During the past four years, the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva has been engaged in a number of projects with “credible religious scholars”: those who have the capacity to reach out to youth or others who are challenging political leaders perceived to be corrupt, or systemic injustices in the countries or regions where they live. In many cases, the challenge to such leaders or injustices is supported and strengthened by religious or ideological convictions, even where this might not be the primary or initial driver. Those who appeal to religion to support their cause need proper religious justification for their attitudes and actions and will naturally look to religious leaders who are not associated with the politicians or governments they are criticising.
The role of religious leaders who are seen to be independent of government or corrupt systems can therefore be critical in guiding such disaffected youth, and others, in the actions they can legitimately take while abiding by religious precepts. One of the tragedies of many groups claiming to take their inspiration from Islamic Sharia is that many of their recruits are religiously illiterate and lack proper knowledge and understanding of Islamic teachings, including those that relate to proportionality.
One of the fundamental principles of Islam is the rejection of «ghulu» (extremism), and the encouragement of «wasatiya» (medianhood, médiatude), a concept which designates the avoidance of extremes, and encourages attitudes and behaviours that keep away from them, and which is important also in mediating violent conflict. It is this principle of the avoidance of extremes which has inspired a number of the CFG’s projects in the Sahel region, North Africa and the Middle East, whereby credible religious scholars have developed narratives and messages designed to reach those who are involved in groups with an extremist message (and carrying out extremist acts) or those who are tempted to join such groups. The following is a brief summary of the methodology which has been followed:
1. Extensive and Thorough Desk and Field Research
It is very important to understand the context, history and reasons for the emergence of extremist groups. At the first stage, the CFG has generally sought out and commissioned experts in the respective field to carry out desk research with a focus on actionable recommendations (“action research”). In projects of this nature carried out by the CFG, focus has also been placed on understanding and documenting the religious narrative and justifications used by the extremist groups. This step is then backed up with field research and exploratory missions, to thoroughly understand the context and background, and to meet relevant actors in the field, in order to validate the desk research, and to start building the networks necessary for credible action at a local level. The results of the research may then also be validated through workshops with a group of relevant experts, who may also give recommendations for further research, next steps and actions.
At the early stages of a project, and under pressure from donors to demonstrate results, it can be tempting to shorten the time spent on researching and thoroughly understanding the context, as well as the beliefs, ideological positions and milieu of violent extremist groups with a religious affiliation. However, time spent on this work is rarely wasted, and helps in developing the necessary knowledge and networks that give credibility and acceptability to the organisation undertaking such projects.
2. Confidence Building with Credible Actors
The experience of the CFG in such projects has shown the importance of building confidence and trust with all parties, and in particular with the “credible” religious scholars or other actors involved in the process. There is a natural suspicion of the motives and aims of outside parties, and it is very important that such processes are built in an atmosphere of common trust and shared goals. The existence or suspicion of hidden agendas could rapidly torpedo the implementation of such initiatives. Time must be spent in understanding the credible actors themselves, and in ensuring that they are convinced of the genuineness of intentions of those involved in the project. Cultural sensitivity is very important, but so also is the reputation of the outside actors, including their reputation for neutrality and independence, and the acceptability of their source of funding in the eyes of the credible actors. It is difficult to gain trust, for example, if there is suspicion that the implementing party is working for a foreign power perceived to support oppressive regimes, or with a legacy of economic or political domination in the respective region.
3. Development of the Alternative Discourse, or “Constructive Alternative Narratives”
The religious narratives and justifications used by extremist groups are analysed during the research phase by credible and respected religious scholars, in the light of their own deep knowledge and learning of religious precepts, the principles of Sharia, and the interpretation of foundational texts. These scholars carry out a critique of the positions and arguments of the extremist groups and challenge these positions and arguments on the basis of sound theology derived from their knowledge of religious texts. This leads to the development of “constructive alternative narratives”, rooted in sound teaching, which challenge those of the extremist groups, and which can be used as a basis for messaging.
