Finding Allies: Mapping Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse

Funder: Minerva Research Initiative/ONR-DOD

The rise of Muslim extremism is among the most critical issues facing the global community in the twenty-first century. The diffusion of exclusivist, extremist interpretations of Islam is not just a threat to non-Muslims but to Muslim communities as well. In addition to the violence perpetrated by extremists, they seek to effect cultural change across the Muslim world to facilitate their agendas, in areas ranging from ritual to gender relations. Although there is a substantial literature on Muslim extremists, very little is known about the counter-extremist discourses and networks that are critical to their containment and eventual defeat. This collaborative, multidisciplinary project seeks to redress this lacuna.

The project focuses on three culturally, historically and linguistically distinct regions: Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe. Radical movements are present in each region, and are actively contested by counter movements. The project considers if and how extremist movements are a form of “new colonialism” that can be productively analyzed along the lines of previous studies in western colonialism, with religion, rather than economics, as a driving motor. Moving beyond the assumption that counter radical discourse necessarily focuses on politics, this study further evaluates the effectiveness of locally constituted religious resistance to the spiritual hegemony extremists seek to establish.

The project will map locally defined counter-narratives—including ritual performance and symbolic action--against extremist theologies found in the regions (e.g., strains of Wahhabi puritanism; Muslim Brotherhood Qutbism; and radical Shi’ism). Ongoing research by team members indicates that these are critical components of both extremist and counter-extremist discourse. Research will address: the ways in which global issues figure in local discourse; the degree to which theologically conservative groups rooted in local cultures offer effective counter-extremist strategies and the role of women and “women’s issues,” such as polygamy, educational and employment opportunities, in counter-extremist discourse.

The project employs an integrated set of methodologies to explore these contesting discourses and movements including: ethnographic research and discourse analysis; survey research; and web mining and mapping. Through these combined methodologies the project will isolate counter-hegemonic strategies in varying contexts, from ritual discourse in rural mosques to mediated- and cyber-Islams, and assess their success in attracting and retaining supporters.

The project aims to deepen global understanding of one of the most important threats to peace and stability facing Muslim communities as well as the broader global community.

Project Director and Principal Investigator

Mark Woodward, Arizona State University

Project Team and Co-PIs

Steven Corman, Arizona State University

Hasan Davulcu, Arizona State University

David Jacobson, University of South Florida

Riva Kastoryano, Sciences Po (France)

Muhammad Sani Umar, Northwestern University

Arun Sen, Arizona State University

Thomas Taylor, Arizona State University

Partner Institutions

Northwestern University

CERI-Sciences Po (France)

University of South Florida