One of the core objectives of the Institute is the promotion of co-existence across the boundaries of religious faith and the combating of extremism based on an abuse of faith. Part of this work is research into the phenomenon of extremism derived particularly from the abuse of Islam.
This publication is the most comprehensive analysis of such extremism to date and utilises data on terrorism in a new way to show:
Violent extremism connected with the perversion of Islam today is global, affecting over 60 countries.
Now more than 120 different groups worldwide are actively engaged in this violence.
These groups are united by an ideology that shares certain traits and beliefs.
The ideology and the violence associated with it have been growing over a period of decades stretching back to the 1980s or further, closely correlated with the development of the Muslim Brotherhood into a global movement, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and—in the same year—the storming by extremist insurgents of Islam’s holy city of Mecca.
Defeating this ideology and violence requires a strategy designed for the long term that understands that the violence will never be eliminated unless the ideology behind it is also broken.
Islamist extremism didn’t begin with al-Qaeda, nor will it end with the defeat of ISIS. Guided by a transnational religious-political ideology going back over half a century, the more than 120 groups my Institute has documented believe that anyone who doesn’t adhere to their totalitarian thinking is a legitimate target.
From the Muslim Brotherhood, which armed its members in the 1940s on an anti-imperialist mission, to the band of international fighters who once fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to the creation of Hizbullah in Lebanon following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, this ideology has festered and spread across borders.
Leading figures of the violent Islamist movement such as Osama bin Laden whipped up anger and resentment and created a sense of group victimhood. A perception of unparalleled Muslim suffering around the world became the jihadis’ rallying cry. Yet far from being protectors of the ummah, the Islamists mete out most of their cruelty on other Muslims. As our research shows, Muslims are often the first victims, with two-thirds of all attacks aimed at civilians taking place in Muslim-majority countries. Those who live in peaceful co-existence—practising Islam peacefully, as most Muslims around the world do—and who fail to answer the call to arms are regarded as heretics, and targets just as much as non-Muslims.
Outside the Middle East, Islamists have found footholds in Southeast Asia and, increasingly, in sub-Saharan Africa. Mali is today one of the worst-affected countries, and the Sahel poses one of the world’s most potent security challenges, as weak governance, poverty and extremism increasingly collide. And while each country faces a unique set of circumstances, as groups take different forms and exploit local grievances, all affected nations have a shared interest to uproot an ideology that killed more than 84,000 people in 66 countries last year.
Security measures will be vital. But security alone will never be enough. It will only slow the violence. Stopping it requires a comprehensive strategy, which encompasses state capacity, addresses poverty, improves education and ensures that people are not drawn to a pernicious ideology. But to deliver this, governments around the world must reorder resources towards long-term measures to combat the ideology as well as the violence it breeds.
Presently, the world collectively spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year on additional security in airports, protection and counter-terrorism. It spends a small fraction of that on soft-power measures that tackle the underlying ideology.
A security-first approach is important to address public concerns, but ultimately it will never succeed. Security must be complemented by other measures, not just at a state level, but also multilaterally.
For example, we are proposing a Global Commitment on Education, whereby nations agree that as a matter of global responsibility, they will act to root out religious prejudice and promote religious tolerance in their public- and private-education systems.
Far more efforts must go to supporting Muslim leaders working to counter the hijacking of their religion. We also need to redefine development in countries at risk of extremism. Aid policy has already been shown to have severe limitations unless it also addresses state capacity. But where extremism flourishes, aid policy is essentially ineffective. Development agencies must therefore work in tandem with security ones in places such as Chad, Niger or Somalia.
Lastly, we need to remove the idea that extremism is essentially tied to conflict. Where a vacuum is created, such as in Syria, it has clearly created nationwide chaos. But it also simmers away outside conflict zones: 64 of the world’s extremist groups operate outside them.
Unless there is a global will to meet the depth of the challenges, the ideology of Islamism will grow—and with it, the violence. It is time to act.
Download the full Global Extremism Monitor 2017 or browse individual chapters: