“At the heart of every major religious tradition we find abiding truths and principles that provide the first antidote to violent extremism. It is important to recall that violent extremists are on the fringe of these traditions for a reason: the large majority of adherents recognize that the extremists violate the most basic teachings in one’s tradition. But as our examples have shown, many sincere people are susceptible to authoritative claims made by charismatic leaders. It is all too easy to lose sight of the most basic teachings in one’s religion, particularly when oppressive social, political, or economic conditions figure prominently into the arguments advanced and sacred texts are quoted by authoritative leaders. Fear, insecurity, and a desire to protect the status quo can foster a tribalism in which otherwise sincere people engage in dehumanizing patterns of behavior, even war. Nevertheless, in my view, broad-minded people of faith offer the best hope both for correcting the corruptions leading to violence and for leading the way into a more promising future.” 
Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, HarperCollins, New York, 2008, p.200.
Violent extremism is not a new phenomenon. It has a shared history with various groups and movements across the world. Time and again, violent extremist groups have operated under varying banners – religious, racial, ethnic, national or political.
There is a growing contemporary phenomenon of clash of extremisms everywhere – whether secular, religious, racial, ethnic, nationalist, etc. – that agitate one another to spiraling intensities and degrees of prejudice, discrimination, abuse and violence.
There appears to be a consensus that there are many pathways to violent extremism, with numerous push and pull factors (or “drivers”) that are unique to individuals and causes. Each factor adds to the drive towards extremism, pushing and pulling individuals and groups from extreme words to extreme violent actions. While violent extremist groups might share some common traits and grievances, it should not be assumed that the push and pull factors that radicalize one group are identical to another. There is always an interplay of factors which act in concert to create violent extremists. Consequently, (and unfortunately!) there is no singular cause or solution.
There is no doubt however, that an extremist religious ideology is sometimes an important cause and/or a catalyst towards violent extremism. It is, for some people, a major “pull factor”, while for others, it is used to complement, justify or support the need for violence in redressing perceived injustices.
The problem is often not the values of faith, but the interests of the faithful. Religious, faith-based or faith-worded narratives are easily used to support numerous non-religious push and pull factors in justifying violent extremism. There is therefore the need for careful diagnosis of narratives, so that the religious vocabulary that is often used does not act as a distraction or smoke-screen that prevents an insight into, and appreciation of the real underlying grievances and their remedies.
Ideology (faith-worded or otherwise) without grievances produces no action. Grievances are the foundation upon which the ideology is built. A problem (whether real or perceived) is needed to justify the existence and importance of an ideology that can mobilize and bind people together in addressing it. The ideology is then often garbed in religious terminology and purported textual support in order to give it the halo of divine credibility. This religious halo grants the ideology easier acceptance by the less critical. The religious terminology of a “Liberation Theology” is sometimes the framing of the ideology that allows it to mimic religious orthodoxy and to hijack its narratives. It makes “liberation” from grievances its ends, and its theology or religious ideology the means.
This is troubling because violent extremism is contradictory to the enduring core values of the religious beliefs and mainstream teachings of Islam with its focus on spirituality, compassion, justice, excellence in character, social service and faith in God, etc. Values and ethics, in the ideology of violent extremists are however seen and interpreted through the lenses of interests and expediency, instead of seeing and assessing their interests through the lenses of the enduring universal values of Islam.
To succeed at this, violent extremists usually have to try to develop and justify novel principles and rules of interpreting scriptures that would suit their ends, or arbitrarily quote those opinions of scholars that meet their needs without regard for the context or other opinions held by the scholar they quote.
In its religious history, when compared to others, mainstream Islam has remained either respectful or at least relatively more tolerant of religious diversity through the ages. It has made significant contributions to human civilization, pluralism and has even recognized multiple religious legal systems within its boundaries, in respect for the rights of people of other faiths to self-determination.
Evolutionary Path to Violent Extremism
Before becoming radicalized, most people pass through a series of evolutionary stages or phases. The first step is usually simple curiosity for answers about extremism and violent extremism, followed by greater interest and preoccupation with learning and discussions on the subject matter; next comes gradual acceptance of the validity of some of the arguments (but not all or most) then conversion to “their side” and passive support for/defense of their positions; this is followed by actively promoting the ideology and narratives or recruiting followers. The final stage may be one where violent action is taken.
Counter narratives should be designed to repeat the evolutionary process, or go back a step at least, but with a different trajectory. Counter narratives should therefore also be designed to encourage debate and discussion, to revive curiosity in the heart and minds of those who have taken the extremist’s narrative as true, and to pose critical open-ended questions that may assist the extremist in sincerely re-assessing evidence and assumptions.
