Study shows Islamist extremists emphasize self-defense, not world domination

A common belief in the West is that al Qaeda wishes to impose Islam everywhere. This might be a pipe dream for the group, but a new study of their use of religious texts suggests that Islamists’ goals are much more modest.

Researchers with Arizona State University’s Center for Strategic Communication (CSC) analyzed more than 2,000 items of propaganda from al Qaeda and related Islamist groups from 1998 to 2011. They catalogued more than 1,500 quotes from the Qur’an that extremists used to support their arguments, and identified the chapter (surah) and verse represented in the quote.

Results showed that most of quotes are about enduring hardships and maintaining faith and hope in the face of attacks by enemies of Islam. The so-called “Verse of the Sword” (9:5) that says “fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them” was used only three times.

“We were surprised at the very limited use of the sword verse,” said Bennett Furlow, a research assistant and one of three co-authors of the study, “How Islamist Extremists Quote the Qur’an.” “Conventional wisdom says Islamists are bent on world domination and this verse is the justification. We found it to be insignificant,” he said.

The verses most frequently cited came from three surah, Surah Nine, Surat at-Tawbah (“The Repentance”), Surah Three, Surat al-Imran (“Family of Imran”) and Surah Four, Surat an-Nisa (“The Women”). They address enduring hardships and the importance of fighting against the unjust outsiders who oppress men, women and children.

“These findings challenge the idea of a clash of civilizations,” said the study’s lead author Jeff Halverson, a professor of communication in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in reference to the theory that future wars will be fought over religious identity rather than national boundaries. “What extremists are really saying to Muslims is, ‘our communities are under siege and God will defend us if we have faith and courage’.”

It is important to be realistic about Islamists’ arguments when trying to counter their influence attempts, noted ASU’s Herberger Professor and study co-author Steve Corman. “If we try to portray them as evil conquerors when their audience sees them as protectors and champions, it damages our credibility and makes our communication less effective,” he said.

The study concludes with four recommendations for the West: 1) abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination; 2) focus on addressing claims of victimization; 3) emphasize alternative means of deliverance; and 4) reveal that the image of “champion” sought by extremists is a false one. Other studies have shown in fact that al Qaeda-linked militants are 38 times more likely to kill a Muslim than a member of another group – hardly the activity of a “competent champion,” the ASU study states.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I found this analysis to have faulty analysis and is full of fallacious arguments. Starting from the top:
    1) The authors of the study appear to be biased concerning the rule of abrogation. They suggest extremist reliance on the later Medina period Surahs is perhaps unreasonable and indeed suggest “zealous scholars” apply it in a “radical” way. My understanding of the rule is that the later parts of the Koran supersede the earlier parts. This is a function of time—not of extreme. If it is right of the timeline, it is the greater truth. This is the reason why extremism has appeal and traction—moderates have no legitimate argument against their ideology. This explains exactly why there is such reliance on later Surahs.
    2) The authors use descriptive and extreme language to suggest they are not encouraging a “culture of naked aggression”. Who says they are encouraging a culture of “naked aggression”? Extremists if nothing else work within the scope of what is allowed according to the Qur’an and interpretations and/or rulings from clerics (Fatwas). They believe they are conducting a defensive jihad. It does not make it any less bloody or threatening. A future offensive jihad may be justified in the future at which point, the authors would see more justification in statements. However, in this phase, extremists are promoting today’s conflict as a defensive one.
    3) I assert there is a disconnect in the logical argument behind the recommendation to “Abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination.” My understanding is the argument goes like this: Extremists do not use Qur’anic quotes to call for world domination; therefore, they do not seek world domination. I recommend the authors examine the goals and objectives of extremist groups to identify goals and objectives (al-Qaida, HuT, Muslim Brotherhood). Does establishment of Shari’a over the earth suggest a desire for world domination?
    4) Regarding the assertion that Islamists seek world domination, the authors “poison the well” when they make the following statement: “More objective analysts regard these claims as alarmist.” Really? A University uses this kind of critical thinking?
    5) The authors twist the argument citing an extreme from Robert Pape: “The idea that Islamic fundamentalism is on the verge of world domination . . . is pure fantasy.” The argument went from extremism to fundamentalism; went from an objective to time-associated “on the verge”. In the author’s analysis, we are to presume this is objective thinking. This objective writer, Robert Pape, goes on to use ad-hominem attacks calling others “fearmongers” who use “delusions” to “whip up hysteria.” Is this a critical thinker worthy of consideration for his argument?
    6) The authors then cite Michael Scheuer who asserts that extremist calls for world domination are “merely pro forma” and their true objective is the Middle East. The authors provide no evidence to support this opinion of one. I invite the authors to examine extremist literature about Khorasan (Central Asia), to view what is happening in West Africa, to explain the growth of extremism in Thailand and Indonesia; and, to explore extremist websites in Europe. There, they may find evidence.
    7) Remarkably, the authors conclude that because extremists do not use the “Verse of the Sword” as often as they expected, their stated objective of world domination is irrelevant. Their evidence: 1) that is what objective analysts would say; 2) Robert Pape tells us domination is pure fantasy; 3) Michael Scheuer assesses their desires are only in the Middle East; and 4) extremist use of the Qur’an does not fit the author’s narrow criteria for evaluating intent. Really?
    8) The authors then make the following claim: “Members of the target audience, the contested populations of the Muslim World, realize that extremists are not really preaching world conquest” without providing a shred of evidence.

  2. After 9/11, obviously muslims went on defensive mode, because Americans power was too strong for them. Therefore, currently their literature speaks mainly about being defensive.
    However, it os well known fact that muslims long term goal is to make everybody muslims.
    I wonder who funded this half truth reasearch? Is Saudi money is involved ?

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