How Do We Understand and Counter Extremist Narratives?

Foundation Update

How Do We Understand and Counter Extremist Narratives?

22 Apr 2016

The development of ISIS, from an al-Qaeda splinter group into the world's most well-funded terrorist group, highlights the rapidly changing and global character of terrorist threats. At the same time, persistent domestic terrorism propagated by both lone actors and organised groups, demonstrates the challenge posed by extremism within our own communities.

Significant gaps remain in our understanding of radicalisation, from the views and narratives that motivate people to join ISIS, to the role of the online platforms in spreading ideas.

To explore some of the issues surrounding how we understand, and therefore counter, extremism, last night we hosted a lively panel discussion with Demos, inviting guests from government, civil society, and the private sector. Darshna Soni from Channel 4 News chaired the panel, and led the questions which followed. 

Emman El-Badawy and Milo Comerford from our Centre on Religion & Geopolitics opened the conversation by discussing the drivers of radicalisation. Extremist narratives have progressed beyond abstract hate, into a situation where a concrete utopian alternative of an Islamic state is offered. Ideology, and the context of grievance in which it sits, is a key part of what motivates people to transition from holding radical views into action.

To be a moderate, you must understand and embrace complexity

To be a moderate, you must understand and embrace ideological complexity, and evidence suggests that higher levels of religious literacy and critical thinking skills may indicate a lesser susceptibility to extremist narratives. Education and exposure to rich and diverse views is therefore essential to countering extremism.

Representatives from Demos subsequently discussed ways in which we can combat the threat of extremism and ensure the protection of people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Although there is no typical profile of someone who is vulnerable, there are typical methods employed to radicalise individuals, which exploit specific grievances. These tried and tested methods can be targeted.

Both organisations agreed: we are faced with a new reality. There are thousands of channels of communication, and trying to shut down or censor them is simply not possible. We must therefore understand and confront extremist communications head on. Engaging with existing educational structures is a necessary means of both reaching and helping young people to understand and counter extreme ideologies. It is vital to empower those who are vulnerable with the skills to critically challenge and analyse ideas.

Understanding networks and narratives is crucial to understanding extremism

We are dealing with a conflict that is different to what has been witnessed before. What we can understand about the processes of extremism and radicalisation will influence how we combat them now, and into the future. There is no simple solution, but understanding networks and narratives, as well as building individuals' resilience against violent ideologies, especially through education, will be crucial in combatting extremism.

If you would like to know more about how we support counter extremist work, read how our pioneering education programme is helping to create resilience in young people. For analysis, research, and policy on how religion, conflict, and extremism interact, read more from our Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.