! It becomes a problem when you have to relate to it.

You see how ISIS is doing a great job in playing up the dramatic elements: they want to showcase violence. Which is interesting because Assad, like most people, wants to hide the violence he commits. But extremist groups want to show it because they want to increase the conflict.

NADIA symposium at Deutsches Theater Berlin, with: Demian Vitanza, Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif, Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan, Daniel van Klaveren and Kübra Gümüşay. © Arno Declair.

Kübra Gümüşay: Daniel, your play was staged in three countries so far. Have you noticed differences in the interpretation and reception of the play in the respective countries?

Daniel van Klaveren: I don’t see many differences in the interpretation, but more in the staging, in the style of the theatres.

Most of the casts play for pupils and we either go to the schools or, as in Germany, the school comes to the theatre. We’ve played in multicultural schools in Amsterdam where you feel, from the first sentence, that the story resonates. The kids know what it’s about and connect with it from the beginning. When we’ve played at predominantly white schools in northern Holland, the subject matter is a bit further away from them, though they’ve also been engaged. Sometimes they say it’s like watching a story you normally only see on the news with human beings in front of you. Whereas at the multicultural schools in Amsterdam you feel that it’s a discussion they’ve already had in class. The students have the same discussions Nadia and Anna have during the after talk as well, which is very interesting.

Kübra Gümüşay: Meltem, do you think the people you’ve worked with in your research had a lack of people to identify with? Would it have made a difference if they could have related to a character in a play, in a novel, in a TV series? In Nadia, the main character is talking about how, although her story and her history are part of the lessons in school, she doesn’t feel represented. Do representations in the media play a role here?

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: Yes, very much so, because the young people, whether girls or boys, are searching for role models from their own communities. When parents aren’t able to help, they need people – a teacher, a mentor, a friend, someone from the community – to say, “It’s very difficult, but you can do it and I will help you!”

So structural help is one thing. Vulnerability and violence are another. We’re not talking properly about the phenomenon of violence and the attraction of violence in our society. In general, we don’t talk enough about the history of violence in wars and, of course, about the violence of imperialism and colonialism. These issues have affected us all and young people are very sensitive to that.

Kübra Gümüşay: Well, I would say it’s not just this indirect effect but also the direct effect of everyday racism…

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: Yes, indeed. That applies to young Muslim girls in particular, as they are increasingly confronted with violence and fear. Whether someone pulls their headscarf away or beats them – they don’t feel confident anyone will help them. They need to feel safe in a community and like they are protected by all of us.It’s a social issue.

We must realise that we could lose our children: not only our biological children but our children in general.

Kübra Gümüşay: You’re talking about a very important phenomenon. The violence you experience on a daily basis, the racism, the discrimination. And then not being able to put it into words because there’s no social discourse about it and it’s not being represented in the media.

Demian and Imam Saïd, as a storyteller and as someone who deals with the community, do you see that frustration and how do you deal with it?

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: There’s definitely a frustration about the political situation in general and in the Muslim world in particular.

The problem is that it’s a single-sided view: the Westerners are unjustly attacking the Muslim world. But there’s another perspective yet: the fact that the Muslim governments themselves are not fulfilling their duties to their people and that the situation over there can be exploited by people or nations with other interests. So even though both sides are there, people who want to radicalize only see and show those countries as victims. Of course there are some cases in which, clearly, something has been done unjustly, for example, the invasion in Iraq in the name of weapons of mass destruction. Such incidents are exploited without showing the other sides.

In the German media and at German universities I personally do not see a lack of criticism or a vacuum where no one asks about what’s going wrong and why.

Kübra Gümüşay: I think another reason why people, especially members of your community, don’t see it as black and white might be because you’re being discriminated against in Pakistan. So they obviously know that it’s not their poor Muslim world which is being oppressed and invaded by the rest of the world: they’ve experienced it themselves.

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: Yes, we’ve experienced oppression from within, and we can actually differentiate pretty clearly. Whenever there’s an attack or something happening inside the community, it’s more of a political discussion within the community, never about the content of some Islamic teaching. And as far as your original question about what the arts can do: we had a very concrete example of that. As the Khadija mosque, where I am the imam, was being built in Berlin from 2006 to 2008, there were many demonstrations because people didn’t want the mosque there. They thought it would be a source of violence and huge problems for the community – and now, ten years later, nothing has ever happened.

