Understanding extremist ideologies crucial to fight against terror

Understanding extremist ideologies crucial to fight against terror

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday published a report on the state of Islamist extremism in 2017. It attempted to track all instances and the consequences of Islamist extremism across the world through the year. The numbers that it came up with are fairly astounding, and they definitively show that Muslims suffer the most from such attacks.

The Global Extremism Monitor recorded more than 84,000 deaths caused by extremism in 2017. To put that number in perspective, it is about 1.2 deaths per 100,000 people — more than the annual global deaths from skin cancer. Or, to put it another way, it is 85 percent of 2016’s total deaths from violent conflict. The idea isn’t to scare you (on a global average, you’re much more likely to die in a traffic accident), but it does suggest that something is not quite going right in the global fight against extremism.

I should declare an interest: I set up the team and concept of this report in my past life running Blair’s counter-extremism think tank. The reason that we wanted to gather the data was to measure, numerically, the effects of global Islamist extremism: Who is targeted, by whom, where and why. With the answers to those questions, we could look at where the world was failing in counter-extremism.

In his foreword, Blair draws attention to the disparity between hard and soft security. According to the report, only 1 percent of British spending on security focused on countering extremist ideology. In the UK, the debate is circular, with the Cold War understanding of the necessity of protecting our parliamentary democracy being replaced by a postmodern sense that this demand is a form of cultural oppression.

Aside from hard numbers, what we really need is more information on the ideologies driving the violence. The report claims to have identified 121 different extremist groups. But, if policymakers are to have a hope of securing their defeat, they must examine and understand the different ideological aspects of extremism that drives them.

The world has taken great steps — not least in the efforts of Saudi Arabia — in understanding the ideological component of deradicalizing fighters. Where we are weaker is in inoculating those vulnerable to extremist messages.

Peter Welby

The foot soldiers carrying out the attacks might only have a warped and thin understanding of Islam, but the ideologues radicalizing them possess a deep understanding of how to use twisted interpretations of religion to create certainty in their forces. This certainty can make the followers carry out unspeakable acts without hesitation, and give their own lives without regret. In addition to the information contained in reports like these, policymakers need to know the vast differences and rivalries between — for example — militant Zaidi revivalism and militant Salafi nationalism if they are to prescribe the appropriate policies.

Perhaps one of the least surprising aspects of the report, but one which, in the West, cannot be stated enough, is that Muslims form the majority of the victims of Islamist violence. Of the 60 countries in which the report tracked extremism, the vast majority are in the Muslim world — and two-thirds of all attacks recorded occurred in Muslim-majority countries.

This brought home the double standards the world applies to counter-extremism operations. The authors mention in passing an airstrike on a Daesh position during the battle for Mosul that killed 230 civilians. In response to the strike, while there was criticism of the US Air Force, the majority of the condemnation was reserved for Daesh for the use of human shields. This leads to the reflection — not for the first time — that wars to eradicate extremist groups that seem to pose a threat to the West, such as Daesh, will be viewed as more legitimate than those against groups, such as the Houthis, that do not. Yet the tactic of using human shields, of oppressing populations and of using territory as a launch pad for indiscriminate attacks elsewhere is shared between the groups.

Reports like the one by the Global Extremism Monitor make for fascinating reading for those of us who seek answers. The world of counter-extremism is long on opinions and short on data. This report takes a big step toward redressing that balance. What it cannot do on its own, however, is give us all of the answers.

The world has taken great steps — not least in the efforts of Saudi Arabia — in understanding the ideological component of deradicalizing fighters. Where we are weaker is in inoculating those vulnerable to extremist messages.

In seeking answers to the scourge of violence based on extreme and shallow interpretations of Islam, surely it is right for us to examine how to make a more powerful religious case against these global movements. This is urgently needed as, despite the vain efforts of a few organizations in the West, too often the path of least resistance for policymakers is to look for secular answers to a problem which, at its heart, is ideological and religious in nature.


Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.

Twitter: @pdcwelby

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