Islam and Tactical Media in Amsterdam

Essay written in August 2002 for the New York University Tactical Media Lab, organised by the NYU Center for Media, Culture and History.

If tactical media were to ever attain its objectives it would immediately become redundant as a separate category. In that moment we would all become media, equally unwilling to allow experts and media professionals to control (or monopolize) public discourse. September 11th had this precise effect, rendering (albeit momentarily) the term tactical media redundant. In the minutes and hours that followed the attack the aspiration of generations of media activists were (at terrible cost) made flesh. Everyone of us, from those at the fiery heart of events grabbing mobile phones, to the "universal eyewitnesses" scrambling to make contact with others, attempting to make sense of a world turned upside down, became transmitter as well as receiver. Everyone I have spoken to reached for a phone. In an almost universal reaction to the mainstream media's floundering commentaries and manifest inadequacies we all became nodes in the global media network. And America together with the rest of us who, until that moment, believed we were the lucky ones who inhabited the 'zones of safety', were brought face to face with new realities both outside and within our imagined and geographic borders.

"Tactical media's mobility connects it to a wider movement of migrant culture, espoused by the proponents of what Neil Ascherson in his book "The Black Sea", described as the stimulating pseudo science of Nomadism. 'The human race say its exponents are entering a new epoch of movement and migration. The subjects of history once the settled farmers and citizens, have become the migrants, the refugees, the Gastarbeiters, the asylum seekers, the urban homeless'. Migrant media practitioners have studied the techniques by which the weak become stronger than their oppressors, by scattering, by becoming centreless, by moving fast across the physical or media and virtual landscapes. 'The hunted must discover the ways to become the hunter.'

(The ABC of Tactical Media, Extract 1: David Garcia and Geert Lovink )

The extract, quoted above, written in 1997 could not have anticipated anything as devastating or nihilistic as the September 11th attack. On re-reading the essay it seems, that although to a small degree prescient we were also extremely naive. Naive in our implicit assumption that tactical media (giving voice as it does to the excluded and disenfranchised) would automatically be harnessed to emancipatory social movements.

In Amsterdam there are two main groups making tactical media who have been affected by September 11th. On the one hand, as in most western metropolitan centres, there are loose coalitions of media makers made up of the old and new left. For these groups media tactics are an important tool in their role as part of a worldwide movement battling for global economic justice. As in other countries these local groups are having to re-examine their tactics in the light of a "transformed semiotic (and actual) landscape". But there is also another network of tactical media makers working in Amsterdam: large and diverse clusters of Islamic organizations that have developed their own local media culture. Among these groups are a number of mosques and related Islamic organizations using small-scale media to inform and mobilize on behalf of the extreme wing of theocratic Islam. Not surprisingly they are having to come to terms with a new reality as the content of these transmissions are coming under greater scrutiny than ever before.


It is no accident that the term tactical media first appeared in Amsterdam. The city has a remarkable history of anarchic media experimentation and civic networking. Nearly a decade ago I described Amsterdam as a "pirate utopia for tactical media". Since then considerable damage has been done to the environment that legitimised this claim. Nevertheless some important aspects of the pirate legacy remain more or less intact. Most significantly, Amsterdam's long established community accesses radio and cable television.

The Netherlands was the first European country to establish a 100% cable infrastructure; as a result Holland's cable TV is not a luxury but a near universal utility. Amsterdam is also the only major Dutch (or for that matter European) city to have taken "tactical" advantage of cable television. No other city in Europe (except possibly Berlin) has Amsterdam's history of experimental television or its policy of "community access" TV and radio. A policy, which is both interesting and important because it is matched by a significant demographic diversity. Anyone with a TV in Amsterdam can receive the two "open channels". This evolving open network has been hosting experimental and tactical media (as well as more conservative transmissions) for more than twenty years.

Apart from the technical infrastructure there is also the nature of the city itself, a multilingual port of call for travellers and migrants from around the world. Amsterdam has the intensity of a major metropolis but it is actually a small town. Those watching TV at home are quite often within cycling distance from live transmissions. These factors combine to allow Amsterdam television to be an intimate communications medium. Perhaps the closest television can come to the best and the worst of the Internet.

Migrant Media

As the years have passed Amsterdam has gone from one to two open channels. And these channels have been used more and more by specifically "migrant media". There is a "respectable" municipally supported program for migrants, which aspires to a broadcast standard of professionalism. And there are also a host of independent media makers whose approach to television is much looser. These transmissions range from those with ambitious production values to those who simply download satellite transmissions and hook them into the local cable. But whatever the approach, the extent and popularity of these programs indicate their importance in helping migrants to stay in touch with some idea of home.

Of Amsterdam's migrant media makers, Islamic groups are one of the largest cultures currently making use of the open channels. Even in a brief survey it is important not to conform to a monolithic representation of Islam. The richness and diversity of Islamic thought and opinion is to a degree reflected in the range and style of Amsterdam's local transmissions. At the last count there were 12 Islamic organizations transmitting regularly. Which, if you consider that Amsterdam is a small city of just over a million people, is fairly extensive.

The transmissions cover a wide spectrum of opinion and an equally wide geographical range. Many of the exclusively religious transmissions originate from local Mosques, which have direct connections to different Arabic countries and so the programs will be targeted at specific national communities. However, quite a few of these transmissions are simply satellite downloads of religious teachers speaking from the country of origin. Turkish Islam is also an important part of this local media picture, and Turkish transmissions cover the full spectrum of religious and political opinion. For example A Turkish group, TTA, is one of the most militantly anti-western of those using the cable network. On the other hand there are a number of groups notably Alternatief or Klas TV/Harman which although Islamic are generally opposed to the fundamentalist wing of the religion.

Both before and since September the 11th a number of complaints have been lodged with SALTO (the government agency tasked with structuring and to a limited degree controlling the output of the open channels). Only one of these complaints was considered serious enough to warrant investigation. Since September 11th SALTO itself has been approached by the Dutch secret service and asked to reveal information about a group of program makers called "Islamic Aid", which had a name similar to a group with proven links to Al Qaeda. But, as it turned out, the Amsterdam organization was completely unconnected to this group.

During their years of development the local media produced by Amsterdam's Islamic cultures have been mostly ignored by all but their intended audience. However after September 11th Holland's position as a tolerant nation has been badly shaken. And this has to a degree contributed to a violent (and unprecedented) swing to the populist right.

To outsiders Dutch culture can appear more enlightened than it actually is. The famous Dutch tolerance is not particularly "inclusive". It often consists of a policy of creating "permanent autonomous zones" in which controversial minorities can (and are even encouraged) to do their own thing, as long as they don't rock the boat and shake a fundamentally conservative status quo. For years this policy has proved effective at keeping political minorities, if not always off the streets, at least out of power.

After September 11th the Dutch sat up and took a new look at the Islamic cultures living in their midst, perhaps for the first time listening closely to what was being said. The broader implications of globalization had suddenly become apparent.

The militant wing of theocratic Islam has proved tactically apt; utilizing simple combinations of satellite to cable connections has helped to connect global networks to local media. In true tactical style, the tools of media technology have been turned on the technological society itself. The local and regional consequences of these facts are still unfolding.