by Joseph Braude*
In London Wednesday, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change released a significant new study titled, “Struggle over Scripture: Charting the Rift Between Islamist Extremism and Mainstream Islam.” Based on scrutiny of more than 3,000 religious texts from a range of ideological leanings, it found, inter alia, that “the political Islamism practiced by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood … is far closer to the ideology of violent extremism espoused by ISIS and al-Qaeda, than it is to the religious mainstream.” As such, it provides one of the weightiest indictments of so-called “nonviolent extremism” available to the Western policy community.
To learn more about the study, Majalla spoke with one of its co-authors, Tony Blair Institute researcher Rachel Bryson; as well as Emman El-Badawy, head of “coexistence research” at the organization.
Q: What was the impetus for the study?
Rachel Bryson: We realize that policymakers both in the Western world and in Muslim-majority countries need a stronger evidence base to understand the relationship between Islamist extremism and mainstream Islam. By charting the difference in the way that each side interprets scripture, and deals with scholarship, we hoped to add some constructive analysis to the conversation. So we did research to look at over 3,000 extremist and mainstream texts of four varieties: Salafi-jihadi, Islamist, mainstream, and counter-narrative. Salafi-jihadi would be, for example, as practiced by ISIS or Al-Qaeda. We also looked at Islamists, which is a nonviolent politicized version of Islam — a modern religious political ideology. We then looked at the mainstream, which is, as we looked at only Sunni Islam, drawing from the religious range of documents: fatwas, communiques, essays from main schools of thought within Sunni Islam — and finally, counter-narratives. And we mean by the latter a group of documents or text that offer an alternative method that challenge the extremist narratives. The counter narratives came from a variety of places. Some have scriptural content, drawing on Qur’an or Hadith, and came from different sources globally. We analysed literature in French, Arabic, and English. But the software we used was able to read a wide variety of languages, and help to sift through this big data and focus our analysis. We analysed over 3000 documents in the end – so our sample was significant, which helped us draw serious conclusions and see recurring themes across the different types of material. On top of natural language processing, we added human analysis, which was crucial to verify our findings and contextualise the significance of our insights.
Q: How would you describe the major takeaway from its conclusions?
Emman El-Badawy: The work that the team has done adds a lot of value to understanding the link between nonviolent and violent groups. The main finding is that there is a much closer link between Salafi-jihadis and Islamists than there is between Islamists and the mainstream when it comes to applying scripture to their arguments. For the first time, people can articulate with evidence that there is a gulf between Islamist applications of Qur’an and Hadith on the one hand and mainstream understandings on the other. And that’s the biggest message. We’ve long heard that these groups and their ideas are “not representative,” but without empirical evidence, the point rarely gains wide traction. For me, what empirically the message should be is that there’s a really clear schism between what overlaps there are in the way extremists use scripture, and the way mainstream schools of thinking within traditional Islam apply scripture. The numbers from our data illustrate this. While 64 percent of the scriptural references were shared between samples of Islamist and Salafi-Jihadi literature, there was only 8 percent and 12 percent crossover between Salafi-Jihadi and mainstream literature and Islamist and mainstream literature. Those numbers say a lot, and help explain how the vast majority of devout Muslims who read the same holy texts do not thankfully come to the same conclusions that groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Islamists do.
Q: Was there a difference among the various groups in terms of the expanse of the traditional Islamic discourse which they were engaging?
Rachel Bryson: Whereas the Islamic mainstream placed a clear emphasis on piety (prayers, fasting and preaching) to demonstrate devotion to the faith, Salafi-jihadi texts had a clear alternative religious agenda: these same concepts barely registered, and instead politicised messaging — or establishing a Caliphate and the violent interpretations of the concept of Jihad — dominated. Specifically on the use of the Qur’an, across our thousands of documents, it was clear to see that the mainstream quoted a wide range of Islamic texts, whereas extremists quote from a very narrow portion. This report doesn’t make a value judgment on a lot of the theological aspects. But what we can see from salafi-jihadi scripture is, not only do they choose specific verses to back up their stance, but they also distort them to make them fit into their worldview. Often it’s taken out of the context of the scripture and there are examples in the report where this was clear.
Q: Please share an example.
Rachel Bryson: The most frequent verse that featured in our Salafi-Jihadi sample (in over a third of the documents) came from Surat al Anfal which reflects on the aftermath of a battle between the early Muslims and their Meccan opponents. Verse 60 of that Surah, which was widely quoted, speaks about preparing for battle against the ‘enemies of Allah’ and the rewards repaid to those who fight in His cause. However, missing in all of the references to this verse was the verse immediately following it, verse 61, that if the enemies of Allah reach out a peaceful hand, then allies of Allah should ‘incline to peace’. This is one example, but this pattern was clear across our analysis, and it illustrates what many have said before – cherry picking verses from the Quran can misconstrue its meaning fundamentally.
Q: Among the “counter-narrative” materials you surveyed, what is an example of a particularly outstanding one?
Rachel Bryson: The key counter-narrative projects we’ve found were Muslim-led with religious-scriptural backing. Particularly standout, at the heart of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, there’s an observatory that issues online corrections to misconception and responds to terrorist ideologies. It’s the center of Sunni Islam and seen as a very old base for this. Lots of graduates who track ISIS propaganda think what’s key within that is the Muslim-led aspect. Governments must empower Muslim leaders to do this. Within the individual messages.
Q: Is it your sense that the “counter-narrative” approach has been adequately honed?
