The Arizona State University Center for Strategic Communication (CSC) released a controversial report this week that analyzes extremist writings and provides an opinion on the goals of extremists. As one of my favorite past times is beating up on “research” I will do the same here.
The study analyzed over 2,000 extremist writings from Al Qeada, Al Shababb and others. According to the report CSC says: “We conclude that verses extremists cite from the Qur’an do not suggest an aggressive offensive foe seeking domination and conquest of unbelievers, as is commonly assumed. Instead they deal with themes of victimization, dishonor, and retribution. This shows close integration with the rhetorical vision of Islamist extremists” (emphasis added). The first issue is that the study simply looks at “verses cited” from the Qur’an without delving into the more esoteric aspects of communication. It should be noted that writings by Al Qeada are propaganda. Propoganda is defined as: “…a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.” Reading propoganda alone without analyzing the context or actions is dangerous. History is filled with relevant examples that don’t need repeating in this post. While the “verses cited” may not suggest an aggressive offensive foe, the actions certainly do. Between 2004 and 2000 Al Qeada claimed 313 attacks killing over 3,000 people. I may be a bit sensitive but an average of 6.5 attacks per month killing an average of 62.5 people per month for 4 years certainly seems to suggest an aggressive offensive foe.
It should be noted that reading citations without considering the underlying social or cultural aspects of communication is foolish. As any business person who has worked in Japan can attest, non verbal communication and innuendo are extremely important. You cannot simply act on what came from the person’s mouth. The same should be considered in this situation. The fact that Al Qeada or some other extremist chooses to exclude a particularly violent verse in their writings should not suggest that they are not particularly violent. Alternative reasons as to why they chose the particular type of language must be considered.
The recommendations provided are particular disturbing in their lack of analysis. Their first recommendation starts:
- “Abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination. A search on Google reveals hundreds of pages making claims about the impending takeover of the world by Islamists. For instance, James Arlandson claims:
- Thus, in the words of these two visible terrorists [bin Laden and al-Zawahiri] the ultimate goal of Islam is to spread the message and ways of Allah around the world because Islam is the gift of God, the greatest seal and capstone of inferior Judaism and Christianity. How is this goal best manifested and carried out? In following the Quran and sharia (Islamic law), which expresses God’s will and ways in a pristine form. Ultimately, violent and non-violent radicals want religious world domination.7
- More objective analysts regard these claims as alarmist. Robert Pape is blunt:
- The idea that Islamic fundamentalism is on the verge of world domination and poses a realistic threat to impose Islamic law in the United States and Europe is pure fantasy. Some radicals may harbor such delusions. Some fearmongers may use such delusions to whip up hysteria. But they are delusions nonetheless (pp. 244-245).
Looking at the statements above shows a clear bias and bootstrapping to support a particular position. The first bold statement (#1) leads readers to believe that the support the “claims of the impending takeover of the world by extremists”. In #2 James Arlandsen is quoted where he quotes two extremists who claim that the “ultimate goal of Islam is to spread the message and ways of Allah around the world…” He the concludes with: “Ultimately violent and non-violent radicals want religious world domination.” This statement is an opinion on the “goals” of a particular religion. It is difficult to speak with a Christian fundamentalist and not see the same ‘objective’. There is no statement quoted that speaks of the ‘impending takeover’ rather it is an author’s interpretation of comments. A key to the author’s bias comes in #3 where he states: “More objective analysts regard these claims as alarmist.” This is suggesting that Mr. Arlandsen is 1) not objective and 2) is an alarmist. Again, Mr. Arlandsen did not state in this document that there was an impending takeover. In #4 the authors take a great leap and quote Mr. Pape is selectively quoted as saying: “The idea that Islamic fundamentalism is on the verge of world domination and poses a realistic threat to impose Islamic law in the United States and Europe is pure fantasy. Mr. Arlendsen’s quote says nothing about Islamic fundamentalism being on the verge of world domination and certainly does not state that it poses a ‘realistic threat’ to impose Islamic law in the US.
While analyzing selected writings may suggest one view, a more realistic approach is the analyze the actions of the various actors. “Actions not words”- Facta Non Verba….