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SYNOPSIS To counter violent extremism, community leaders and governments must address a multitude of risk factors that contribute to it: political grievances, structural inequalities, ethnic tensions, social change that challenges previously dominant social groups or sectors, feelings of humiliation, and a culture of violence. Countering violent extremism is a long-term undertaking that requires patience and political will. This EWI Policy Research Report concentrates on: what compels individuals to take violent action in the name of religion; what makes the message of these extremist movements appealing; and what role these movements play in actively recruiting and priming individuals for violent action. EWI set out to compare three cases of religious extremism to test the hypothesis that this phenomenon has particular manifestations but universal foundations. There were a number of disparities between the three cases, with the most obvious difference being the faiths themselves. Beyond this, the social, economic, and political contexts in which they are situated differ, at times dramatically. For example, in the Jewish and Christian examples, the extremists in question share – nominally perhaps – the same faith as the majority of those who comprise their governments’ power structures. This is not the case for Muslims in the UK, who are not only a religious minority, but also one that is comprised of a number of different minority ethnic groups.

COSMIC WAR: DOING GOD’S WORK On an individual level, those who have eventually embraced violence in the name of religion came to see their grievances not in secular, local terms, but as part of a civilizational struggle or a “cosmic war.”1 This is a grand clash between the forces of good and evil. Religious extremists advocating violence see themselves as warriors of God and agents of historic change. The theology is employed in defense of a notion of the way things should be and God is seen as a defender of that particular civilization. Thus, in these three case studies, we found the dominant characteristic to be a Manichean worldview (a stark “us” versus “them” approach) and that this served as the rationale for violence. This “good versus evil” image is ingrained in the extremist’s personal identity. The religious belief system becomes the pathway through which extremists define themselves. Such an unforgiving worldview is attractive because it offers simplicity in a complex world. It offers certainty to its adherents that they are on God’s side, because of their belief in how civilization should be ordered. Often, these extremists are already isolated, and, as they become more radicalized, extremists further try to isolate themselves by attempting to recreate in their daily lives a microcosm of their ideal world. However, recruitment also takes place through a broad range of normal avenues, as well as social activities.

RECRUITMENT: TO MAKE DAILY LIFE BETTER Each of these movements seeks to interpret, and hence clarify, for its members and potential recruits their social, economic, and political realities through the prism of a religious belief system. Often, this begins with focusing on concrete grievances and later exposing recruits to what can be dubbed more esoteric appeals. These belief systems on offer almost always possess a compelling logical consistency and simplicity to explain the source of the grievance and the path to salvation.


Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War (London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 155.