President Obama has today gathered world leaders to discuss how we defeat ISIS. The meeting is a culmination of a series of summits held around the world since February. The US State Department says they have looked at how to address the "underlying conditions or root causes" that drive individuals to violent extremism and that "...religion can be one among numerous factors that play into or otherwise inform a person's higher-order needs such as identity or purpose."
It is understandable that they would want to look at the multiple social, political, economic and cultural factors lead to extremism. The 'push factors' that drive jihadis are diffuse. The 'grievances' that push people towards extremism are also in constant flux: they are narratives that extremist groups use to link their messages to the everyday lives of their potential recruits.
But the essence of what the grievance is attached to is just as vital to understand. Jihadi violence draws from a deeper well of ideology. This ideological underpinning is important. Especially when evidence of its central role in propaganda is emerging. Building a coherent counter-extremism strategy will require a focus on these ideas.
"Jihadi groups assert that they are Islamic."
Next month, ReligionAndGeopolitics.org will publish a report on ideology that quantifies the ideological themes in jihadi propaganda from primary analysis. We looked at the extensive output of three jihadi groups: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ISIS, and al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. What is clear is that whilst the groups exploit different grievances to gain recruits, almost all the ideological themes, stretching across the values, objective, conduct and group identity of jihadism, were shared. For example, eighty-seven per cent of the propaganda exploits passages from Islamic scripture or scholarship.
This largely unchallenged ideology is flowing into the minds of potential recruits. Sociologists, economists, psychologists and political scientists are able to understand the socio-economic factors that alienate individuals from society. But when we do not understand the ideology – or when we think that it is just a cover for other issues – counter efforts could be in vain. We dismiss ISIS as a nihilistic death cult; al-Qaeda as misogynistic medieval throwbacks. But this does not acknowledge the importance of religious justification and Islamic religious principles in both groups' ideology.
"87% of propaganda exploits Islamic scripture or scholarship."
Jihadi groups assert that they are Islamic, emphasising Islamic creedal values such as faith, good works, and monotheism. They claim to represent the ummah (the global Muslim community). They draw on the sayings of the Prophet to claim to represent the fulfillment of prophecy. Recognising the centrality of Islamic values to the jihadi ideology is not to consider Islam an inherently violent religion. It helps us understand why this ideology might be appealing, and religious leaders (and others) can point out that the vast majority of victims of ISIS and others are Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims do not recognise this jihadi ideology.
Effective counter narratives should incorporate the desire for a deeper, more profound faith, in solidarity with Muslims around the world. That desire is real and it is exploited by jihadi groups which claim to possess the only route to that that goal. Denying the religious basis of this call undermines the ability to offer an alternative vision to its fulfillment.
Finally, we must recognise that this problem is deeper than ISIS, and more widespread than a focus on its violent manifestation may lead us to believe. ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups share a powerful ideology. We cannot defeat them we address the ideology that underpins their appeal.