Anyway, at the time, there was a theatre director who wrote a play called and what he did was pretty interesting: he recorded articles and TV interviews with the imam of the mosque and also from the people who were against the mosque. He just took those quotes and staged them. It was amazing to see, especially as an imam, how it feels to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. And now there are plans to build a mosque in Leipzig, which has brought about a new round of demonstrations. So they staged the play five or six times in Leipzig to reach as many people as possible. They also played in Hanover. So now they stage the play whenever there’s a mosque being built. That’s one way you can see how art can actually make a difference. Theatre affords you the opportunity of looking at a situation from a distance: it’s good for dealing with controversial topics precisely because you’re not a part of them. You can detach from your emotions and basically understand the bigger picture a bit better. And I’m optimistic that it’s going to play an important role in the future as well.

When I think of Nadia, perhaps the only challenge is to not glorify the idea of radicalization because the play was so good and people could identify with Nadia so much… (laughter).

Demian Vitanza: That was a big part of the way Isaac told the story of his life to me: he’d experienced a lot of Islamophobia and racism. I don’t doubt the truth of what he said for one second. But he decided to emphasise those experiences by telling me about them. So that’s one way of fostering the identification with the role of the victim or the oppressed.

In fact, Isaac told me once that the glue holding people like him together was not Islam in the beginning. It was feeling bullied at school, bullied here, bullied there: “We were the oppressed and God is with the oppressed”. That was a core phrase in the book. Every nowa and then he calls me – I cannot call him since he’s in prison – and I meet him there. After the elections in the United States, I asked him, “What about Trump, man?” And he said, “Actually, now I have a little bit of hope” – “What?” – “Yes, because you see, before, we were the only ones who noticed we were being bullied. Now everyone is marching against the Muslim ban, everyone can see it now. That we are under pressure.” I think his understanding of the situation is valuable: that it’s no longer a small group of people protesting against the unseen oppression. It’s an issue everyone can see.

Team Liège: Jean Mallamaci, Isabelle Gyselinx, Isabelle Collard. © Arno Declair.

Kübra Gümüşay: We’ve had a similar political debate in Germany. We now talk more elaborately about racism, mainly because we have had regular marches by the Pegida movement (‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’) and even more people marching against Pegida.

And many people said that, all of a sudden, racism and had become a concrete issue. It was not just an abstract thing or your paranoid Muslim friends telling you about the things they experience in their daily life. Do you think that seeing racism more clearly becomes a kind of relief?

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: I would say no. And the reason is that the discussions only started after Pegida showed up. Sometimes we get people who come and want to see the mosque. I show it to them and then we sit down in a conference room and have discussions. Those discussions are pretty lively, and were even more so during the phase when Pegida was most active. It wasn’t good for the atmosphere in Germany and it wasn’t helping the discussion at all. They were spreading fear by talking about the Islamisation of Europe, as if it were some epidemic or a meteorite that was about to wipe out life on the Continent. All the discussions were under a dark cloud. I don’t like to think about that time. I mean, it was definitely good that we were talking about it, but we were talking about it because of Pegida, not because of the issues we had or because of any problems in the neighbourhood. Only since Pegida was creating a big monster did people want to know: Are you really a monster? It was not pleasant.

Kübra Gümüşay: But to go back to the point you made earlier about how art creates a space for confrontation: How can art change certain perceptions? Daniel, how has your experience been while touring with the play? Did you see how it made a difference or do you have similar experiences with the power of art?

Daniel van Klaveren: I see that people and kids in multicultural schools are very happy that there’s a story with an Arab person, for instance. Afterwards they want to ask the actresses all kinds of questions, like, “Do you really come from there?” They have lots of questions because, seemingly, they don’t see these kinds of representations a lot.I agree very much on tance of role models. And actually – to respond to what you said about the possibility of people getting radicalized because of the play – we had to change some things after the first time we rehearsed the play in front of a class…

Kübra Gümüşay: Three children left for Syria after they watched the play? (laughter)

Daniel van Klaveren: No! But after we performed the rehearsal, we asked the students: What is the image of Islam you get from this?

It was a class without Muslim children or with just one Muslim boy. And I was afraid that it might be offensive in some way or give a negative perception. But their impression was only positive, everything was positive about it: “It’s so nice to see a story that shows Islam in a positive light!” And Nadia was a sort of hero, and only that. So, we thought, uh oh, this is not quite what we want either – we have to change something.

