Countering extremism of ISIS and al-Qaeda is not against Islam, but against a perversion of the religion

Milo ComerfordAnalyst and Research Innovation Officer

Rachel BrysonResearcher

    • Struggle Over Scripture: Charting the Rift Between Islamist Extremism and Mainstream Islam

 Concerns about Islamist extremism are growing both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries as it continues to kill tens of thousands each year around the globe. Yet there is a deficiency in evidence-based research into how the supremacist ideology that drives this violence warps mainstream religious principles.

There must be greater consensus among policymakers and thought leaders that the battle against the extremism of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda is not against Islam, but rather against a perversion of the religion. This report aims to clarify the nature of that perversion, to enable a religiously grounded response to Islamist extremism, in both its violent and its nonviolent forms.

Making use of innovative natural language processing approaches, this study of over 3,000 mainstream, Islamist, Salafi-jihadi, and counter-narrative texts forms a quantitative picture of the key ideological differences between Islamist extremism, both violent and nonviolent, and the Islamic mainstream. Our conclusions can provide a basis for an informed response by religious leaders, policymakers, and civil-society organisations, rooted in the significant differences between Islamist extremism and mainstream Islam identified by our analysis.

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.

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