Most Muslim Australians do not subscribe to extremist Islamist beliefs. However, according to a recent nationwide survey, significant minorities did indicate support for some key ideological features of Islamism.
According to the survey, which was completed by 1,034 Muslim Australian citizens in late 2019, 23% of respondents agreed that establishing a caliphate (a form of Islamic government) is a religious obligation.
Nearly one in five respondents (19%) said they defined jihad as an “offensive” concept rather than something that is done only in self defence, while 10% agreed that countries with sharia law are more just and fair than Australia.
The findings are part of recent research I conducted with colleagues at Griffith University. The study is one of the most comprehensive attempts to measure Islamist extremism within a population, and is the largest of its kind to deeply examine Islamist extremism in Australia.
We developed the anonymous survey in consultation with Muslim Australians, including religious scholars, community leaders and representatives of various Muslim organisations. It was distributed online with support from Muslim community organisations, groups and individuals, who shared the link with their networks.
Who holds extremist views and why
To better understand our findings, it helps to start with an explanation of Islamism.
Not all Islamists are violent extremists. Some will use the ballot box and institutions of the state to advocate for an Islamic system of government based on sharia. Why non-violent Islamists are still considered concerning is due to how they intend to govern once in power, dispelling notions of a liberal democracy.
Importantly, we must emphasise that a large majority of our fellow Muslim Australians do not agree with an extremist Islamist interpretation of the religion and strongly condemn the use of violence.
For instance, nearly 90% said Islam never allows violence against civilians, while 60% said they believe countries with sharia laws are not more just and fair than Australia and 51.3% would not want to live in countries where sharia laws are in force.
Previous research has contended that factors such as social marginalisation, alienation and isolation are breeding grounds for radicalisation.
Our survey found some evidence of this, but only in relation to the family unit.
Those who broadly supported Islamist views were more likely to feel strongly connected to the local mosque and Muslim community compared to the other respondents. The responses did not indicate social marginalisation or isolation from Australian society — quite the opposite.
However, those who agreed with more extreme views around martyrdom and attacking civilian targets were much more likely to have experienced a loss of connection to family. These respondents, though, still maintained a connection to other areas of society, particularly the local mosque.
When it came to gender, the male participants in our survey were far more likely to agree with Islamist views.
For example, 31.5% of the men we surveyed agreed that a caliphate is a religious obligation.
This number is quite striking, as it explains how a group like Islamic State (IS) was able to use this notion to mobilise tens of thousands of recruits around the globe, including many from Australia in 2014 and 2015.
It also shows continued support for this idea of a caliphate, even though IS has largely been defeated in its Middle East stronghold and lost control of its self-declared caliphate.
While there was sizeable support for the idea of a caliphate in our survey, this didn’t necessarily extend to more extremist views. Just 8% of all respondents expressed support for an Islamic political order and sharia law being implemented by force.
And when we asked whether Islam regards civilians as legitimate targets for armed conflict, only 5% of all respondents indicated it was generally or sometimes permissible.
To better understand where those with extremist views got their ideas, we also asked participants what they considered to be the most influential sources of Islamic knowledge from a lengthy list.
Those with Islamist beliefs were more likely to indicate the Quran and social media than others in the survey. And they were much more likely to indicate imams, the mosque, the hadith and scholarly books as very influential sources of Islamic knowledge.
Using this data to counter radicalisation
How do these new findings compare with international research on Islamism?
Sociological research on Islamism is rare. However in 2010, a study was conducted in Denmark that found similar proportions of Muslims expressing broad support towards Islamist ideas (18%) and the most extremist views (5.6%).
We have presented our survey data to Australian law enforcement and Muslim community organisations to help inform policies and programs related to countering violent extremism (CVE).
For example, our survey found the higher the educational achievement of participants, the less likely they were to agree with Islamist views.
Also, those who studied STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were significantly more likely to agree with Islamist ideas compared to those in the humanities fields.
Importantly, our survey also highlights just how important the family unit is to the radicalisation process. We found a drastic drop in connection to family and friends among those who said the use of violence against civilians was permissible.
As such, both education and connection with family must be critical areas of focus and engagement for our CVE policies moving forward.
Shane Satterley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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