Getting past the abuse

Many efforts to provide counter-narratives for Salafist-jihadism are currently failing to address extremists′ abuse of religious scripture directly. Nevertheless, efforts to combat extremism through religious counter-narratives are expanding across the Islamic world. By Rachel Bryson and Milo Comerford

By Rachel Bryson & Milo Comerford

While a new study of over three thousand diverse religious texts showcases the rich potential for mainstream Islam to rebut extremist interpretations of theology, it also finds that counter-narrative efforts are inadequately confronting extremists′ abuse of scripture and their recourse to disputed religious concepts.

The analysis of contemporary texts put out by groups from across a broad ideological spectrum highlights that the ideology of Salafist jihadism, held by groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida, is palpably distinct from mainstream Sunni Islam.

Across a sample of thousands of documents, of the 50 most quoted verses (ayat) of the Koran in Salafist-jihadist texts, only 8 percent are also prevalent in mainstream material.

Cherry-picking an ideology

Salafist-jihadist texts do quote Islamic scripture extensively to justify their ideology, with five times more Koranic references than mainstream texts. However, they cherry-pick the Koran, drawing on a small cluster of verses to affirm their ideological position.

In contrast, the mainstream quotes from a broader range of verses, reflecting a wider thematic focus. Such scriptural selectivity undermines arguments, made by both Islamist and anti-Muslim ideologues, that extremists have more religious legitimacy than mainstream interpretations. Pointing out extremists′ selective and narrow references to scripture may be one way to prevent them from defining the rules of the game.

Beyond references to specific verses, analysis of texts′ predominant religious concepts demonstrates how different interpretations draw on distinct ″arsenals of ideas″. The analysis suggests extremists are considerably more concerned with legalistic elements of scripture than personal piety.

IS terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud with the IS flag and Koran (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Perverting the Koran, instrumentalising faith for political ends: Salafist-jihadist texts quote Islamic scripture extensively to justify their ideology, with five times more Koranic references than mainstream texts. However, they cherry-pick the Koran, drawing on a small cluster of verses to affirm their ideological position

Notably, a number of hardline Islamist groups – including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat-i-Islami and some variations of the Muslim Brotherhood use scripture and concepts similarly to Salafist-jihadist groups in their core texts. More mainstream political parties, such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, were not included in the analysis because they drew on considerably less religious content.

This ideological proximity between Islamists and Salafist-jihadists and their distance from the mainstream, becomes particularly apparent in their respective uses of the Koran. In the study′s sample, 64 percent of the 50 most-referenced Koranic verses in the Islamists′ texts overlap with those of the Salafist-jihadist groups, whereas Islamists and the mainstream only have 12 percent in common.

This similarity does not necessarily indicate a shared ideological character, as texts may reach different interpretations of the same quotations. However, understanding such relationships can inform the growing global policy debate around the interplay between violent and non-violent extremism.

Reclaiming the debate

These findings can also help evaluate the success of religiously rooted counter-narratives to extremism. The study analysed what Koranic verses and hadith counter-narratives reference, what concepts they promote or refute and what scholarship they draw on, comparing these with the narratives in both Salafist-jihadist and Islamist texts. The counter-narratives split roughly three ways: content either condemns extremist actions as un-Islamic, offers peaceful alternatives and interpretations, or directly takes on and unpacks extremist arguments. Yet most efforts are currently failing to respond to the key arguments peddled by extremists. They are only addressing and challenging the interpretations of 16 percent of the Koranic references prominently used by Salafist-jihadists in the study′s sample.

As a result, it is clear that much more can be done to reclaim religious discourse from Islamist and jihadist ideologues. For example, one of the most commonly quoted verses in Salafist-jihadist literature (Surat Al-Anfal, verse 60) warns Muslims to prepare against armed battle with their opponents, but counter-narratives are currently failing to capitalise on the verse that follows, which emphasises peaceful resolution of conflict.