Also, when we asked the kids what they thought of Brahim, they all thought he could actually mean everything he said. So we had to add some lines. Because you have to doubt him. Now Anna asks: “How do you know him? Is he a terrorist? When do you become a terrorist?”


Yüksel Yolcu, stage director of Inside IS, and Paulien Geerlings. © Arno Declair

Audience: I’ve seen Nadia and I think it’s very thoughtfully composed. However, at the end, as you said, there is this idealisation of Nadia and Brahim.

Nadia is a bright, very thoughtful, talented girl who abandons herself to the sisterhood, which is a promising paradise. I was struck by the ending. I was wondering whether you might want to take this play a step further or maybe give the play two endings? Namely, to have Anna ask some more questions that actually might have got Nadia to think about what was happening, such as: Where am I going? Should I ask some more questions?

Daniel van Klaveren: She does say some things like that. A lot actually. She tells Nadia she is heading for a war, that she doesn’t really know the people she is talking to. She tries, but Nadia wants to believe in Brahim too badly at this point. But for me, the play is very much about a friendship in which the two girls try very hard to reach one another but can’t find the right way to do it. They don’t have the tools or the words. As Anna says at some point, “I’m only trying, you don’t have to be so mean”. I think that’s the tragedy of it. This friendship is something they both really want. They want to understand each other, but they’re growing apart. I think there’s empathy, at least I tried t bring that across. But two girls of that age are not reflective enough to stand above it like adults. Anna concludes with the wish that she wants their friendship to work, “Can’t we be friends and not understand each other?”

Audience: I think your play is great for a young audience. Everyone feels like, “Oh no, maybe we could have stopped her”, and that’s what makes the play so captivating.

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: I thought the part where they both try to reach each other was so interesting, especially when it came to their trust in each other. It was very authentic – it reminded me of the situation when me and my wife were sitting at the desk with that young woman. It was the same question of trust. I thought a lot about whether I should trust her or not; it was a fight inside of me. I decided to trust her. But she basically did whatever she wanted to do. She kept in touch but she went to the extremists.

Kübra Gümüşay: Demian, did you, in your research, see similar situations where close friends didn’t intervene as much as they could have? Did the people you spoke to talk about those friends? Or did you speak to those friends?

Demian Vitanza: What happened in my story is quite typical. A group of friends radicalised together. Once you know someone who’s gone to Syria, it becomes more normal. They were a big group of friends and he was one of the first to leave, together with a Chechen boy. Then the others followed. All of his friends are dead now. He came back because he was shot in the leg. And the people who could have stopped him weren’t his friends anymore. He had already isolated himself from them. So it had only been up to the family and they weren’t able to intervene at the right moment, unfortunately.

Kübra Gümüşay: Daniel, while you were researching for the play, was there an inspiration in regards to this sort of friendship?

Daniel van Klaveren: I’m not sure anymore. I did see a beautiful documentary about the families in which children, brothers or sisters had gone to Syria. And the film addressed the questions the families were left behind with.

You see a lot of denial, of “I didn’t see it coming!”, but you feel that sometimes they knew it was going to happen – they just didn’t know how to stop them. So they also felt a lot of guilt about not having done more.

Audience: I was wondering if, the young girls, aside from feeling important and like they belong, might get some narcissistic confirmation from becoming radicalised? I was thinking about how school shootings are often committed by young boys with low self-esteem who were bullied and neglected. And in some of the ISIS YouTube videos they seem like YouTube stars… What role do media outlets or the journalists themselves play by giving them a stage?

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: That’s a very important question. Two years ago, there were two Austrian girls of Bosnian descent: thin, pale, blond-haired and blue-eyed girls who became the poster girls of ISIS in the European media. They tried to flee from Raqqa to the border of Turkey, but they were killed last year. Their parents and all the girls’ teachers were very involved in trying to protect the two girls, but they failed. Another example from my research is a young woman I met, who is now completing her PhD in education, who told me that she had been empowered by a young Salafi boy she had been with when she was sixteen. She felt adored, not necessarily sexually, but as a young, radical, very erotic woman. A lot of girls and young women are hesitant to talk about issues like sexuality, maternity, or being or becoming a woman. They’re searching for older women who they can trust, who they can talk to about their physical issues and sexual desires.