Those who are far “up” the evolutionary process of radicalization may naturally be the most difficult to convince. They would likely use opportunities for discussion as means of promoting, defending and reinforcing their position even further. While hope for them is not lost, (history has shown that brutal persecutors can be converted) the most important target should be those who are not yet fully radicalized because they are more likely to be open minded and objective. In engaging such people, it might be useful to debunk misinformation and suggest alternative interpretations of texts and current affairs, especially in light of the fact that many violent extremists have not given sufficient thought to the accuracy of the ideology and narratives they have bought into.
As the ideology behind violent extremism can result in numerous narratives to suit various contexts, it is worth focusing significant attention on countering the foundation of the ideology and roots of the narratives instead of just targeting the endless ever-changing and evolving narratives; although, both the ideology and the narratives need to be addressed.
It is also important to address the various push and pull factors that are behind violent extremism and offer alternatives (“counter offers”) to violent means.
Ideological challenges and counter narratives should be designed to drain the intellectual recruitment capacity. This makes it difficult for such groups to recruit intelligent and charismatic leadership that can sustain and defend the ideology from external or internal challenges. Without intellectual and religious credibility, unity, cohesion and effective succession by sincere, convinced and committed followership is practically impossible.
Seek first to understand and be influenced before you seek to influence others
The development and deployment of well-crafted narratives is critical to the success and recruitment strategies of violent extremists. It is therefore crucial that the extremists’ narratives are very well understood. It is important to know exactly what their “story-line” is and what logic they use to attract, engage, convert or radicalize and recruit individuals. This is essential for debunking and negating the claims of violent extremists and for providing realistic alternative mechanisms to address grievances and issues raised.
Prisons as Portals into the World of the Violent Extremism
Those imprisoned members of violent extremist groups serve as potentially the best living databases of information on what can and cannot work, who such extremists regard as credible voices, their latest or preferred targets, arguments and narratives for recruitment, etc. Prisons are generally the best “safe spaces” where one can potentially meet with, learn, dialogue, test and influence all shades of violent extremists – the disillusioned, doubting, disturbed and dangerous – eventually including those outside the prison walls, especially after successful rehabilitation and integration into mainstream society.
The success of the work in prisons is so important to countering violent extremism, that it will not be an exaggeration to say that in the long term, failure at the prison level will signal failure on the community level. The work in prisons requires dedicated teams of experts from various disciplines.
The 9 pillars of the ideology of violent extremist Muslims
There are certain beliefs that are unique to violent extremists and which make it easier for them to excommunicate other Muslims from the fold of Islam and to justify violence against them (and others). These beliefs are based on a foundation of at least 9 major interrelated ideas, definitions and concepts. Together these 9 constitute the unique combination of beliefs that form the ideology of violent extremists.
These ideas serve as the 9 pillars (as it were) of their ideology. They include:
Most violent extremists are not intellectually oriented and do not know or even properly understand each or all of these arguments. But many extremists know some of them on a basic level as a source of religious support for their policies and missions.
While each of these concepts and ideas many be found within the teachings of a number of Muslims groups, movements and sects, they each do not necessarily produce violent extremists. For example, declaring other Muslims of disbelief (takfir) is not a new phenomenon among Muslims, but on its own does not necessarily produce violence; Regarding modern conventional education (“boko”) as prohibited (haram) is not uncommon among some of the staunch supporters of the Al-Majiri system in Nigeria, and it has been around since the Colonial period; Belief in the need to establish an “Islamic State” (of whatever definitions and character) and to unify the Muslim Ummah under a single leadership (Khilafa) is not uncommon among many revivalist groups and organizations; Regarding the modern secular state and its constitution as an unislamic (“kufr System”) of government is also not uncommon among certain groups of Muslims; The belief that apostasy (ridda) carries the death sentence is the most well-known opinion among many Muslims; The concept of rebellion (bugha) and fighting (jihad) against a corrupt state or leadership is also not unknown in Muslim history as in the Uthman Dan Fodio Jihad; etc. Each one or two or more of these beliefs which may be found within a particular individual or mainstream group of Muslims has not been sufficient to result in violent extremism. This is because of the existence within each of these mainstream groups, certain other beliefs and structures that serve as ideological checks and balances against violent extremism.
