A global body of research is developing on the drivers of extremism and the narratives that extremists use to recruit and radicalise. This series showcases key insights from our Institute’s extensive data-driven research, which seeks to inform pressing questions of counter-extremism policymaking and practice. In this part, we explore the interaction of religion, ideology and violence in Islamist extremism.
To eradicate the appeal of Islamist ideologies, policymakers around the world must understand the nuanced religious dimensions of extremism, emphasising the theological gulf between Islamist extremism and mainstream Islam.
The worldview of Salafi-jihadi groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda does more than just advocate violence. Ideologies also wield religious identity to provide solidarity, promote a utopian theocratic vision of society, and exploit and exacerbate range of real or perceived grievances.
Islamist ideology will not be defeated by countering specific extremist groups alone. Efforts to tackle Islamist extremism must take on the broad set of ideas that underpin differing manifestations of this worldview.
Understanding the nuanced relationship between religion and extremist violence is one of the most crucial and contested questions facing policymakers. It is important to view extremist ideologies through a wide lens that incorporates their diverse political, cultural and socio-economic drivers. At the same time, our Institute’s analysis reveals several factors unique to religious extremism that have significant implications for how policymakers understand it and effectively counter it.
Our research shows how religion can imbue extremist ideologies with a strong collective identity and sense of solidarity, a universal narrative that bridges disparate real or perceived grievances, and a rationalisation of sacred violence. Religious extremism’s attraction and appeal lies in balancing a destructive rejection of modernity and globalisation with a utopian and universal theocratic vision of society.
But crucially, our research also affirms the existence of a wide theological gulf between extremists and the mainstream. Data-driven analysis of Islamist texts reveals an ideological approach that cherry-picks scripture, buries the significance of central Islamic practices and rejects classical interpretations of Islam. Such findings demonstrate the importance of counter-extremism approaches that do not call religious expression into question but empower a religiously grounded response to extremist ideologies that claim religious legitimacy.
Our Institute has developed data-driven methodologies to improve understanding of the role of religious ideology in motivating extremism. Much research has focused on the what and how of extremist messaging, including recruitment narratives and propaganda. But little has examined the why—the core system of religious and political beliefs that provides a universal framework for a spectrum of real or perceived grievances.
This effort has centred on unpacking the ideologies of Salafi-jihadism, which is built on Islamic religious principles but is distorted to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad, and Islamism, which politicises the Islamic faith and gives a dominant role to a narrow religious interpretation as state law. These ideologies take great pains to establish their religious legitimacy and adherence to Islamic credal values. But in both cases, our findings show that the battle against such extremist ideologies is not against Islam, but against a perversion of religion.
Our research reveals a major rift in the use of religious scripture between Islamist extremists and the Islamic mainstream. In a sample of thousands of Salafi-jihadi documents, only 8 per cent of the 50 most quoted Quranic verses were also prevalent in mainstream texts.
Islamist extremists quote religious scripture heavily to give themselves a veneer of legitimacy. The Quran is used five times more often in Salafi-jihadi than in mainstream material, but the Salafi-jihadi approach is characterised by cherry-picking that focuses intensely on few verses to support a narrow interpretation.
The religious concepts prominent in extremist and mainstream texts were also poles apart, as Islamist extremism buries the significance of central Islamic practices. While fasting, prayers and preaching were among the five most referenced concepts in mainstream content, they failed to appear in the top 30 ideas in Salafi-jihadi literature, reflecting the contrasting priorities placed on Islamic thought and practice (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Prominence of Key Religious Concepts in Salafi-Jihadi and Mainstream Content
As with their use of scripture, extremists invoke contested religious concepts not only differently from the mainstream but also more selectively. In a sample of thousands of extremist texts, the concept of jihad was referenced an average of 60 times per document. Across mainstream religious texts, the most popular concept—prayers—was referenced once in each document. Understanding such patterns is key to empowering responses to extremism rooted in affirming the theological richness of the religious mainstream.
Most efforts to tackle violent extremist propaganda focus on targeting specific manifestations, including groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. However, these factions have a shared belief system that needs addressing at its ideological roots. Targeting Salafi-jihadism’s individual brands will only ever address symptoms rather than the causes of extremist violence.
For example, a comparative study of the propaganda of three Salafi-jihadi groups—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS—revealed a shared ideological framework, which includes common values, conduct, objectives and group identity. Meanwhile, the different groups wield distinct narratives for recruitment and radicalisation.
As ISIS continues to decline in territorial control, it is crucial that policymakers build on the momentum of tackling the group’s propaganda and brand, and move to rebutting its foundational ideology, which resonates much more widely.
In a 2015 snapshot of the Syrian Civil War, our research found that 15 sizeable groups—a third of all nonstate groups involved in the conflict—shared ISIS’s Salafi-jihadi ideology (see figure 2). A total of 60 per cent of factions had Islamist objectives and were fighting for a dominant role for a strict interpretation of Islam as state law.
Figure 2: Ideologies of Nonstate Groups in the Syrian Civil War, 2015
A similar plethora of extremist factions is emerging in conflict hubs worldwide, such as the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin and Afghanistan/Pakistan—conflicts that are instrumental to the radicalisation of over three-quarters of a 2016 sample of jihadis.
While exploring the current ideological state of play, policymakers must also learn from the historical struggle against extremism, which has been overly focused on groups and key individuals and not enough on networks and belief systems. In particular, there is a need to better understand the connections between the jihadi past and present, as well as how splits in the visions of groups and individuals have fuelled the movement. For example, a large number of jihadi leaders today have close ideological and personal links to the Afghan conflict of the 1980s, without doubt the most important development in Salafi-jihadism (see figure 3).
Figure 3: Salafi-Jihadi Interactions, 1977–2015
The dominant view of violent extremism begins at 9/11. But policymakers must be mindful of the long-sightedness of Salafi-jihadism, which refers freely to the medieval Crusades and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement in their propaganda, to recognise the generational and incremental nature of the challenge represented by the spread of extremist ideologies.
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