Put simply, it comes down to five structural distinctions that make Islamist movements so potent in ways that their secular, liberal competitors are not, says Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist who is now director of Quilliam, the London-based anti-extremist group.
When combined, these tools create Islamism, this blatant manipulation of religion, an attractive ideology that will almost inevitably supersede the appeal of its secular, liberal rivals, we writes for the War On The Rocks blog:
First, it is the basis of their political motivations, the idea that drives them: Islamism. Here, I am referring to the desire and perceived imperative to enforce a version of Sharia as law.
This idea is then reinforced by the next tool: narratives. After all, every idea must be backed up by a series of narratives that confirm its legitimacy. The most often touted narrative that Islamists cling to — regardless of their creed — is that there is a war against Islam, and that Muslim victimhood across the world is a direct result of a “Crusader” conspiracy against the ummah. Ultimately, the response to the ideas peddled by such narratives is to fight back, to engage in jihad. It is not difficult to see why this might be appealing to the young and disenfranchised.
On top of narratives, every social movement needs a strong leader. If we take IS, which is almost certainly the most threatening jihadist group that we have ever faced, it revolves around the cult of personality associated with its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Time and time again, we are bombarded with his image, while many IS supporters use screen grabs from his Mosul khutba as their Twitter profile pictures.
These are all further entrenched and popularised through iconographic prowess. With jihadist groups, the symbolism of choice is a black flag with the shahada written in white across it, a throwback to the Abbasid rebellion against the Umayyads. It has tenuous theological foundations and has only recently re-emerged from obscurity thanks to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which revived its use in 1953 when it was founded. As such, to refer to it as a “flag of Islam” is a grave misapprehension. Just like Islamism, it is a manipulation.
At the peak of all this and, indeed, the workings of all social movements, is an end goal. Islamism is no different. The ultimate objective of all Islamists is the desire to right the wrongs faced by Muslims throughout the world and to unite them under one leader, the caliph. Again, we can refer to IS for an example of this. Indeed, one of the things that make it so appealing to extremists is the fact that it has made tangible progress towards these goals. Its propaganda is rife with references to its shattering of the imperial borders laid down by the Sykes–Picot Agreement.