Challenging Extremist Ideology, Propaganda and Messaging: Building the Counter-narrative

Categories: Collective & Human Security,Dialogue Snapshots,Recent Reports,Regional Policy Dialogues

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Violent extremism has been a predominant regional and global security challenge for several decades, but in recent years, it has become more attractive to disenfranchised people all over the world. A combination of theology, political ideology and media savvy messaging make groups like Daesh, Al Qaeda and al Shabab relevant and uniquely positioned to broadcast their vision on a global scale. While military actions continue to disrupt the efforts of violent extremist groups, countering the underlying ideology that drives these groups is critical to defeating their brand of violent extremism. This raises new questions of how one can prevent the rising influence of extremist groups. One way is to develop “counter-narratives” that challenge extremist ideology and then broadly disseminate these messages through online and offline means. But who should craft these counter-narratives and what is the best means for delivering their messages? What is the appeal of extremist ideology?

To assess these questions, the Hollings Center for International Dialogue and the EastWest Institute convened a roundtable dialogue in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 27-29, 2015. The 22 participants at the dialogue included current and former policy makers, activists, journalists, artists, practitioners and diplomats. Countries represented included Turkey, Tunisia, Belgium, Morocco, Pakistan, Lebanon, Serbia, Germany and the United States.

The rich discussion yielded five important messages that are relevant for civil society, policy makers, academics, activists and the citizens who are living under the constant threat and shadow of extremists:

  1. Extremism is not the result of Islamic faith or practice; it is a result of political, social and economic grievances and impasses that the people of the Middle East have found themselves in as a result of authoritarian regimes, bad governance and foreign interventions.
  2. Violent extremism is not exclusive to people who manipulate Islam; other religions or beliefs are also vulnerable to manipulation. Singling out Islam as the only source of extremism is perceived by Muslims as discriminatory.
  3. There is a multiplicity of counter-messages and narratives. It is important not to confine the counter-messages to religious themes, but to be able to draw on personal stories as well.
  4. Muslim-majority countries need to reassess approaches to democracy and citizenship and ensure the inclusivity of their institutions. The alternative to Daesh’s self-proclaimed state needs to be a compelling, inclusive project.
  5. Media outlets should show critical awareness of the possible negative side effects of their outputs. The replication of inflammatory language and propaganda for sensationalist purposes can perpetuate Islamophobia and do more harm than good to counter-extremism efforts.

Also, watch videos that expand upon these themes, notably the challenges faced by the American Muslim community clicking here.