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Muslim extremists: who is speaking out against them?

July 21, 2010

When a Muslim-American citizen tries to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square, many fear that the radicalization of all Muslims is well under way in Islamic communities at home and abroad.

Many Muslims around the world also are worried about this prospect, and are working to defeat violent extremists within their communities. But they don’t always get attention – from the media, from policymakers or from academic researchers.

A $4.9 million dollar research project led by ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, "Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse," is seeking to change that. The project, which involves an international team of researchers, will examine what Muslims in the key regions of West Africa, Western Europe and Southeast Asia are doing to counter and thwart the advance of radicalization.

"Many in the part of the world I study (Indonesia) are becoming increasingly concerned by what they see as an attempt by Middle Eastern groups to use wealth and prestige to establish an exclusivist, puritanical understanding of Islam as the voice of Islam," said Mark Woodward, principal investigator for the project and associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Science’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. "While this understanding of Islam is not inherently violent, it does, in some cases, provide theological cover for violent extremists."

"In addition to the violence perpetrated by extremists,” Woodward added, “and maybe in the long run of far more importance, they also seek to effect deep cultural change across the Muslim world, in areas ranging from religious ritual to gender relations."

"Finding Allies for the War of Words," which is funded through 2013, is part of the Minerva Initiative, a social science research program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Woodward, whose expertise is in Islam in Southeast Asia, leads a multi-disciplinary, multi-university team that includes, from ASU, Hasan Davulcu and Arun Sen (School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering), Steven Corman (Hugh Downs School of Human Communication), and Thomas Taylor (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences); David Jacobson of the University of South Florida; Riva Kastoryano, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po (France); and Muhammad Sani Umar, Northwestern University.

“Despite the enormous literature concerning extremist Muslim movements, there has been little discussion of the role of religious and cultural practices in countering them,” said Linell Cady, director of CSRC. "This project aims to address that gap by examining the ways in which Muslim communities themselves fight back against extremist groups, at local, regional and global levels.”

At a colloquium on this topic sponsored by the Center, Muhammad Sani Umar, who heads the West Africa team, detailed the difficulties of such a project.

“Radical and non-radical discourses interact with each other within the same political and social environments, and overlap intellectually by invoking the same Islamic authorities to support their divergent viewpoints and agendas,” Umar said.

“This makes it especially difficult for diplomats and policymakers who are looking for dichotomous identifications that are too simplistic and too unreliable.”

Umar called for careful analysis of the ways in which conceptions of radicalism and counter-radicalism shift and evolve over time, both at the communal and individual level.

“How some non-radical actors become radicals and some radical actors become deradicalized is an extremely important question.”

Selma Belaala, an expert on radicalization and counter-radicalism in Europe and North Africa who presented at the colloquium, also emphasized this point. Her research in Algeria revealed that “In some cases counter radicalization does not stem from classical religious institutions nor from organized political associations but from individuals within social groups in excluded underprivileged quarters which, in the past, did support political Islam.”

Emphasizing the need for detailed ethnographic work to achieve a more accurate understanding of what is taking place in these communities, Belaala’s research also pointed to the role of women as a counter-radical force.

An innovative feature of the project is the way in which field researchers are working with a computer science research group. Headed by Hasan Davulcu, an associate professor of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira. A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, the team is developing a new approach to ethnographic research that takes account of the extensive global conversation taking place on the Internet.

Davulcu talked about how his team of faculty and graduate students utilize computer technologies to process the volumes of material on the web.

"The field ethnographers guide us to key terms and phrases that are commonly found in radical and counter-radical discourses. We look at what's online…speeches, rhetoric, attitudes…and train our automated system to recognize these patterns automatically.”

“We then apply these patterns to large publicly available document collections such as news sites and public discussion forums," Davulcu said. "This helps us to see shifts in opinions and influence within radical and counter-radical discourse."

As part of the on-going challenge of analyzing and evaluating the data coming from sources as disparate as ethnographies of local communities, large scale surveys, and web-based data mining, the team members are constantly called on to ponder some difficult questions.

One of the most important questions, says Woodward, is how to define “radical” and “counter-radical” Islam. “Many Islamic groups hew to very conservative theologies,” said Woodward, “but they are also very opposed to violence.”
Further, there is a strong movement towards women’s empowerment led by very conservative Muslim women in some parts of the world.

“Western approaches to women’s rights would lead us to miss these movements,” Woodward said. “But the kinds of ethnographic work being undertaken by the project can reveal the important ways that ordinary Muslims are resisting a hegemonic and backward view of Islam espoused by these radical groups.”

ASU was one of seven U.S. universities selected from a pool of 211 applicants to receive a Minerva award. Other awardees include MIT, Princeton, University of Texas at Austin, UC-San Diego, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, San Francisco State University.

“The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has brought together an impressive global team to address this problem,” Cady said.

“By paying closer attention to the trends in religious and cultural values that help build and sustain peace, we can help deepen understanding between societies and contribute to wiser, more effective solutions.”

Co-written by Judith Smith and Richard Ricketts