On their own, therefore each of these beliefs does not necessarily produce violent extremism, though they are in certain contexts, important ingredients. In a unique combination however, the synergy of these ideas along with the required grievances, means and charismatic leadership, can easily create, however distorted, perverted, deviant or heretical, a “religiously motivated” ideology for violent extremism.
Countering the narratives of violent extremists will necessarily involve countering some of the commonly held narratives of non-violent groups, but which violent extremists take a few steps further.
A number of well-researched literatures have been produced over the years (and centuries) by many scholars each of which responds to the various “pillars” of the different mutations of the ideology and narratives of violent extremism among Muslims. Some of the most commonly available ones in English include: Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Warning against Fitna of Takfeer, Islamic propagation office, Riyadh; Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism, Minhaj-ul-Quran International, London, 2010; Dr. Abdul Rahman ibn Mualaa al-Luwaihiq al-Mutairi, Religious Extremism in the lives of Contemporary Muslims, (Translated by Jamaal al-Din M.Zarabozo), Al-Basheer Publications, USA, 2001; Abu Ameenah AbdurRahman as-Salafi and AbdulHaq ibn Kofi ibn Kwesi al-Ashanti, A Critical Study of the Multiple Identities and Disguises of al-Muhajiroon, Jamiah Media, London, 2009; Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, Jihad and the Spread of Islam¸ Islamic Education Trust, Minna, Nigeria, 2009; Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, Relations with Non-Muslims, Islamic Education Trust, Minna, Nigeria, 2009; Ibn Abi Al-Izz, Commentary on the Creed of At-Tahawi, (translated by Muhammad Abdul-Haqq Ansari, Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University, Riyadh, 2000; Khaled Abou El-Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001; Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, Debating the Concept of Jamaa’at al-Takfeer, Al-Ibana Book Publishing, USA. Nd.; etc.
There are numerous common misconceptions about Islam, and issues about which mainstream scholars and groups differ, which may appear trivial or “minor issues” to some, but are used by violent extremists to add justification and credibility to their views and claim of “authenticity” in following “uncorrupted Islam”.
Examples of these include:
“Nothing about us without us!” Thus, consultation must include those who the resolutions will affect the most or at least those closest to them.
Former violent extremists and captured members of such groups are a goldmine of information for diagnosis. They (especially former recruiters) are in the best position to know what counter narratives will be most effective and how best to package and deliver these. They know best the sensibilities and sensitivities of their colleagues.
While many radicalized Muslim youth are able to hide their extremism from their parents, teachers, clergy and members of the older generation, they are not able to completely hide it from their close friends and peers. Peers are therefore the most important “gate-keepers”. However, they would be reluctant to speak up about a friend who is showing extremist tendencies for fear of “getting into trouble”, “getting their friends into trouble” or “being identified”. The use of more familiar grassroots organizations and groups, and non-intrusive and more anonymous ways of getting in touch, such as having an SMS texting hotline may be appropriate in some contexts. Consequently, there is the need to empower “gate-keepers” with the necessary skills in culturally and contextually sensitive ways of countering violent extremism.
There should be easy accessibility to information on counter narratives and “counter offers” so as to decentralize the responsibility of countering radicalization and empower the groups at the grassroots level to tackle it effectively in culturally and contextually more sensitive ways.
The efficacy of counter narratives has to be tested with audiences that have a close cultural affinity and ability to connect with the target groups. After such testing and appropriate re-adjustment and fine-tuning of the messages and arguments, they might be ready for use by credible voices with rational and faith-based arguments.
For various socio-cultural, religious and other reasons, most women would rather socialize with other women. Women empathize with each other more readily, have fewer communication barriers between one another, and where they hold the same religious beliefs, they share the sisterhood of faith. Naturally, women are the greatest and most effective recruiters of one other.
There is therefore an urgent need to nurture religious scholarship among more women and empower them to become more active in public religious discourse and to be more accessible to other women. The greater the number of well-grounded female scholars, the easier it will be for young girls to find sources of inspirations and guidance without the hindrance of social barriers as it obtains between them and male scholars. There are very few female scholars so even a little scholarship can go a long way and will have a tremendous impact on other women. The scholarship of such women should be rooted in balanced, independent and critical thinking so that they can add to the voices steering women towards moderation and true Islamic values.
Trust is the most important currency in countering violent extremism (CVE) and in the credibility of counter narratives. CVE therefore moves at the speed of trust. The success of a counter narrative is based largely on the trustworthiness of its source, its veracity and soundness, the extent of its distance from ulterior motives and its independence of some ‘other’ authority.
