Claims by groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda to have theological backing for their brands of violent extremism are going virtually unchallenged by mainstream Islamic scholars, according to a new report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change:
An analysis of thousands of documents has revealed that religious counter-narratives are failing to confront 85 per cent of the scriptural references used prominently by such terrorist groups to justify their methods….Religious leaders should offer alternative interpretations to “prevent extremists from defining the rules of the game in the battle of ideas”, the report said.
The study – Struggle Over Scripture: Charting the Rift Between Islamist Extremism and Mainstream Islam – was based on a study of more than 3,000 documents from Islamist extremist and mainstream Muslim sources. It found that the political Islamism practised by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood was much closer to the ideology of violent extremism than it was the religious mainstream, the report found.
The report finds that:
- Political Islamism is considerably more ideologically aligned with violent extremism than it is with the religious mainstream, across its use of scripture, scholarship, and content.
- Salafi-jihadi ideology is demonstrably distant from mainstream Islam. Only 8 per cent of the 50 most quoted Quranic verses in Salafi-jihadi material were prevalent in mainstream texts.
- Religious counter-narratives are currently failing to tackle the key arguments peddled by extremists, taking on only 16 per cent of the scriptural references prominently used by Salafi-jihadis.
- Islamist interpretations of scripture are completely at odds with mainstream Islamic readings. Central tenets, such as fasting, prayers, and preaching, are relegated in extremist texts in favour of violent jihad and the caliphate.
“The evidence now shows that there is considerable ideological overlap in how Islamic scripture is used by Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and violent jihadists, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda,” said Dr Emman El-Badawy, head of research at the institute.
“Understanding the ideological proximity of non-violent Islamist and Salafi-jihadism has never been more urgent, as the Muslim Brotherhood is increasingly under the spotlight,” she added. “The fact remains that extremist voices have had an impact on Islam that is wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and their distortions as traced in this report, must be uprooted.”
The U.S. government is intellectually, culturally, and organizationally unprepared to combat both elements of the radical Jihadist threat and fight a true war of ideas, according to John Lenczowski Founder and President of the Institute of World Politics. There is no agency of the government charged with ideological warfare. There is no agency that hires warriors of ideas. There is no agency that trains its personnel to conduct such a war, he told the Committee on House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
Jihadism is principally an ideological problem, Lenczowski told a hearing on Advancing Human Rights to Combat Extremism. He proposed the creation of a new U.S. Public Diplomacy Agency (USPDA), which would incorporate:
- all the former functions of the [long defunct] U.S. Information Agency;
- the various other public diplomacy functions at State, such as human rights, democracy, and international labor policy, women’s issues, etc.;
- the many functions of the U.S. Agency for International Development;
- broadcasting in radio (on all wave-lengths), television, and internet/social media by the Voice of America;
- policy and budgetary oversight of the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy and its subsidiary organizations; and
- possibly even the Peace Corps. (There are sound arguments that the Peace Corps should remain independent. But so long as it is, it will remain an orphan child of the foreign policy community, perennially under-funded and lacking national strategic attention.)
The committee also heard testimony from Thomas Farr, Ph.D., President of the Religious Freedom Institute and Director of the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University, and from Mr. Neil Hicks, Director of Human Rights Promotion at Human Rights First.
“National counterterrorism measures that are not rooted in respect for human rights risk being counterproductive,” said Hicks. “When governments stifle peaceful dissent, muzzle the media, and prevent the legitimate activities of non-violent civil society organizations, they are not countering extremism; they are fomenting it.”
Egypt provides a compelling case study for what has been described as the “worst-ever counter-terrorism strategy,” observers suggest.
“When political dialogue is forbidden and discredited, extremists are empowered and extremist ideology vindicated. Suggesting that all Islamism is inevitably violent is self-fulfilling,” said Hicks. “It is especially dangerous in states where a significant proportion, or even the majority, of the political opposition to the government identifies as Islamist. By suppressing other types of political expression and organization, squeezing pluralism out of the system, authoritarian states have made this problem worse.”
Within the new agency should reside a couple of relevant offices, Lenczowski. added. These should include:
- An office to counter Jihadist propaganda. It took the State Department over a decade to establish such a function within its walls: originally the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, now the Global Engagement Center. This was a long overdue, but excellent development that needs much greater resources, both human and financial, as well as specialized training and targeted hiring of personnel who are optimally intellectually equipped to fight a war of information and ideas.
- An office specializing in semantics as a key component of information and counterpropaganda.
- An office with a robust capability to do foreign audience and opinion research and to hire private organizations or companies that possess unique capabilities.
- A Bureau of Education, Culture, and Ideas, within which should reside an office of religious and ideological affairs charged with strategic policy making and implementation in ideological warfare.
- An equivalent of the USIA’s Office of Private Sector Programs, which gave grants to private organizations to do work best done by groups other than the U.S. government such as the aforementioned GoodOfAll, Asia America Initiative, and LibForAll.