It has long been apparent that Islamist militants cannot be defeated without intellectually confronting the ideology of jihadism. And yet, 14 years after the 9/11 attacks, experts have made little progress toward achieving this goal. Despite a rich body of work on the subject of militant Islam, there is a distinct lack of discussion aimed at deconstructing what jihadism actually is.
Terms of Engagement
Lately, practitioners and experts in the field have popularized the term "countering violent extremism," though in the past the terms "counterterrorism," "de-radicalization" and "moderation" have also been popular. Each of these concepts deals with a slightly different aspect of the same question: How can states best combat the rise of Muslim non-state actors bent on inciting religious insurrections?
Counterterrorism, the phrase experts adopted early on, refers to a broad range of economic, diplomatic, intelligence, police and military activities geared toward preventing the attacks jihadists seek to perpetrate.
Because terrorists are heavily driven by ideology, the term de-radicalization soon made its way into the conversation. By definition, de-radicalization is a reactive approach that involves bringing radicalized individuals or groups back into the mainstream. In most cases, this simply means persuading violent organizations to disarm and pursue their objectives through peaceful means. The term de-radicalization is therefore misleading, because these groups still subscribe to most of their radical views even after they have laid down their arms.
It was only natural, then, for the world to start searching for an alternative interpretation of Islam to counter radical ideology. Today many experts have come to view "moderate" Islam as a philosophical vaccine against jihadism, and since the rise of the self-styled Islamic State and its declaration of a caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, there have been an increasing number of attempts to articulate a more moderate understanding of the religion. In the aftermath of 9/11, a growing number of Muslim actors have presented themselves as more palatable alternatives to radical Islam. Among them are what have come to be called moderate Islamists, traditionalists/conservatives, modernists/liberals, avowedly secular Muslims and a number of regimes in the Muslim world who claim to espouse a modern, moderate version of Islam.
These are broad categories, each one containing multiple, often competing, variations. As this dynamic of moderation evolved, scholars began to recognize that the terms "moderate" and "radical" are very misleading, because they do not account for relativity on the wide spectrum of Islamic ideologies. Still, lacking better terms, the world continues to use them. Moderation in ideology and behavior is already a complex phenomenon; its loose definition only adds to the difficulty political scientists, sociologists and philosophers have in trying to understand it.
As time went on, it became clear that getting ahead of the curve in the war against jihadism would require focusing on extremism, the engine driving terrorism. And because extremism comes in many flavors — not all of which necessarily lead to terrorism — the new phrase of the day became "countering violent extremism."
This approach calls for delegitimizing jihadism by targeting its narratives and doctrine, challenging the ways in which jihadists misuse and redefine critical tenets of Islam. Though the creation of counternarratives and sound theology may sound like a natural solution, it is a herculean task. It requires deciding, as Jillian Schwedler puts it in Faith in Moderation, the "boundaries of justifiable action" for a religious community of 1.5 billion people. History is replete with examples of conflicts that have been triggered by the attempts of one group to dictate religious orthodoxy to another.
The Physical and Ideological War
Today, in a world where people are often careful to separate the state from religious issues, most would agree that governments should stick to waging physical battles against Islamist militants rather than getting caught up in ideological wars. But the challenge insurrectionist Islamists pose is an ideological one, and it cannot be addressed without undertaking the perilous task of crafting counternarratives.
A great deal of energy is already being spent to promote counternarratives; the United States and many other Western countries have dedicated multiple bureaucratic organizations to countering violent extremism. However, because Americans and Europeans are often viewed as crusaders at war with Islam, their attempts to counter jihadist ideology are almost always automatically discredited, as are the efforts of any Muslims associated with them. Nevertheless, many Muslim states have also begun to join their efforts, realizing that they are the primary targets of jihadists.
Despite the worldwide demand for counternarratives, many basic questions remain unanswered. Chief among them are: What are effective counternarratives? How can they be developed and eventually used to defeat extremists? And, perhaps most important, who should develop them? For now I will focus on this last point, because before we can talk about narratives, we must identify and analyze their narrators.
For any theological narrative to be credible, the target audience must consider its authors to be religiously authentic and legitimate. In this particular case, any counternarratives emanating from non-Muslim sources will be rejected immediately because of their exogenous origins. Extremists leverage anxieties shared by many Muslims that the West seeks to undermine their way of life; in fact, one of the main pillars of jihadism is the belief that the West has declared war on Islam. Secularism remains a bad word in many Muslims' vocabulary because it is seen as abandoning religion, not as maintaining religious neutrality. The idea of a Western war on Islam feeds a popular view among Muslims that Christians and Jews lost their religions because they embraced what Iranian religious philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush refers to as "extra-religious ideas," and now they want Muslims to follow the same path.
The world has not gained much ground against jihadists in the war of ideas because many Muslims see it as a war against Islam. Therefore, any effective narrative will have to come from Muslims themselves. Of course, this leads to another problem: the perceived lack of credibility of those championing ijtihad, or the reinterpretation of religious texts.
Weakening Jihadism From the Inside
Radical Islamist ideologues are disproportionately more adept at situating their ideas in the context of existing religious tradition. By contrast, those in favor of a more moderate interpretation of Islam are struggling to come up with contemporary prescriptions for what it means to be Muslim in the modern world without seeming to privilege reason over revelation, which makes many extremists, conservatives and traditionalists uncomfortable. Sectarian differences only complicate matters. Many of the solutions proposed to address these issues unintentionally play right into the hands of extremists, for example the ill-fated suggestions that Sufism could serve as an antidote to the supposedly more austere Salafism, or that secularism could counter militant Islam.
Islamism emerged as a rejection of Western secularism, and it persists because Muslims have failed to develop their own version of secularism that is in keeping with their religious ethos. Similarly, jihadism took root in response to disenchantment with classical Salafism, which offered an apolitical approach that denied adherents the means of rectifying the "un-Islamic" state of affairs in the Saudi kingdom and the wider Muslim world. Electoral Salafism, as practiced by Egypt's al-Nour Party, has the potential to address those concerns and provide an effective alternative to jihadism. However, electoral Salafism would first require a basic modicum of democracy to survive; it could not be applied in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where there are no elections, or in Libya, Syria and Yemen, where tribal warfare leaves no place for meaningful electoral politics.
In short, although it was Salafism that first gave rise to the problem of jihadism, it also contains the solution. Ultimately, internal competition between various schools of Islamist thought will be the factor that weakens extremists, rather than efforts by actors outside the Muslim world to alter ideologies. Still, it will not be easy; those within the Muslim world who embrace change face an intense struggle to maintain their credibility and, sometimes, even their personal safety. Yasir Qadhi, a prominent reformist Salafist who several months ago received death threats from the Islamic State, is one among many reformers whose beliefs have put their lives in danger.
Non-Muslim actors have no choice but to continue employing traditional methods of counterterrorism against jihadists. However, only credible Muslims who are not a part of the sectarian "other" will be able to successfully wage jihad against jihadism, and it is a process that will have to play out over many generations.