New research suggests closing down extremist Islamic websites is no substitute for directly challenging their religious ideology
Three religious concepts form "the backbone of all jihadist activity", according to new research by the anti-extremism thinktank Quilliam. The concepts – used to justify a very broad range of violent activities – are "self-supporting and mutually reinforcing", and highly resistant to being challenged from outside. But to effectively combat jihadism it is essential to start with addressing these doctrines, Quilliam says.
Its conclusions are based on an 18-month study of Arabic-language websites that eventually focused on 20 discussion forums. This showed that jihadists draw their ideas from a very limited range of Islamic thought – mostly the Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam. It is very rare to find opinions from what, historically, have been the main schools of Sunni jurisprudence.
Wahhabism is the ultra-strict brand of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia and jihadists see Wahhabis as "possibly the only group of scholars with the necessary integrity to be worthy of being followed" – which brings us to the first of the key concepts: the idea of "the saved sect".
The saved sect is basically the idea – found, too, in other religions – that "we" are right while everyone else is wrong and will go to hell. At best, this means that others, whether unbelievers or fellow Muslims, are misguided and in need of re-education but it can also be used as a pretext for violence against them.
The second concept is taghut, which roughly translates as idolatry. This is a familiar idea in mainstream Islam but, in the hands of Wahhabis and Salafi-jihadists, it is extended to include almost anything beyond what God is believed to have decreed: constitutions, democracy, "man-made" laws, etc. "For Salafi-Jihadists this can mean fighting physically against states which do not impose their preferred version of the sharia as state law or against individuals who support such states or facilitate their functioning," Quilliam's report says.
The third concept is al-wala' wal bara' – allegiance to Muslims and rejection of non-Muslims. This idea, "which aims to divide humanity physically, mentally and socially into Muslim and non-Muslims blocs, is central to Wahhabi thinking," the report says. In practical terms, it can mean declaring other Muslims to be apostates if they cooperate with "non-Muslim" authorities such as the police and security forces: "Even where this does not directly lead to attacks, it can make Muslims more reluctant to join such organisations."
The problem is how to challenge these ideas, and Quilliam acknowledges that there isn't a simple solution. When people believe that God has shown them the way and all other ways are wrong, it's very difficult to dislodge them from that position.
Quilliam notes that jihadists see their version of Islam as overlapping with the views of prominent Wahhabis and wonders if there might be scope for de-radicalising them into more traditional Wahhabis. But the trouble with that, it says, is that popularising Wahhabism also risks enlarging the pool of people who are potentially receptive to jihadism. It may not be the Saudi government's fault that the teachings of its official sect are manipulated to support jihadist arguments, but it clearly needs to give some thought to why they are capable of being used in this way. However, getting Saudi scholars to denounce terrorism is unlikely to cut much ice with convince jihadists: they will simply regard them as having sold out to the authorities.
Possibly a more fruitful strategy is to focus on the fringes where people are drifting towards jihadism but not yet committed. Among other things, Quilliam suggests using the internet to directly challenging extremist ideology "through exposing the fallacies, contradictions and harmful effects of jihadist concepts and actions, while also helping to expose ordinary Muslims to counter-jihadist messages and to mainstream theological readings of Islam, both in order to inoculate them against extremism and to give them the tools to challenge extremism themselves."
This, too, presents some difficulties. It needs people who are familiar enough with the religious arguments to debate them effectively, and who have the time and persistence to do so. Such people are not very numerous. And since most jihadist websites require users to register before they can post comments, unwelcome interventions from critics are easily blocked.
Closing down websites has been tried but it doesn't really work. They usually pop up again somewhere else and even if they are permanently closed the ideas they promote will not go away. In the long run, suppressing them is no substitute for directly challenging their ideology.
Without an obvious silver bullet against jihadism, all this points to trying a combination of methods until it become clearer which of them are working and which are not. The key, though, is to confront them on their own ground by addressing their religious arguments.
September 28, 2010, Guardian