Center for Strategic Communication

By Jeffry Halverson, Bennett Furlow & Steven R. Corman

Our study, entitled How Islamist Extremists Quote the Qur’an, released last week, seems to have touched a nerve in some and has generated some negative commentary. To date, we have received no criticism from other scholars or experts on these matters. Much of it seems to come from people who may have read a headline about the study in the press and reacted to it without reading the study itself.  We would like to set the record straight by addressing four themes in these criticisms.

Questioning our motives

Some critics have insinuated that we support the terrorists and/or are apologists for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The project of which this study is a part (and in fact everything we have done at the Center for Strategic Communication since 2004) has been directed toward resisting and undermining violent groups like al-Qaeda and their affiliates. To be unequivocal: The groups studied in our article are criminals and terrorists who murder innocent people. We think these acts must be stopped and we are working to help create ways to help stop them. The end of the study specifically describes communication strategies that we think will help undermine their propaganda strategies and image.

Misunderstanding the emphasis of the study

Some critics imply that the study is naïve and ignores what the extremists really want.  In fact, the study says nothing at all about what the violent extremists “really want.” It is about what they say, specifically how they invoke the Qur’an to make and reinforce their “sales pitch” to ordinary Muslims in contested populations. The pitch is: “Support us because you are being attacked and we are fighting to save you and the community from destruction.” It is not: “Support us because we have all been commanded to take over the world.”

Ultimately the extremists, or certain factions or ideologues thereof, may aspire to global conquest. But that is not the message that sympathizers, supporters, or recruits appear to be hearing and responding to. Again, we’re not studying what they want, we’re studying what they say in their messaging strategies because that is how they try to persuade and recruit others to join or support them. The West cannot counter a message if it is focused on the wrong one.

Disputing systematic research with anecdotal examples

A common complaint of critics is: “Here are all these examples of Qur’an verses that talk about violence against other faiths, and statements from Islamists about taking over the world.”  We don’t dispute that there are such verses and statements. In fact, we are very familiar with them. It is also easy to produce similar lists of verses preaching peace and statements from Muslims condemning violence. This is why we need systematic research to find out what verses and statements the violent extremists actually use to persuade people to support them.

Our conclusions do not come from a few cherry-picked examples, but from a systematic study of over 1,500 quotes in over 2,000 documents. If the results of this study do not align with some individual’s assumptions about the extremists’ rhetoric, then this confirms the need for the research.

For the record, the lack of emphasis on a global domination message surprised even us.  That’s the value of systematic research: Things are not always what they seem or what you expect.

Giving inaccurate information about the cost of the study and source of the funding

Some critics claim that this study cost millions of dollars, and that it is an example of waste by the Obama administration. The study did not cost millions of dollars, or anything even close to that. It is a very small part of a larger funded project studying violent extremists’ use of narrative to influence contested populations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The project was funded under a program established during President George W. Bush’s administration. Last year the overall project won a research award from the Department of Defense.