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.

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