Understanding religious extremism in the Middle East and North Africa

Terrorism has been one of the main sources of global insecurity over the past three decades, often fuelled by sectarianism and religious extremism, as the individuals and groups responsible use religious doctrine to justify their actions.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the rise of political Islamist movements, which reached their zenith with the emergence of Islamic State (IS), is arguably the main cause of religiously-motivated terrorism, and is likely to remain so for a long time. In other parts of the world, however, extremism related to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism has also resulted in acts of terrorism.  

While it’s clear that religiously-motivated terrorism is not confined to any one religious group, the approach to tackling this threat often focuses on one solution: security.

When it comes to understanding terrorism in the MENA region, however, there are often multiple factors at play. These include economic, theological, political and even psychosocial narratives which exploit feelings of victimhood, exclusion, and injustice to manipulate and galvanise potential recruits. Therefore a solution must also be multifaceted.

Factors contributing to the rise of extremism in the MENA region include the existence and misuse of blasphemy laws and cultural attitudes to blasphemy, which criminalise the questioning of religion and religious doctrine, shrinking the space for free and critical thinking. Educational systems promoting extremist ideas and glorifying sectarian wars, conquest, dictatorship and oppression also play a part. There is also legislation which promotes sectarianism and religious discrimination, and which undermines human rights and equal citizenship for religious minorities.

In a 2012 briefing on religious extremism, the political psychologist Dr. Neil J. Kressel identified a number of beliefs which characterise extremists across a variety of religious traditions, including:

  • The certainty of the correctness of one’s religious vision;
  • Complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree;
  • Willingness to assume the role of God’s ‘hit man’, defending the deity and their representatives against all perceived insults;
  • Routine acceptance of the desired ends as justification for unsavoury means;
  • Dehumanising imagery of non-believers and religious outgroups (most commonly towards adherents of Judaism);
  • Strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles. 

The international community has struggled to reach an agreement on the definition of terrorism. However, there appear to be two main characteristics which are commonly shared: the terrorist act includes violence against non-combatants, and the aim of the terrorist act is to incite fear in the public and change its behaviour in a way that serves the goals and interests of the terrorist.

Narratives of victimhood and of religious supremacy or religious fascism underpin religiously-motivated extremism and the combination can be extremely violent, as has been witnessed with groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Counter-extremism strategies in the MENA region often rely heavily on security measures rather than on more holistic strategies, as these are less expensive and quicker to produce improvements on the short term.

However, most of the research examining this phenomenon is conducted by centres and researchers outside the region, and their findings are not necessarily objective due to cultural differences.

Scientists suggest different theories to explain why a person becomes a terrorist, but there is no one theory that can on its own answer this question. A study of terrorism in the MENA region therefore requires a multi-disciplinary approach in order to find lasting solutions to this problem.

The security approach on its own has failed, and in countries like Iraq and Syria it has even been counter-productive. In these countries, security measures based on sectarianism have created a sense of victimhood and grievances amongst Sunni Muslims, which has in turn led many of them to join extremist groups.

Religious leaders, politicians, scholars, sociologists, psychologists and thinkers must approach this matter with open minds, being prepared to resist the urge to retreat into the simple explanations and solutions that have characterised historic engagement with this issue. Instead, they must challenge the ideological and theological principles underpinning the narratives of sectarianism and religious extremism in this troubled region.

By CSW’s Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Officer