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Violent Extremist Narratives: Understanding Jihad | Citizen Support


A narrative can be defined as a system of stories that share themes, forms, and archetypes. Narratives are powerful resources for influencing target audiences. These offer an alternative form of rationality which can be used to interpret and frame local events, and to strategically encourage particular kinds of personal action. According to the BRAVE Handbook by Center for Sustainable Conflict Resolution (CSCR/BRAVE), narratives can be violent (negative) or peaceful (positive or alternative).

Narratives are often used by extremist groups like al Shabab to recruit and radicalize individuals, mobilize support for extremist causes, promote ideological cohesion within the group, and justify acts of violence or terrorism. They can be spread through various channels including social media, extremist literature, and interpersonal and social networks. By portraying their group as victims of oppression or marginalization, they appeal to individuals who are disenfranchised or disillusioned with the status quo, providing them with a feeling of identity, purpose, and belonging. Extremist narratives often exploit societal grievances, historical injustices, and perceived existential threats to demonize outgroups and justify acts of violence as just retribution or self-defense. Furthermore, these narratives may glorify martyrdom, sacrifice, and the pursuit of a progressive vision, luring people with promises of dignity, honor or salvation. Extremist groups use narratives to promote hatred, and undermine social cohesion, posing significant challenges to peace, and security.

It is crucial for true believers of Islam to demystify the term jihad and reshape the public narrative by educating both Muslims and non-Muslims about the broader, true meaning of jihad. This will not only counteract extremist ideologies but also foster a more accurate and positive understanding of Islam.

Violent Extremist Themes

Violent extremist narratives are derived from 8 major themes. Among them is Jihad, Khilāfah (caliphate), Al Walā’ wal Barā’ (loyalty and disavowal), Tamkīn (the need for Islamic rule), Dār al Islām/Dār al Harb (abode of Islam/abode of war), Hākimiyya (sovereignty), Jāhiliyya (ignorance), and Takfirism (labeling other Muslims as apostates). Al Shabab and many other terrorist organizations rely extensively on these themes to shape their ideology. These groups misrepresent Islam's religious traditions by extracting and using key sections from the Qur'an, Hadith, and Islamic historical events as themes for their own ideological ends.

Counter and alternative narratives can be used to counter the appeal of violent extremist narratives. But first, it is necessary to understand how violent extremist groups utilize the themes to justify their own acts and viewpoints. Effective counter and alternative messages must be able to challenge and correctly interpret the concepts and key verses of the Quran and Hadith used by VEOs.


Violent extremists often distort and misuse the concept of Jihad as a central narrative to legitimize their actions and recruit followers. Jihad is an Arabic term meaning “struggle” or “striving”, and in Swahili jitihada. It has various interpretations within Islamic theology, including spiritual, moral, and defensive aspects. The Quran mentions two types of Jihad: lesser Jihad and greater Jihad. The lesser Jihad is defined as a defensive war and battle to safeguard one's homeland, and the greater Jihad, the most essential of the two, is the struggle for self-improvement and submission to Allah. However, extremist groups selectively give prominence to the lesser Jihad, focusing solely on the concept of armed struggle or holy war against perceived enemies. By doing so, they justify acts of terrorism and violence as religious obligations sanctioned by Islam.

These groups exploit the historical significance of Jihad to appeal to vulnerable individuals, presenting themselves as defenders of Islam under attack from external forces. They manipulate religious texts to propagate a narrative of perpetual conflict, portraying their opponents as infidels or apostates deserving of punishment. This distortion not only serves to recruit individuals willing to engage in violence but also to garner support from sympathizers who may be swayed by religious rhetoric. This misuse of Jihad not only misrepresents Islamic teachings but also exacerbates tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim populations, reinforcing stereotypes. The Quran says that “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you but do not attack them first. Allah does not love aggressors.” Killing anyone is forbidden as illustrated in the Quran, and peace is emphasized: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61).

Addressing this misuse requires promoting a nuanced understanding of Jihad rooted in its broader spiritual and ethical dimensions, while challenging the extremist narrative that exploits it for destructive ends. A Muslim should endeavor to practice the greater Jihad by striving to be a good Muslim, which is a constant duty. Greater Jihad involves endeavoring to: follow the five Pillars of Islam, forgive others, study the Qur’an, educate others about Islam, help those in need, avoid negative traits such as greed or laziness, avoid temptations such as alcohol, among others.

Addressing the misuse of Jihad by terrorists requires a multifaceted approach that combines the following:

  • Education initiatives – religious scholars and educators to provide a clear, and accurate understanding of jihad within the context of Islam;

  • Community engagements – establishing youth programs that engages them in positive activities and mentorships, and holding interfaith dialogues that promote peaceful coexistence and reduce tension between different religious and cultural groups;

  • Counter-narratives and strategic communication – developing and disseminating counter-narratives to extremist propaganda can undermine terrorist ideologies through holding media campaigns, engaging influential figures to promote positive messages, and supporting grassroots initiatives to counter VE narratives;

  • Policy and legislation – creating policies that address the root causes of radicalization into VE, and provide a legal framework to combat terrorism;

  • Research and monitoring – continuous research and monitoring of terrorist activities and ideologies help in developing effective counter-strategies.


This comprehensive approach not only helps in countering terrorist narratives but also strengthens the resilience of communities, promoting peace and understanding across diverse societies.


It is crucial for true believers of Islam to demystify the term jihad and reshape the public narrative by educating both Muslims and non-Muslims about the broader, true meaning of jihad. This will not only counteract extremist ideologies but also foster a more accurate and positive understanding of Islam. This holistic approach will contribute to a more peaceful and cohesive society, where the true essence of jihad—as a noble and multifaceted struggle for goodness—is widely recognized and respected.


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