And then, I’ve also met very political women who wanted to build a real Islamic state: “We are active women, we are active Muslims, we are fighting for our community, we are fighting for Allah”. It’s a puzzle of different emotions and desires. I would say it like that.

NADIA symposium at Deutsches Theater Berlin, with: Demian Vitanza, Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif, Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan, Daniel van Klaveren and Kübra Gümüşay. © Arno Declair.

Kübra Gümüşay: As for the closing remarks, I am interested to know: What makes you hopeful?

Demian Vitanza: I met Isaac in December 2015, just a few weeks after the Bataclan attacks. We couldn’t go and sit in a space like we can today without imagining someone entering with a Kalashnikov, the image was so close.

Fourteen months later, we were laughing and smiling together, notwithstanding our very different opinions. I can see that he’s taking on a broader perspective, seeing more complex from different sides, and still keeping his Muslim faith. That makes me hopeful. What they say about dialogue: it’s not bullshit, it works.

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif: I think the concept of the play is connected to that: this is exactly where a dialogue is so important. When I was watching the play, there were a lot of things that made me think: “This is not radical at all to me, I do it myself”. If we just consume whatever we see in the media without processing it, without talking about it, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding. But besides that, I see problems with the bigger picture.

Take Trump’s America First: every country actually does it naturally in a way, but the key is to not do it at the cost of others. To uphold justice within the borders of Germany or Europe is not enough anymore. Justice has to be everywhere. We can so easily communicate in today’s globalised and digitalised world, so it’s of the utmost importance now to think about the bigger picture and not stay in our own little spheres. We need to stay engaged and not give people reasons radicalise.

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan: I work at a faculty for education in Germany and one central issue is the fact that our socalled core education programme is too homogeneous. We have to start including other narratives and histories. My wish is for us to talk and discuss more passionatel about the entanglements of discrimination and racism. We don’t talk enough about Mölln, Solingen, about the NSU, about the people who were shot and tortured in the 1990s here in Germany.

And yet, all these issues are closely linked to the globalised situation. We have to dig deeper into these issues, let them get under our skin. That’s my wish. And I’m optimistic about it.

Daniel van Klaveren: I would like to express my sincere gratitude for all the attention Nadia has received. I was very happy to see the performances in Germany and Italy, and I hope the play can reach a lot of kids across Europe and get them talking about this important topic.

© Picture: Arno Declair


Kübra Gümüşay

Journalist and Online Activist

Kübra Gümüşay studied politics in Hamburg/London. She is a journalist, online activist and works as freelance writer for the German newspapers Die Zeit, Zeit online, Taz and more. She is the co-founder of the network for social entrepreneurship Zahnräder, the campaign #SchauHin (“look here”) and the feminist alliance #Ausnahmslos (“Without exception”).


Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan

Lecturer in Education Studies at Goethe University

Dr. Meltem Kulaçatan a lecturer in education studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her research focuses on radicalization of young women and girls in the context of Islamic terrorism, religious self-positioning and educational motivation and religious self-construction of young Muslim women in pedagogic action fields.


Daniel van Klaveren

Dutch Actor, Director and Playwright

Daniel van Klaveren is a Dutch actor, director and playwright. Among his works are Maarten, The Seagull (2016), Mozart´s sister (2014) and Jamal (2016), a play about a radicalized boy and his counsellor, which has been performed by the theatre company De Toneelmakerij at schools in the Netherlands for three years. He is the author and Dutch director of the play Nadia (2017).


Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif

Imam and Islamic Theologian at the Khadija mosque in Berlin-Pankow

Imam Saïd Ahmed Arif was born in Pakistan and emigrated to Germany with his parents when he was six years old. After completing his secondary studies in Wiesbaden, he graduated as Islamic theologian in Toronto. Since 2012 he works as an imam and Islamic theologian in Germany, currently at the Khadija mosque in Berlin-Pankow.


Demian Vitanza

Norwegian Playwright and Author

Demian Vitanza is a Norwegian playwright and author. He made his literary debut with the highly critically acclaimed Urak (2011). His dramatic works have been staged at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo among other theatres. His last published novel This Life or the Next is based on ISIS-fighters’ testimonies collected in Norwegian prisons.


NADIA was an international theatre collaboration project between five theatres from five different countries focusing on exploring the reasons of radicalisation of young people in western societies, and the attraction to join the Caliphate.

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