Donor agencies or organizations with the “wrong” street credentials should therefore not hold onto the belief that “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. Here, the right street-wise “piper” should dictate the tune, and be given the necessary support in the most appropriate way, and always in consultation with him/her.
Violent Extremists (VEs) view governments of all types and especially “Western” governments and NGOs with cynicism and as having “dirt” (or even blood) on their hands. They are viewed as conspirators against Islam and Muslims who will do anything, including manipulating Muslims, to end any opposition against them. They are viewed as responsible for supporting or turning a blind eye to the oppression, plundering or occupation of Muslim societies and their resources.
Any programme headed by or linked to any government will instantly lose credibility in the eyes of violent extremists or their supporters as soon as the links are known or even suspected. Loss of credibility equals failure, and a close visible partnership with the “wrong” party is a “kiss of death” to the local street credentials of those involved within the community.
Anti-Western and anti-government rhetoric and polemics are very often viewed as proof of independence from them and a sign of empathy towards violent extremists. It is therefore important for those who publicly present counter narratives to be people who are ready to be critical of government.
While Muftis and state sponsored Imams and councils of scholars may be important players in developing counter narratives for preventing violent extremism, they will often not be viewed as credible in the eyes of violent extremists, their sympathizers, and most radicalized youth. The more independent of government a scholar is believed to be, the more credible he (or she) is likely to be in the eyes of most youth.
Some violent extremist organizations have gradually developed some of the most sophisticated high quality visualized messaging systems targeting the minds of modern Muslim youths for both social and mainstream media. Though 80% of their output is in Arabic, they compete in quality and impact with the best advertising agencies in the world in their “solution-focused” marketing and branding of themselves. Understanding their system and how to counter it will go a long way in countering the next social media recruiting methods of these and any future extremist groups.
“If it bleeds, it leads” (the headlines). Violent extremist groups have succeeded in using spectacular acts of brutality and terrorism not so much as a means of forcing political policy changes or freeing of political prisoners (which have been the aims of most conventional terrorism), but as an effective means of hijacking prime airtime from national and international mainstream media (CNN, BBC, FOX News, Al-Jazeerah, etc.) for their own messaging to the world and for spreading their narratives and distorted interpretations about Islam and its teachings. The curiosity for detailed coverage and the inability of media to not compete with each other in reporting “breaking news”, “from behind the scenes”, in the minutest and goriest detail is used by violent extremist groups to display their strength, ruthlessness, spread, efficiency, die-hard commitment and fearlessness. Their hijacking of mainstream media has helped them to incite greater Islamophobia against peaceful mainstream Muslims everywhere, and in the West in particular, with the anticipation that this will contribute to the frustration, polarization and social marginalization, and eventual radicalization of more Muslim youth who could then be more easily recruited.
Meanwhile, the media, which itself does not project the numerous Muslim voices countering and condemning violent extremists, often claims that the Muslim leadership does not sufficiently speak up against terrorism.
There must be better networking between media organizations, religious organizations, governments and security agencies on more responsible and ethical reporting of news on terrorism, so as to reduce as much as possible the supporting role that the media inadvertently lends to terrorist narratives and agenda. There is also the urgent need for them to proactively take back the stage in re-presenting Islam to the masses and countering the narratives of violent extremist.
 For more literatures in Arabic on countering violent extremism, see the last footnote of this paper.
The arguments of the violent extremists which are valid should be acknowledged while disagreement on the conclusion or implications of unjustifiable violence should be made clear. Such willingness to be influenced by truth, in turn increases the chances of greater openness and objectivity.
Counter narratives should offer alternative ways of dealing with the various push and pull factors that are realistic and creative.
Violent extremists have a very good understanding of youth and their personal identity problems and how global issues hurt most Muslim youth. The extremist’s narrative often simply points to frustrations and injustices that disenfranchised youth can relate with, and then tries to offer them a way out, albeit violent and potentially tragic.
In analyzing the structure of some of the common violent extremists’ argument, two major steps or questions are usually developed by drawing the potential recruit’s attention to the plight and suffering of Muslims, then by questioning the sincerity and worth of their faith, using their response to Muslims’ plight as a measuring tool:
The use and exploitation of “secondary trauma” is critical at this stage. This happens when an individual associates himself with victims of violence through direct or indirect means, which eventually results in the individual identifying and feeling the suffering and anguish of the real victim as his own. Visual and other graphic materials are successfully used to reinforce secondary trauma.
Injustice anywhere is a challenge to justice everywhere. Good people should be concerned with challenging and effectively ending injustice and discrimination irrespective of who the victim or perpetrator is, and charity begins at home!
