Religious Fundamentalism and Radicalization in Comparative Perspective


Theoretical Background and objectives

In the context of the combination of escalated sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and home-grown conflicts around real and perceived attacks on Islam and its symbols in the West (from Rushdie to Charlie Hebdo), increased numbers of Muslim youth in Western countries have embraced radical forms of Islam and have sometimes become actively involved in violence, both at home and abroad. Beyond impressionistic evidence on a few active radicals, extremely little is known about the incidence among countries’ Muslim populations of adherence to radical versions of Islam and support for religiously-motivated violence. To answer these questions, cross-national surveys across Muslim populations in different countries are necessary, but apart from the very descriptive surveys by the US American Pew Research Institute, which are moreover not publicly accessible for secondary analysis, no such information is available. Existing research also leaves another major question unanswered, namely to what extent religious radicalism is specific to current Islam or whether it is comparable to what we find in other contemporary religions, particularly within Christianity. This project wants to fill these voids.

A first step was an analysis based on the SCIICS survey. This was the first representative survey study to compare religious fundamentalism and outgroup hostility between Muslims and Christians (Koopmans 2015), and as such it attracted worldwide media attention. While the study revealed large differences between the two religious groups even when controlled for a range of socio-economic and demographic variables, the limitation of the study to two Muslim ethnic groups as well as the fact that it compared Muslims of immigrant origin to autochthonous Christians limits the generalizability of its findings. Moreover, the SCIICS survey did not include questions about support for religiously-motivated violence and extremist religious organizations.

Research design

To overcome these shortcomings, we are conducting two studies: Religious Fundamentalism and Radicalization Survey and Jihadi Radicalization in Europe Database. The first project is a representative survey study of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and non-believers in 2017 in the following 8 countries: Germany, the United States, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Kenya. The choice of countries allows for a broad range of cross-national and cross-sectional comparisons. For instance, all three of the world’s Abrahamic religions are represented in our sample, allowing us to investigate similarities and differences between these three religious groups. In addition to comparisons across religious groups, we are also interested in examining variances within the religious groups. Therefore we sampled across different branches of Islam, i.e. Sunni Muslims (Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Kenya, and Cyprus), Shia Muslims (Lebanon) and Alevites (Turkey, Cyprus); of Christianity, i.e. Catholic and Protestant Christians (Germany, and the USA), Greek Orthodox Christians (Cyprus, Lebanon), Maronite Catholics (Lebanon) and the generally more conservative Christianity of Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya); and of Judaism, i.e. both Orthodox and Reformist branches (Israel and the USA). Our research design also allows us to investigate the role of immigration and integration experiences in religious radicalization. The study not only includes two Western immigration countries with strongly divergent immigrant integration policies (Germany and the United States), but also three countries with autochthonous Muslim and Christian populations (Kenya, Cyprus, and Lebanon). Furthermore, both in Germany and the United States, we oversample Christians of immigrant origin, thus extending the range of comparisons to a variety of immigrant and native groups and augmenting the possibility of isolating the role of immigration. Apart from the usual socio-economic and demographic control variables, the surveys included questions on religiosity, religious knowledge, fundamentalism, out-group hostility, intergroup contacts, discrimination, adherence to conspiracy theories, violence legitimation, and support for extremist groups. Moreover we employed a survey experiment to test the effect of religious scripture on religious violence legitimation. The broad range of variables and the experiment included in the surveys will enable rigorous hypotheses testing, which will help us uncover causal mechanisms behind religious fundamentalism and radicalization.

In the second project Jihadi Radicalization in Europe Database, we aggregate profiles of Jihadist individuals from publicly available information. The main units of analysis of this database are people from four European countries (Germany, France,  the Netherlands and the UK) who fit in any of the following characteristics: People (including their partners and children from the age of 15 who accompanying them), who have traveled to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or other conflict regions involving Muslims, acting out of their Islamist conviction (the so-called foreign fighters); people who have actively recruited others as foreign fighters or motivated others to join through propaganda activities; people who were involved in the aiding, planning or conducting of Islamist terrorist activity in Europe or were suspected thereof; people who supported, justified or glorified the use of violence in the name of Islam through propaganda activities; people who are members of jihadi-Salafist and Islamist organizations, which support the use of violence. The database will primarily consist of biographical and sociodemographic information on individuals, with the aim of identifying common characteristics. Using the sociodemographic data, we aim to investigate, what kind of people are more susceptible to radicalization, whereas we will use the biographic data to gain insights into contexts of radicalization. In addition to these characteristics, social contacts and networks of the individuals will also be registered, in order to analyze the social network structures. This information will be used to explore group-specific radicalization processes as well as to identify central influential figures within the networks. The relevant data will be gathered through an online and media research. A variety of sources of data will be used to collect relevant information such as newspaper articles, interviews, online-blogs, biographies, news databases such as LexisNexis®, and court proceedings, in order to gather as much data as possible on the individuals. The database can be understood as an aggregation of publicly available data on European Islamists.

Main content

Ausgewählte Publikationen

Rink, Anselm (2016): "Religion und Radikalisierung. In Kenia hat Extremismus keine politischen oder ökonomischen Ursachen". In: WZB-Mitteilungen, H. 151, S. 5.