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 between violent and nonviolent Islamist extremism.
There is a clear ideological overlap between nonviolent and violent extremism. Defeating both requires an understanding of the relationship between them, so that each can be tackled.
Policy approaches that challenge extremism must therefore deal with both the violence—as a symptom of extremist ideology—and the ideology itself. Security measures are necessary but will not defeat the threat in its entirety.
Defeating Islamist extremism, in all its forms, requires clarity on the distinction between violent and nonviolent extremism, and the interplay between the two. The shared personal networks, ideological overlaps and similar methods of scriptural interpretation that exist between them are often overlooked.
Understanding both violent and nonviolent forms of Islamist extremism is essential to thoroughly tackle the current global threat. It is vital that policy approaches focus on preventing violence, but policymakers must take further steps to understand and challenge the nonviolent movement as well.
On the one hand, there is nonviolent Islamism, a modern religious-political ideology that requires a dominant role for an interpretation of Islam as state rule. This is the approach practised by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir. On the other hand, there is Salafi-jihadism, a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in violent jihadism and a return to the perceived Islam of the Prophet Mohammad’s followers. This is the worldview espoused by groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. The interplay between the two categories is hard to define and delineate, making it difficult to develop constructive policies in response.
Although there is no inevitable conveyor belt between nonviolent and violent extremism, and many individuals move away from extremist ideologies altogether, our analysis provides critical insight into the relationship between the two. The ideological overlap is clear, even if the groups differ in tactics. It is essential that when challenging extremism, policy approaches tackle both the violence—as a symptom of the ideology—and the ideology itself.
Our Institute has developed data-driven methodologies to explore the ideological grey zone between violent and nonviolent extremism. By providing clear analysis and evidence of the relationship between the two, we can confidently navigate what is otherwise an intimidating gulf of knowledge, especially in Western policy.
Our analysis of over 3,000 documents from Islamist extremism and the religious mainstream revealed that Islamism is more ideologically aligned with Salafi-jihadism than with the mainstream. By examining the quotation of scripture, references to scholarship and the concepts explored in texts, our research highlighted the close ideological proximity between violent and nonviolent extremism.
For example, our research uncovered remarkable similarity between the Quranic quotations in Salafi-jihadi and Islamist documents: 64 per cent of the 50 most frequently quoted verses in each category were the same. Meanwhile, there was only 12 per cent overlap between Islamists and the mainstream, 8 per cent between Salafi-jihadi and mainstream texts, and 4 per cent between all three categories (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Overlap in Quranic Quotations Between Content Types
In fact, six of the ten most quoted verses in Salafi-jihadi and Islamist literature were the same (see table 2). This scriptural overlap does not mean the two categories have identical practices and character, but it does denote ideological proximity as they draw on similar verses to justify their positions and actions.
Table 2: The Most Quoted Quranic Verses in Salafi-Jihadi and Islamist Content
The contextual framing of Quranic verses in Islamist texts is generally less violent, but these documents endorse a binary worldview and promote practices that enforce hardships on non-Muslims, similar to the outlook of violent extremists. Our analysis showed a 70 per cent overlap in the conceptual content of these two categories, with concepts in common including jihad, an Islamic state or caliphate, and concern with polytheism and non-Muslims (see table 3). In comparison, the mainstream focuses much more on issues relating to personal piety.
Table 3: The Most Referenced Concepts in Mainstream, Islamist and Salafi-Jihadi Content
The concepts that are distinct to each category are of note: in the material analysed, only the Salafi-jihadi content included martyrdom, apostasy and military jihad, while Islamists alone discussed Muslim society, tyranny and dhimmitude (the protected status of non-Muslim people of the book—primarily Jews and Christians—living under Islamic rule). This distinction is revealing of the nonviolent stance that is concerned with an interpretation of Islam as state rule.
The online availability of extremist documents is alarming. Our research into the accessibility of extremist materials online shows not only that there is a wide variety of extremist content online but also that distinguishing between nonviolent and violent material can be challenging.
A number of sites that purport to present legitimate Islamic scholarship host extremist material as well. While some of that material fits under the violent category, more benign lectures—even by known ideologues such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born jihadi ideologue for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Abdullah Azzam, an early al-Qaeda ideologue and chief controller of the Arab-Afghan mujahideen movement—are harder to categorise. Even if a given ideologue aligns with an extreme interpretation of Islam, the content of a specific lecture might be more mundane and fall below the violent threshold. Navigating this difficulty online requires an in-depth understanding of the ideological grey zone.
Not only is there clear ideological overlap between violent and nonviolent extremist stances, but individual jihadis also tend to have a history of nonviolent extremism. In an analysis of 113 British jihadis, the vast majority moved towards jihadism after their exposure to nonviolent Islamist ideologies. At least 77 per cent had links to nonviolent Islamism, whether by association with Islamist organisations or through connections to individuals who follow and spread extremist ideology. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir have served as recruiting pools for jihadi groups.
Our analysis of global jihadi leaders revealed that over half had nonviolent Islamist links, whether as members of Islamist organisations or through auxiliaries affiliated with them. These included bodies that are not necessarily political activist organisations but form a functioning arm of existing Islamist groups, such as youth wings, student associations and other societies. Although being a member of a nonviolent Islamist group does not equate to joining a jihadi movement, the ideological overlap between the two—and the nonviolent history of many jihadis—highlights the importance of challenging both extreme interpretations.
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