This is the stage where the violent extremist is most manipulative of religious text and interpretations of “reality” and makes the potential recruit feel compelled to defend and help his or her fellow Muslims by all means necessary. This includes discarding or by-passing Islamic moral teachings and ethical considerations regarding justice, the sacredness of innocent lives, the prohibition of murder and suicide, the prophetic way of enjoining right and forbidding wrong, and the need for desirable ends and objectives to be pursued through Islamically permissible means.
Probably one of the most powerful arguments against violent extremism is the wide gap between their claimed faith-based objectives and policies and the actual record of unislamic brutality meted out on innocent and mostly Muslim victims – crimes against humanity, violation of human dignity, war crimes, etc. The ends and objectives of Islam can and should only be realized through the means and methods prescribed in the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. In Islamic teachings, the ends do not justify the means; both go together. This point needs to be regularly re-emphasized.
It should be borne in mind however, that the undermining of the democratic process and support of dictatorial regimes in some Muslim countries by both local and foreign powers, especially when elections and governments are led by Islamic or “Islamist” parties has confirmed the belief among many that the peaceful democratic path to a popular and more “Islamic State” (of any definition) is not a realistic alternative, and that violence is the only viable option. A number of Western and other countries however, seem to have operated legitimate democracies side-by-side with, and in spite of numerous human rights abuses (such as slavery, racial segregation, denial of women’s rights, abuses of rights of indigenous people and minorities, etc.). These democracies however, have been allowed to evolve and mature over time into more just and pluralistic democratic nations. Policies which undermine democracy towards Muslim groups and political parties (in Algeria, Turkey, etc., and more recently Egypt), have been part of justification given by violent religious extremists for some of their violent means.
In creating counter narratives, it is important to bear in mind the fact that the highest authority on Islam for Muslims (including extremists) is the Qur’an followed by the Sunnah (or hadith i.e. the authentically reported statements and actions of Prophet Muhammad. Most extremists have not formally studied Islamic jurisprudence and are therefore not conversant with the principles and methodological tools (Usul al-Fiqh) of interpreting the texts of the Qur’an and Hadith. Therefore the interpretations they find most attractive are often the simplistic and the most literal.
In addressing simplistic and literal interpretations that are wrong, the most respected group of scholars to quote are those of the first 3 generations, starting with the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Studying and quoting this generation of Muslims is important because most misinterpretations of the Qur’an (or Hadith) that are used to justify violent extremism and terrorism were identified and responded to by some of the surviving companions of the Prophet Muhammad and some of the early (“Salaf”) scholars when they faced a variety of violent extremist groups (such as the Khawarij) during their times.
Most of the scholars who are best qualified to counter the narratives of violent extremists are unfortunately unable to operate on social media platforms due to computer illiteracy. They need the assistance of others to broadcast or deliver their counter narratives to the arenas where they are needed the most.
There are also many “shades of grey” and tendencies within large groups or movements such as “Salafis” or “Tariqas” that it is often too easy to get stereotypical and lump this diversity into a few unhelpful categories.
On the ideological spectrum however, the violent extremist is closer to the Salafi than to the Tariqa or Sufi groups among Muslims. A person who is dissatisfied with the protocols and opinions of many of the Tariqa movements will probably become a Salafi before declaring independence of Salafi scholars and become a violent extremist (or “Salafi Jihadist”). The Salafi scholar or a Salafi organization is therefore most probably the last or most trusted scholar or institution in the eyes of the violent extremist.
Consequently, the most authoritative counter narratives would have to be developed, presented and argued, not by a Tariqa Scholar, but by a Salafi who is closer to understanding the paradigm, heart and mind of the violent extremist. Better still, a former respected “Salafi Jihadist” recruiter who was regarded as knowledgeable by his former colleagues. It goes without saying that counter narratives developed or presented by non-Muslims or Muslims who are viewed as “modernists” or “secular Muslims” also would be out of the questions!
Even among Salafis, individuals with “street credentials” are most effective in carrying counter narratives. They are people who have spent time with the target audience and have known them personally.
In addition, through appropriate counter narratives, former disillusioned terrorists or supporters as well as victims of terrorism will usually connect in unique and deeper ways with would-be violent extremists.
Those involved in presenting counter narrative therefore need to have both charisma and sincere empathy to the humanity of the target audience. “What comes from the heart goes to the heart!”
