The Moderates’ Dilemma: Obstacles to Countering Violent Extremism

By: Kerry Persen

July 18, 2017

Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2017 Fellowship Reports

Over the past two decades, international security efforts have increasingly focused on countering terrorism broadly, with the United States alone spending over an estimated $100 billion on these efforts annually. Despite this investment and an overwhelming rejection of violence from within the Muslim world, violent extremist groups continue to recruit individuals, perpetrate attacks, and inspire violence even in areas where they have low capacity.

Policymakers and academic experts have come to an overwhelming consensus that a military response cannot be the solution and that policies need to “win hearts and minds,” or more specifically, to engage with moderates at the community level to encourage the rejection of extremist ideas. Despite a near universal acceptance of this policy prescription, coined “countering violent extremism,” these policies have made modest progress at best, and mobilization against these groups varies greatly within and across Muslim-majority countries. This raises the question: what are the obstacles to moderate mobilization?

My research explores the microfoundations of moderate mobilization against violent extremism in the Islamic world. I argue that due to asymmetric costs, radical groups and sympathizers with extreme views relative to the median can subvert the majority’s viewpoint and prevent the expression of the popular will through shaming moderates. Fearing reputation costs, I show some moderates, those that believe violence is not justified in the name of Islam, refrain from sharing their anti-violence beliefs, leading to a failure to act collectively in line with their individual preferences, a phenomena I call the “Moderates’ Dilemma.”

Qualitative evidence from over 70 elite interviews and additional case studies from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, illustrate the dilemma. Moderate leaders in Indonesia report being accused of being an infidel or of spreading a “tainted Islam” when they speak out against violent groups or promote tolerance of minority religious groups. These shaming campaigns have real consequences for employment, the marriage market, and even physical safety.

One interviewee recounted his personal story of the reputation costs he endured. When he and his colleagues attempted to publish a book promoting pluralism, he was called “liberal,” a negative term in Indonesia, had friends turn their backs on him, and his place of work came under pressure to fire him. While he was able to keep his job, his institution has been rendered dormant, and he now chooses not to share his personal preferences on religion publicly. Unfortunately, campaigns of intimidation by domestic vigilante groups with extremist sympathies are commonplace in Indonesia. Moderates face a choice: either hide their views or share their true preference publicly, and as one respondent put it, “risk their neck.”

To explore how these social pressures deter public expression of moderate viewpoints, I use an original survey experiment from Indonesia. Conducted on 928 Muslims across Indonesia, the survey experiment confirms the causal mechanism theorized. The results show that moderates are less likely to share their views publicly when they are told people in their area hold inconsistent beliefs from their own.

In addition, in observational data, I have found that respondents hide moderate viewpoints in public. Using matching methods, I compare similar Muslim respondents that were interviewed privately with those that were interviewed in the presence of a community member in Indonesia. I find a negative statistically significant effect of being in presence of others on expressing anti-violent viewpoints. For example, respondents interviewed privately are 7 percent more likely to say that September 11 is not justified relative to those interviewed in the presence of others.

What are individuals doing in lieu of expressing moderate preferences? My results show they are hiding their viewpoints through both self-censoring, choosing not to discuss extremism, and expressing preferences inconsistent with their private beliefs, a phenomenon know as preference falsification. Extrapolating these empirical results to the country level, almost 15 million Muslims may be hiding moderate viewpoints.

The outlined dilemma ultimately results in decreased public expression of opposition to violent groups. This has implications for radical recruitment, freedom of expression, political outcomes, particularly in democracies, and countering violent extremism initiatives. More broadly, these findings contribute to a growing comparative political behavior literature on how social pressure relative to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations influences individuals' willingness to engage in political behavior. It furthers the literature on preference falsification, particularly the individual conditions under which it is salient. Finally, it extends the terrorism literature on attitudes toward violent groups, the strategic effects of terrorist violence on moderates, and our understanding of obstacles to counterinsurgency.

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