4. Validation of these Narratives
Following development of the constructive alternative narratives, a process of validation takes place, usually by convening a meeting of a larger group of credible religious scholars, peers of the authors of the narratives, to obtain their comments and criticisms of the work. The validation process also serves to engage a wider pool of credible and authoritative scholars, who then have an interest in disseminating the messages emerging from the constructive alternative narratives.
5. Extraction and Development of Messages
In the projects carried out in this area, the constructive alternative narratives have proven rich in matter for discussion and debate, and have touched on important and sensitive themes, such as the promotion of education and the relationship of religion with systems of democracy. They have also gone in depth into the causes and avoidance of extremism (ghulu), and the need to resist oppression and the abuse of human rights in a proportionate, effective and humane way. They have explored the true meaning of jihad, and the conditions in which armed jihad may be carried out, as well as the rules surrounding the waging of armed jihad, such as the protection of civilians etc. With such richness in the material produced by the scholars, it is necessary to develop a variety of messaging, aimed at different audiences, from educated scholars to those who have very basic knowledge of the precepts or foundational texts of Islam. Messages are therefore extracted in various forms, from articles which may be shared on websites or Facebook, for example, to short messages for dissemination on other social media such as Twitter, WhatsApp etc. Audio or video messages may also be recorded for broadcasting on various media. It is important that the credible actors retain ownership of the material and messaging, and that they are not seen to be acting on behalf of foreign governments or other external parties. This is, after all, a process of argumentation and messaging within takes place within the worldwide Muslim community. It would therefore be inappropriate for external parties to exert influence or impose agendas on the credible actors involved.
6. Dissemination of Messages
To be most effective, we believe that messaging must take place over a period of time and be designed to reach the audience most vulnerable to the lure of violent and extremist messages. The choice of media and the geographical reach of the messaging are therefore very important. Attention should also be given to the use of traditional means of spreading authentic and reliable messages, for example through mosque sermons or on TV channels dedicated to religious content. In this respect, the networks established in the early stages of the project are extremely important and can serve as a great resource for spreading the messages. If possible, opportunities should also be created for holding dialogues between the credible religious scholars and youth who are close to, or involved in, armed groups that draw on religious inspiration. These dialogues, which may be face-to-face or virtual, should be conducted in a “safe space”, away from the media, in order to promote trust and effectiveness. The important role of women, and particularly women preachers and madrasa teachers, should not be overlooked. The influence of women over young people and society more broadly is crucial in addressing issues of extremism and violence, and projects should be designed with the involvement of women throughout all stages of the process, starting with the research phase and continuing through to messaging and monitoring.
Monitoring the effects of such projects, as for so many projects aimed at reducing violence and extremism, is very difficult, due to the multiplicity of factors which may affect their increase or decrease over time. Some indication of their effectiveness may be given by social media statistics showing the popularity of the messages and number of followers. Evidence of debate generated on websites is also a useful indicator, as can be anecdotal evidence, such as the copying of relevant Tweets in street graffiti or in other public and accessible locations.
Projects carried out by the CFG have shown that it is possible to establish positive and trusting relationships with religious actors who are likely to have a strong influence over those tempted towards involvement in extremism and violence, and that collaborative work based within these relationships can lead to the promotion of wasatiya and the rejection of ghulu. It has become increasingly clear in the 15 years since the invasion of Iraq that the focus on counter-terrorism and the “total security” approach has failed to reduce, and may have even exacerbated, phenomena of extremism and violence. Further work is required on the counter-productive effects of the “War on Terror” discourse, and how to mitigate its effects, but we have observed through our projects the ever-increasing resentment and anger stoked by this approach. Alternatives which engage influential religious actors are clearly needed, and the methodology outlined above is one such alternative which provides hope for better and more effective solutions.
1 “Do not be extremist (lā taghlū) in your religion” (Qur’ān, 4:171 & 5:77)
2 “And so We have made you a median community (ummatan wasatan)” (Qur’ān, 2:143)
3 See Abbas Aroua. “Peace and war in Islam” and “Rooting nonviolence in the Islamic tradition”, in The Quest of Peace in the Islamic Tradition. Kolofon. Oslo 2013. Abbas Aroua. “L’Islam et la culture de la médiatude”. June 2014. Both publications are available online at www.cordoue.ch