Many who are susceptible to the narratives of violent extremists are often unable to distinguish between right and wrong narratives once these are couched in religious vocabulary, with quotes (in Arabic!) from scripture, and presented with sufficient fervor or zeal by a trusted source. Messaging should therefore not only counter the narratives of violent extremists, they should also try to sharpen faith-based critical thinking so as to assist and empower the audience to be able to identify and counter wrong narratives for themselves. Messaging should aim to therefore “download” onto the audience an “operating system” that works like an anti-virus which allows the average person to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable faith-based narratives. This can be achieved by teaching certain key issues and concepts related to classical Muslim juristic reasoning, Islamic legal philosophy. These are usually treated when studying the Principles and Objectives of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh and Maqasid al-Shari’ah). Another important critical thinking tool is a better and deeper understanding of the actual cases from the history or biography (Seerah) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Some of these key topics and concepts for developing faith-based critical thinking tools include the following:
Understanding how to reconcile and harmonize the meanings of verses prescribing conflict, and those that prescribe peace is critical to proving that there is no abrogation of verses that advocate peaceful coexistence, forgiveness and control of violence even in the cause of justice. This is in view of the fact that the only reason for the claim of such abrogation as applied to interfaith relations is the inability and failure of the scholar(s) concerned to reconcile the meanings of the seemingly conflicting verses. It is not based on any verse of the Qur’an, authentic statement of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), nor is it based on the practice of the Prophet’s companions, the earliest generation of Muslims nor the majority of scholars. Only Allah and His Prophet (pbuh) have the authority to annul or abrogate a clear text (nass) of the Qur’an! There are conditions for engagement, conduct and termination of warfare or conflict articulated that have been articulated by numerous respected jurists that do not in any way conflict with texts prescribing peaceful interfaith relations.
In its attempt to respond to over 200 extremist narratives, the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria (DIN), Islamic Education Trust, Minna (Nigeria) has identified a collection of cases or narratives within the prophetic history (Seerah) and other religious texts that serve as counter-narratives against a significant number of violent extremists arguments.
This last and probably most important Critical Thinking Tool does not, strictly speaking, come from the field of the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence; but it has been listed here due to its significance to various age and intellectual levels, and the ease with which these cases in the Seerah can be disseminated.
Some people are susceptible to and hence more easily infected by the “extremist ideology” while others are not. These 10 “critical thinking tools”, topics or concepts are essential ingredients for an effective “intellectual vaccination” that will build resilience and immunity against many extreme ideologies and the hijacking of the religious narrative of mainstream Islam.
The curricula for teaching of Islam to Muslims
The teaching of Islam and the Islamic Studies curriculum in schools and various classes by various organizations and institutions should have more “maqasid” or values-oriented content and perspectives. They should include in some reasonable depth, an appreciation of the above 10 topics, and/or alternatively, have a good basic introduction to the Principles and Objectives of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh and Maqasid al-Shari’ah) and key episodes in the Prophetic History (Seerah) by a competent teacher. (A very useful educational resource in a similar vein to the above is the paper, Living Islam with Purpose by Sheikh Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah of the Nawawi Foundation, USA, available online).
 Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, cited in Abd al-Rahman bin Shiab al-Din (A.K.A Ibn Rajab), Fath al-Bari, edited, Abu Mu’adh Tariq bin ‘Iwad Allah bin Muhammad, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, Saudi Arabia, 1422AH, vol.4, p.154.
Words are good for countering words, but they are not enough to counter violent extremism which, as has been mentioned before, thrives because of the interface or confluence of multiple factors. These factors must be addressed through actions, policies and programmes which constitute competing offers to those contained in violent extremist’s narratives. Simply countering the narratives of violent extremists, whether religious or otherwise, will not do away with the underlying “drivers” or push and pull factors that lead to violent extremists in the first place, as the narratives (and the propaganda) are effects, and not causes or roots of violent extremism.
Collaborating networks or systems and communication structures need to be set up so that parents, teachers, community workers, religious and traditional authorities and most importantly friends of individuals who are gravitating towards extremism would know what to do, where to go or who to speak to if they sense or notice radicalization taking place. Hence the need for better networking and collaboration between all stakeholders so that useful information and more effective practices can be shared when needed.
As many of the push factors are related to political changes for better economic and social opportunities, it is important to explore and support as many alternative career and empowerment pathways as possible along with the needed capacity-building (or “life skills”) especially for those that are in “at risk” contexts. This underscores the role that many civil society organizations, community and development NGOs can play in preventing and countering violent extremism.
