Written evidence from Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, an initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (ISI0007)



1. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics provides informed analysis on the interaction of religion and conflict globally, offering policy responses to meet the scale of the challenge. The Centre is a project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to provide practical support to counter religious prejudice, conflict and extremism, in order to promote open-minded and stable societies.


2. Across the world, the interaction of religion and conflict is making its effect felt. Political ideologies and events are exposed to the pressures of religion. Policy makers can no longer ignore the threat posed by violent religious ideologies, but if they are to be defeated, they must be understood. Through reports, media commentary, events and policy briefings, the Foundation’s Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG)[1] provides that understanding.


3. International leaders, including both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have recently cited the ideology of jihadi movements as a key challenge, which must be countered to undermine the threat.


4. The battle of ideas is not being won, as demonstrated by the estimated 31,000 fighters with ISIL, compared with just 300 fighters with al-Qaeda in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. There must be a greater understanding of the ideology that has encouraged and grown this violent extremism over the last 15 years.


5. In October 2015 the CRG released a policy report Inside the Jihadi Mind: Understanding Ideology and Propaganda[2], analysing in detail a cross-section of 114 propaganda sources from three Salafi-jihadi groups. The report establishes an evidence base for the assertion that the ideology of Salafi-jihadism is a vital motivating force for extremist violence.


6. The report found that there is a distinct difference between the ideology of Salafi-jihadism and the Islam practiced by the majority of the world’s Muslims. The Salafi-jihadi ideology is built upon Islamic religious principles, which it distorts to produce a single-minded focus on violent jihad.


7. The research does not just evaluate the ideology of ISIL through its propaganda, but also fellow Salafi-jihadi groups Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A shared ideology was found between the groups, albeit one with distinct narratives, and thus the resulting recommendations represent a durable response to the broader threat of Salafi-jihadi violence, beyond simply the current major force in global jihadism.


8. Data from the report found that in particular, ideological values formed the moral basis of the groups' actions, and were present in 80 per cent of the propaganda sources researched; including Islamic creedal values in 62 per cent, the values of honour and solidarity with the Muslim community in 68 per cent, and references to the apocalypse in 42 per cent. [3]


9. This propaganda analysis informed about the relative weight of threats the propaganda levied towards regional players, the international community and Britain, respectively. A number of threats are made directly against Britain by jihadi groups (about one reference in every ten items of propaganda, the same number as is made against France). However, across the propaganda sample 59 times more threats are made against the United States than against Britain.[4]


10. Despite its much-vaunted threats to western countries, twice as much ISIL propaganda threatens the near enemy as it does the far enemy. This highlights the fact that it is Muslims who live proximate to areas of operation who bear the brunt of the group’s brutal violence.[5]


11. The research provides insight into how jihadi groups use and manipulate scripture to justify and inspire. Altogether, justifications from the Quran, Hadith or from scholarship appear in 87 per cent of the propaganda. One ISIL statement contained 24 references to the Quran, making up 26 per cent of the entire statement. Of these 24 references, 13 different surahs (chapters) were referenced.[6]


12. While Quranic justifications are usually presented without context, reinforcing the accusation that the groups 'cherry pick' passages that support their case, the ideology makes extensive use of scripture: half of the propaganda references the Quran, with 63 out of the 114 surahs referenced.[7]


13. Data such as this has the potential to significantly inform approaches for confronting the ideology of ISIL, as well as other jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


14. A particularly important distinction is between jihadi narratives and ideology. The ideology is a coherent core system of beliefs; the narrative is the application of those beliefs to the current situation. It is analysis of narrative that leads to the common suggestion that “ISIL is more extreme than al-Qaeda”. Analysis of ideology shows that the groups are in fact more or less equally ideologically ‘extreme’, but tactically distinct.


15. This research indicates that a successful counter-narrative should: be developed to understand and target the foundations of the jihadi ideological framework, create a simple alternative framework for the application of Islamic values and principles, and undermine the certainty the Salafi-jihadi ideology thrives on, by offering easy access to profound answers.


16. In order to counter this ideology, there must be greater engagement by government with civil society, religious authorities, technology firms and others to reform the role of education systems, role models and funders in inoculating against extremism in the long term.


17. Space and support must be given to grassroots Muslim responses that directly challenge the Salafi-jihadi ideological framework and provide a positive alternative that is equally forthright.


18. Political leaders must not shy away from identifying ideology and warped understanding of theology as a major cause of modern terrorism. The British Government must support and promote models of government in Muslim majority countries that work against extremism, such as the developing democracy in Tunisia.


19. Governments and the private sector must fund a range of initiatives by credible, mainstream and orthodox Islamic scholars – such as Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayah’s Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. Many more such public projects are needed across Muslim communities globally.


20. Initiatives such as the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) must be supported, which work to identify and provide private and public funding to high-impact grassroots initiatives working in communities at risk of extremism.


21. It is not enough to counter violent extremism, the extremism itself must be tackled – the soil in which the violence grows. Unless there is an understanding of how jihadi ideology relates to more widely held beliefs, the problem will not be uprooted.


23. Violent ideologies do not operate in a vacuum. A fire requires oxygen to grow. A broader political culture overlaps significantly with some of the assumptions of the jihadi ideology, without necessarily being extreme or agreeing with its violence.


24. 2007 polling from the University of Maryland found that over two thirds of the populations of three large Muslim-majority countries agreed with the need for a caliphate.[8] The same survey found that three quarters of respondents in four large Muslim-majority countries agreed that there was a need to ‘stand up to America and affirm the dignity of the Islamic people’.[9]


25. 2012 Pew Research Center polling found that at least 40 per cent of Sunnis in five Middle Eastern and North African countries did not recognise Shia as Muslims.[10] The same polling found that over half of Muslims surveyed in nine Muslim-majority countries around the world believed that they would live to see the start of the apocalypse.[11]


26. In order to confront the ISIL ideology, we must be receptive to any overlap with more widely held cultural and religious beliefs. Our response to extremism must not just be religion-friendly, but must hinge on the actions of authoritative religious leaders, providing a framework for religious practice which removes the powerful religious legitimacy that extremists seek to claim.


October 2015


[1] http://www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/religion-geopolitics

[2] Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, ‘Inside the Jihadi Mind: Understanding Ideology and Propaganda’, 6 October 2015. http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Inside%20the%20Jihadi%20Mind.pdf

[3] Ibid, p.4.

[4] Ibid, p.28.

[5] Ibid, p.29.

[6] Ibid, p.50.

[7] Ibid, p.49.

[8] WorldPublicOpinion.org, ‘Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda’, 24 April 2007, p.15. http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/ START_Apr07_rpt.pdf

[9] Ibid, p.15.

[10] Pew Research Center, ‘The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity’, 9 August 2012, p.9. http://www.pewforum.org/ files/2012/08/the-worlds-muslims-full-report.pdf

[11] Ibid, p.65.