Becoming an expert on terrorism

Claudia Carvalho made it into the Washington Post with her research on terrorism in Spain. Not only her research but also her life story is remarkable.

The terrorist attack at Las Ramblas, the most famous boulevard of Barcelona, made many of us wonder about the Muslim community in the nearby Catalan towns of Cambrils and Ripoll. Carvalho is specialized in Muslim fundamentalism and did ethnographic research in the region, so the calls she got from journalists immediately after the terrifying incident were to be expected. The way she became a terrorist expert in Tilburg, though, is the accidental result of a ‘blessed chain of events’, she says.

From FC Porto to Tilburg University

The Portuguese Carvalho studied Political Sciences and was already interested in security and intelligence. She wrote a thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and after graduating she applied for a postgraduate course at the Ministry of National Defense. “Only the very best Portuguese professionals, a couple of dozens, were allowed to enroll”, she remembers: “I was very lucky.” The Ministry gave her a unique insight in the matter of surveillance and counterterrorism practices.

However, her first job did not had to do a lot with terrorism, but with football: she worked for the Human Resources-department of the big Portuguese football club FC Porto, mainly working on translations for the international staff. There she met her Dutch husband, Patrick Greveraars, who was part of the coaching staff. She also followed him when he was hired by the football clubs Vitesse, Feyenoord, Al Shabab and Willem II of Tilburg. Yet this was not the way she ended up at Tilburg University: “The story of how I started at the university is actually quite funny. I wanted to go back to Islamic studies and I looked on the internet for universities with this expertise. Of course I also found institutes such as the University of Leiden, well-known regarding this subject, but one way or another the name of Prof. Herman Beck at Tilburg University kept popping up, so I looked into his research.”

Carvalho really wanted to work with him and decided to go to the university to give a knock on his door, literally: “I knocked and I heard him say: ‘Yes, who’s there?’ I did not dare to just open his door to step in his office, so I waited outside and knocked again, until he finally came out his room. I am from catholic Portugal, you know. Women there won’t just step into a room of someone they don’t know! I also took my husband with me, which is a custom in Portugal. Thankfully, Beck was really interested in what I had to say and eventually he gave me a chance as a PhD. It turned out to be the best decision of my life. He is as an amazing person and even became a father figure to me, a true ‘Doktor-Vater” as they like to say in Germany.”

Talking with Imams

We can have a laugh about it, but the strategy of ‘bringing your man with you’ proved very useful when she actually started doing research in Spain for her PhD: “Most Moroccan imams don’t want to talk with women alone. So I took Patrick with me. It also helped that he knows international Dutch-Moroccan players, who played at La Liga. This way, we were able to prove that we were acquainted with Moroccan culture, and this also helped breaking the ice sometimes. Nevertheless, this does not mean that imams give you more than diplomatic answers: that ‘Islam condemns violence’, and so on. Most of the times you can find the best information in what is not being said, and what is written between the lines. For instance: I asked non-Muslims in a certain area where I could find the nearest mosque. No one seemed to be able to help me out, even when the mosque was just around the block! This tells you that there is a big gap over there between Western society and Islam. I think it is important to change this, to be open about religious institutions, and to communicate more with each other.”

Carvalho thinks the situation with Islam in the Netherlands is not as bad as on the Iberian Peninsula, with the attacks in Madrid and Barcelona. In The Washington Post she said: “There is a disproportionately high number of Spaniards who have converted to Islam — something which further intensifies existing problems as some converts want to prove to others that they truly embraced Islam and are thus more prone to violent behavior.” Some radical Islamists claim that parts of Spain and Portugal belong to the caliphate, referring to Andalusia which was Muslim-occupied ‘Al-Andalus’ in medieval times. This way, violence against these states is being legitimized by Islamic leaders.

Profiles and Roles

We have to be aware of the Jihadist discourse which creates and supports violence, says Carvalho, pestiferous as it is for Western societies and also for good people who really profess a harmless Islam.  She agrees completely with the statement of researcher Paul Aarts of the University of Amsterdam. He says that a one and only profile of the true terrorist doesn’t exist. But in her PhD thesis, which is almost finished, she argues nonetheless that we can discern certain ‘roles’ that are being played-out by terrorists. She focuses on the roles of Jihadist women who say they fight for Islamic State: “They specifically seem to function as ‘networkers’ and ‘intermediators’ within the system, disseminating the Word online and offline, and facilitating the violent acts of the men.” With this knowledge, we should be able to get a better look on the activities of women as well, who have often been neglected.    

An added blessing to the chain of events was that the famous professor Peter Neumann, the founder and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, knows her work: “He is omnipresent on media networks such as CNN. When he started to shout on Twitter that I was one of the experts on terrorism in Spain, a lot of journalists were able to find me. I was on national television in Portugal, and also, of course, Rick Noack of Washington Post gave me a call and really asked all the right questions. I am proud of the end result and that my work is increasing the international value of our motto, ‘understanding society’.”

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