There are a number of acknowledged push and pull factors that act a “drivers” towards radicalization that call for various interventions. Most of these are related to divisions within the community and grievances that are often at the foundation of many extremist narratives.
These call for interventions that will create a greater sense of community belonging and shared identity, reduced sense of real or perceived isolation, better integration of especially vulnerable communities, and stronger leadership.
Projects and activities may include anti-discrimination projects, better legal aid, female empowerment, inter-faith, intra-faith and inter-ethnic dialogues and engagement, personal development and leadership training and skills acquisition, civic education and citizenship teaching, social cohesion activities, promoting leadership among youth, better social integration policies in the workplace, market and in housing, etc.
Interventions for these should improve education opportunities and attainment, reduce the experience of discrimination, increase sense of empowerment, political participation and labour market outcomes, etc.
Projects and activities may include those mentioned above, but including mentoring and networking with role models, enlightenment about constitutional rights and legal reform processes, encouraging more active and visible civil society activism, apprenticeship, financial literacy and entrepreneurial education, interest-free sources of micro-credit or Islamic finance, inter-community activities and sports, better quality Islamic political education and Islamic approaches to “commanding right and forbidding wrong” in social reform work, public discussion and democratic forums, use of social media platforms, encouraging more public accountability and citizen journalism, more effective and visible handling of abuses by security service personnel, encouraging more ethical diversionary activities (sports, arts, entertainment), etc.
There is an important symbolic relevance in sustained dialogue between group leaders of various faiths. It shows most people that those in authority are still talking, working with and friendly towards each other and will most probably not tolerate or support interfaith aggression or violence.
Where possible and appropriate, the renovation of mosques and churches demolished by Boko Haram (or any other ethno-religious group) should be done by interfaith organizations, or at least with some involvement of the leadership of the ‘Other’. This will change the symbolic message and significance of the new church or mosque to one that was re-established with the goodwill of both the Muslim and Christian communities.
Religious Racism, Discrimination and Violent Extremism
Globally, we appear to be facing a rise in the clashes between various extremisms, as the world is becoming more like a paradise for all sorts of extremists. Islamophobia and violent extremism are two sides of the same ugly coin. Christianophobia, discrimination, hate speech against Christianity and fear mongering by some Muslims has reduced the trust that many Christians have for Muslims and diminished hopes of peaceful coexistence. Similarly, Islamophobia, hate speech against Islam and fear mongering by some Christians (and the Far Right, White Supremacist, or Nationalist Parties in some countries) has reduced the trust that many Muslims have for Christians, and diminished hopes of peaceful coexistence.
Religious racism along with the attendant discriminations easily contribute to a spiraling of hate crimes and a clash of extremisms leading to violence, and increased support and sympathy for violent extremism and recruitment for such groups.
Tolerance or indifference of such religious discrimination by the authorities fuels the arguments of extremists on either side and is used (even if exaggerated) by violent extremists to justify an escalation in their hate speeches and grievances with the authorities. Hence the urgent need for the Human Rights Commission, and other agencies and organizations with similar mandates to take the issue of discrimination based on faith very seriously in the interests of all.
As the Islamophobia industry is now financially self-sustaining and lucrative, it is not likely to die a natural death, but will continue to grow with more aggressive marketing strategies and products. This calls for urgent sensitization of islamophobia (along with xenophobia, sexism, tribalism, etc.) as another form of racism and should have the same legal implications. Otherwise, the market, products and salespeople of such racism will grow into a major push factor for violent extremism.
The matter must be taken seriously. It should not be forgotten that not too long ago, such religious racism, anti-Semitism and phobia in Western Europe against Jewish people evolved into a popular racist party and movement that eventually ended with the death (Holocaust) of about 6 million innocent people, and legacies of distrust that has had other undesirable inter-generational ramifications far away from Europe. Lessons must be learnt by all from that dreadful past so as to ensure that those tragic parts of history do not repeat themselves. All forms of racism must be confronted and nipped in the bud before they go out of hand.
Interfaith organizations and members of non-Muslim faiths have a greater chance of countering Islamophobia than do Muslims, by countering the broad issue of religious discrimination under which Islamophobia falls. Consequently, Muslim scholars and leadership must also be willing and ready to actively counter religious discrimination against other religious communities when committed by members of their own faith. They cannot afford indecision regarding whether to be or not to be against religious discrimination.
Adversity builds character! While the rise of Islamophobia against Muslims is definitely an adversity to counter, it should be taken by Muslim leadership and scholars as also an opportunity to show character and commit to making sure all religious discrimination and hate speech is challenged everywhere, and especially at home!
