Getting past the abuse
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.
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.