JHI on the Issues 2016: What is Radical Islam?

Candidate Statement: At the second presidential debate Donald Trump responded to a question about Muslim immigrants and refugees by saying that “it’s a very difficult situation for our country…it’s radical Islamic terror.”  After the Orlando shooting, he said that “many of the principles of radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions.”  In his statement, issued on June 13, 2016, Trump explained that the terrorist “targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation.”  Later in the statement, Trump dubbed radical Islam as “anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American.”

Summary:  Islam is a faith of over one billion people worldwide, including over three million in the United States, the vast majority of whom reject the radical worldviews and tactics of Sunni groups like al Qaeda and ISIS and Shi’a groups like Hezbollah.  At the same time, it is fair to say that the ideology that motivates and inspires groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS has deep roots in longstanding radical Islamist theology, as does the ideology that underpins the Iranian revolutionary state and its terrorist proxies.  It is these extremist interpretations of Islam that create, for their adherents, a narrative of unrelenting hostility between Islam and the West. 

Some radical Islamist groups—like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas—utilize existing Western institutions like elections to advance their ambition of making Islam the sole source of governance and political power.  But even these groups do so with the aim of creating a global order defined by an extreme vision of their own faith.

Talking Points:

  • While the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject the theology and violence of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other Sunni fundamentalist groups, the underlying theology these groups espouse has roots in radical Islamist thought.
  • One interpretation of this form of Sunni fundamentalism, Salafism, is a rejection of both Western values and institutions, as well as traditional Islamic ones.
  • The hostility of Hezbollah and Shi’a militias towards Western values and institutions is closely connected to modern extremist strands within the Shi’a tradition and the anti-Westernism exhibited by the Iranian regime, which provides various levels of support to these groups.
  • Some radical Islamists—like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Gaza-based Hamas—exploit Western values and institutions to promote their own agenda of making Islam the sole source of governance and power.
  • Curbing the immediate appeal of jihadism today requires a resolution to the conflict in Syria, which must include routing out radical Islamists on both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide—meaning both ISIS and Hezbollah—as well as dismantling jihadist groups with long-standing ties to al Qaeda like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Nusrah Front) and Ahrar al-Sham, that are currently embedding themselves within local societies. 
  • A plan for confronting the growth of terrorism in the Middle East can be found in JHI’s book Choosing to Lead.


Radical Islamism today comes in a number of forms, all of which are hostile to the West but for different reasons and through different strategies.  The groups posing the most immediate national security threat such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates, subscribe to the jihadist orientation through which they justify their violence in the name of an understanding of Sunni Islam that rejects Western values and traditional Islamic ones alike. And there is the radical Islamism of Hezbollah as well as other Iranian proxies (the Houthis, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shabi) in Iraq and Shiite militias, and Hezbollah), whose structure and strategies are bound closely with the wishes of the Iranian clergy.

Indeed, the theology that drives both Shi'a and Sunni radical groups constructs an artificial conflict between faith and the modern world, including Western values and institutions.  With the majority of the world’s Muslims living in countries that are impoverished, run by narrow elite groups, or where their religious practice is viewed as a threat to the stability of the state, this narrative can be extremely attractive to a tiny but hugely problematic movement.  And while al-Qaeda was once the vanguard of this movement—with its promise to attack the West—today ISIS, with its claims to promote an authentic Sunni Islamic identity within a sectarian Syrian conflict, is the leading attraction encouraging rejection of the West, and its values and institutions, in favor of a global Islamic caliphate. However, current political instability in the Middle East has created an opening for both Sunni jihadist groups and Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, who each claim to be defending Islam in an existential sectarian war with the other. 

As a result, the critical path for the United States and its allies in the short-run is to reject the violence and anti-Western rhetoric of these groups and seek to dismantle them in place, along with the others groups seeking to establish footholds.  In the longer run, the key issue for the United States will be how to help the vast majority of Muslims—who reject these views—win this fight within Islam.  If Islam is to come close to the West’s answer—separating religion from government—we have to recognize that this answer must come from within; albeit with our support and encouragement.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • What are your plans for stopping homegrown radicalization—terrorist acts committed by U.S. citizens within the United States who are recruited by ISIS and other jihadist groups online?
  • In the first presidential debate Hillary Clinton described her experience killing off al-Qaeda leaders as evidence for her ability to defeat ISIS; given ISIS’s approach of radicalizing Americans online, will Clinton’s experience help her fight this new war?
  • What new legislation will you present upon assuming office to stop online radicalization?
  • Who are our moderate partners in the region—both states as well as communities—and how will you work with them to combat radical Islamist ideology?
  • President Obama’s “countering violent extremism” (CVE) received poor ratings during a recent review. What do you think a successful CVE program should look like and does the CVE approach even work?[1]


[1] See JHI’s Backgrounder on the effectiveness of counter-radicalization, published January 13, 2016.