This could start with the activation of Fatwa Committees of the apex Islamic organizations and the various other Councils of Ulama and (and including respected individual scholars) issuing fatwas (religious verdicts) condemning various specific acts of discrimination. These councils could also be encouraged to give fatwas on a host of other issues bedeviling the community that are related to specific narratives of violent extremists.
While their importance cannot be over emphasized, counter narratives are only reactions to extremist narratives and are defensive in nature. They respond to a problem that has been created. It is however even more important to be proactive about messaging. It is necessary to develop alternative credible faith-based and other messages and narratives that can give youth a greater sense of meaning, purpose and hope in their future and that of their own communities.
The leadership and others in positions of authority have to show youth that we do not want to live in societies that are resistant to change, or societies where meaningful change can only come through violent means. The destructiveness of violent extremism and terrorism has to be shown to be opposed to a constructive and progressive future for Islam, Muslims and humanity. However for this to be palatable and believable, leadership has to proactively show curiosity and humility, and a willingness to listen to and engage young people in realizing their legitimate aspirations as equal stakeholders in nation-building at all levels, but especially at the local community and grassroots level.
Policy makers therefore have to listen not only to the grievances of young people but also address their hopes and expectations for the future, and they have to enable young people to actively and collaboratively shape their own future in a real pluralistic and globalized world.
Some suggestions for actionable projects have been made within the text of this paper. Below are a few others:
There are many booklets and chapters of books that tackle specific narratives of violent extremists. These need to be identified and made easily available to those who need them. Booklets and pamphlets are most important in the context of the poor reading culture and low literacy rates.
 Some important Arabic literature that counter different aspects of the ideology and narratives of violent extremism include: Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, Garat al-Ashrita ala ahl al-Jahal wa al-Safsata; Abdul Aziz bin Rayis al-Rayis, Qawaid wa Masa’il fi Tauhid al-Ilahiyyah, and Al-Burhan al-Munir fi Kashf al-Shubuhat Gulat al-Takfir; Muhammad bin Umar Bazmool, al-Wala wal Bara’a, Muzakirat al-Radd ala Kutub Mashbuha, Al-Samu’ wa al-Ta’a, Al-adillat al-Wasatiyyah, Al-Jama’a wa al-Imamah, Daur al-Tarbiyya fi Mukafahat al-Tatarruf wal-Irhab, Al-Takfeer wa Dawabituhu, Al-Amn Mas’uliyyat al-Jami’, Shuhada’i al-Wajib fi al-Islam; Ahmad bin Umar Bazmool, Al-Madarij fi Kashf Shubuhat al-Khawarij; Ahmad bin Yahya al-Najami, al-Fatawa al-Jaliya; Abdul Malik Ramadani Al-Jaza’iri, Ujalat al-Mutawaththib li al-Khuruj ala al-Hakim al-Mutagallib, Maktabat Dar al-Barari, Syria, 1435AH, Al-Nahiya li Izhaq al-Nufus al-Galiya, Dar al-Imam Muslim, Madina, KSA, 1433AH; Abdullah bin Yusuf bin Bayyah, al-Irhab, Maktabat Obekan, Riyadh, 1428AH/2007; Abdusalam bin Barjas al-Abdulkareem, Usul al-Dawat al-Salafiyyah, Dar al-Minhaj, Cairo, 2012; Ali bin Hasan al-Halabi, al-Qawl al-Ma’mun, Dar al-Hijrah, Dammam, KSA, 1989; Mashhur Hasan al-Salman, al-Tahzib al-Hasan li Kitab al-Iraq wa Ahadith al-Fitan, al-Dar al-Athariyya, Jordan, 1407AH. Also, al-Muhamat, Dar al-Faiha, Jordan, 1987; Bandar bin Na’if al-Utaybi, al-Hukm bi Ghayri ma Anzala Allahu, Riyadh, KSA., 1427AH; Nasir bin Abdul-Kareem al-Aql, al-Khawarij, Dar al-Qasim, Riyadh, 1417AH; Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Imam, Tamam al-Minna fi Fiqhi Qital al-Fitna, Dar Umar bin al-Khattab, Cairo, Egypt, 1430AH, Al-Kashf al-Mubeen an Asnaf al-Mubadileen, Maktabat al-Imam al-Albani, Yemen, 2009; Ibrahim bin Salih al-Muhaimeed, Al-Qissat al-Kamila li Khawarij Asrina, Maktabat Dar al-Barari, Syria, 1436; etc.