Emman El-Badawy: There is a bigger question, when dealing with counter-narratives: Do we mirror the simplistic way extremists use Islam, or do we actually focus on the complexity and highlight those nuances within Islam? I think an oversimplified, reactionary counter-narrative will really only deal with the very narrow detail that Salafi-jihadists present to further their destructive objectives. What we need to be working towards is highlighting the complexities, not being afraid to counter how Salafi jihadists and Islamists oversimply and apply Islamic scripture. Counter-narratives that can withstand scrutiny will require a fine balance between articulating complexity with delivering accessibly for a non-expert audience. A lot of people typically feel quite afraid to engage on the religious front. Some people reading and engaging with extremist propaganda may be attracted to an oversimplified explanation of Islam and Muslims’ duty, and have a tendency to completely reduce the world to black and white.
Q: How do you respond to the objection that the root of the problem is neither a religion nor its abuse but rather social, economic, or political grievances?
Emman El-Badawy: People tend to sit on one side of a camp. Some say, you need to target religious drivers, others say, you need to address the socioeconomic drivers. From our perspective, you need both. Typically, people focus on the socioeconomic, and deal with the veneer layer, but don’t actually engage the ideological drivers, which to be honest have only grown with intensity and urgency in the eyes of those who distort the faith. Let’s be honest: Islam is providing these groups with credibility, and they’re hijacking the intellectual heritage within Islam where it suits them. Why wouldn’t we want to defend against that? They’re justifying their work through religious narratives that afford them a potentially wider audience than they would otherwise be able to captivate if it were just a grievance-based ideology. There can be a multitude of pressures that drive an individual to resort to violence, but when they choose to do it in the name of Islam, that has involved a process in which Islam has been framed as a source of justification for that violence. What you end up doing is, if you only address the socioeconomic factors, you end up ignoring the fact that whether what initiated someone’s radicalisation was the religion or whether it was a series of socioeconomic grievances, ultimately, by the point at which an individual is poised to do serious harm, their conviction in their belief is central. If you can create even the smallest amount of doubt, by unpacking scripturally, the justification of violence within Islam, that can make the world of difference.
Q: What do you hope the release of this report will accomplish?
Emman El-Badawy: What we want from this research is to get to a point where we are all comfortable talking about this with more objectivity that is rooted more in evidence than opinion or anecdote. It’s about giving people the tools, who aren’t just within the Muslim community, to be able to talk about this. We have to appreciate that the extremists themselves are a tiny proportion of the Muslim community but they’re often the loudest. Defeating this requires broad consensus and greater clarity in what we are countering, so we can work better together against the exploitation of beliefs. There’s certainly a current that makes people feel defensive, especially within the Muslim community, against accusations that Islam is driving people to be violent. But rejecting responsibility to counter these messages that are out there is not going to make them go away.
Q: Among Muslim ventures to wage a “counter-narrative” response to extremist indoctrination has been the nascent Saudi-led Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, also known as “Etidal.” Did you come across the group’s materials in the course of the research, and if so, what did you make of them?
Rachel Bryson: When looking at the Center’s documents, their approach is very on-point in that they have identified a remit that they have authority in. The value of having Saudi Arabia lead on such initiatives is clear for anyone engaged in this space. They know exactly what they want to do, and say it in a way that’s comprehensible to different audiences. Counter-narratives yes can be simple where they need to be, but in order to withstand wider critique and scrutiny, we need to retain some complexity and depth to our alternative narratives and interpretations. I think the Center can and will play a major role in this.
Emman El-Badawy: Also, for a western audience, I think it’s so important that more information and leadership comes from within the Muslim-majority world, and that it is vocalized and amplified, as that in itself is an important message. Centers like Etidal help in this. It’s so important for the western audience to see that great efforts are being made within the Muslim majority world, and I think more of that needs be articulated. The Western world also can learn a lot from the Muslim-majority world about how to tackle the religious narrative that ISIS and Al-Qaeda use. Western governments do need that support in building confidence and comfort when communicating conflicting interpretations of Islam – especially those that undermine multiculturalism. Globally, we need to develop a sophisticated way of articulating what is an illegitimate reading of Islam more confidently. Initiatives that are created and developed from within Muslim majority countries will help to articulate the authenticity of counter-narratives, which is crucial when rebutting extremist ideology.
Rachel Bryson: One of the things about the [Etidal] center as well is there’s a centralized base online where you can access information. And one of our policy recommendations is to make the narratives accessible online. It was alarming how easy it was to access ISIS materials.
Q: Your findings appear instructive in showing the intimate relationship between violent and so-called nonviolent extremism.
Rachel Bryson: Part of our research shows that Islamism is closer to Salafi jihadism than the mainstream. The violent manifestation of this ideology receives all the attention. There’s an approach that deals with the actions. But what’s absolutely vital is that they be addressed at an earlier stage, with a focus on preventing justifications for terrorism to gain traction, rather than an entirely reactionary policy against the violent acts themselves. Policy has got to engage with this, and its exactly the remit of counter-extremism work, as opposed to counter-terrorism.
Q: What would be the next step forward, in your view, to more effectively addressing nonviolent extremism as a matter of public policy?
Emman El-Badawy: We recognize that there’s a huge need to become a lot more prescriptive in how we define nonviolent extremism. Ultimately, we need to be better at being able to define it beyond just the absence of violence. More needs to be done towards supporting a legal framework here in the UK. I think until we get to a consensus on defining the threat non-violent extremism poses, it’s very difficult to talk about it in terms of how we tackle it. It’s very clear from a counterterrorism perspective what we’re tackling — but from a non-violent extremism perspective, what we’re tackling isn’t made as clear. Research and evidence as presented in our report helps us to trace the sometimes subtle difference between extreme and mainstream or moderate Islam.