Counter-narratives seem to address the religious ideas explored in Salafist-jihadist literature more successfully, but still do not prominently tackle about 40 percent of the key ideological concepts of Salafist-jihadism. Most efforts are focused exclusively on tackling narratives of violence, such as suicide attacks.

Not the path to Paradise

For example, ″This is not the Path to Paradise″, a widely shared fatwa by Mauritanian sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah condemning the Islamic State′s claim to have established a caliphate, is one of only a few examples of a counter-narrative that directly confronts the religious nuance of an Islamic state.

Al-Azhar University in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/ZB)
On the offensive: launched in June 2015, Al-Azhar University′s online Observatory for Combatting Extremism tracks the Islamic State′s propaganda and rebuts extremist religious interpretations – for example, it issued an online feature correcting common misconceptions about Islam and publishes theologically founded replies to terrorist ideologies

Around the Muslim-majority world, prominent religious institutions and leaders are increasingly issuing proactive rebuttals of extremist thought founded on sound Islamic knowledge.

While still in the early stages of development, Al-Azhar University′s online Observatory for Combatting Extremism, launched in June 2015, tracks the Islamic State′s propaganda and rebuts extremist religious interpretations – for example, it issued an online feature correcting common misconceptions about Islam and publishes theologically founded replies to terrorist ideologies.It is also expanding its work to train young imams to use social media to effectively counter such narratives in their own communities. In addition, political leaders in Muslim-majority countries are increasingly associating good citizenship with confronting extremist worldviews.

For the United Arab Emirates′ national day, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed stressed ″the pressing need that the Arab peoples, the young in particular, know that [extremist] ideologies are maiming the beautiful and shining face of our faith.″

Against extremist ″perversions″ of Islam

Saudi Arabia′s Etidal Center, opened in May 2017, aims to co-ordinate efforts by governments and international organisations to fight extremism and hundreds of its analysts have been tasked with identifying and engaging with extremist ″perversions″ of Islam online.

Preventing radicalisation and providing advice on matters of faith in a Cairo metro station (photo: DW)
New approaches to combatting Islamist extremism in Egypt: for over a year now, Al-Azhar clerics have been offering advice on matters of faith in the public sphere, seen here in a Cairo metro station. They are part of the Islamic university's new programme to make contact with people in the places they frequent in their spare time, Al-Azhar's theological outreach unit, so to speak. The new motto of this university, which has been in existence for over a thousand years and views itself as one of the most important legal authorities in Sunni Islam, is "out of the mosques and onto the streets"

Although some counter-narratives directly address the scripture and concepts violent extremist groups express, those who follow such a violent stance often have louder voices. Extremist interpretations are well funded, well organised and effectively communicated.

To drown them out, alternative Muslim voices are seeking to amplify their rebuttals against distortions of their faith. Initiatives such as the Sawab Centre in Abu Dhabi provide strategic communications expertise on understanding audiences, helping mainstream religious leaders effectively engage a range of media and platforms when presenting arguments.

For example, in November 2017 the Sawab Centre launched a joint Twitter campaign with the Al-Azhar Observatory to emphasise the values of mercy and tolerance. But grassroots religious responses still face challenges in garnering resources, using effective platforms and coordinating efforts with counterparts.

In Western countries, diverse Muslim-led civil-society responses – such as the UK-sponsored Imams Online project – also provide credibility and community access for counter-narratives.

And as more local actors refute extremist interpretations of Islamic scripture, governments can distance themselves from accusations that their efforts to counter destructive ideologies are an attempt to cultivate a state-sanctioned Islam, a perception that plays into extremists′ hands.

As public debates about Islamist extremism grow, efforts to counter it may be more effective if they directly take on verses and hadith most cited by extremists, engaging with the concepts they most focus on and offering alternative interpretations.

Rachel Bryson and Milo Comerford

© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2018

Rachel Bryson and Milo Comerford are analysts in the Co-Existence team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.