Religion, Radicalisation, and the Internet

A Short Analysis for Australia

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2016

11 Pages, Grade: 94%

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Table of content


Religion and Violence

Theories of online radicalisation

Online extremist content

Australian Government initiatives
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Additional questions




Australia has not yet experienced Islamic terrorism within its borders. However, the changing international landscape, brought on by the events of September 11, 2001, has had an enduring impact on the national psyche. A few years after, the London bombings of July 7, 2005, brought to light another threat, ‘home-grown terrorism’ (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.453). Despite being a priority of concern in Australia, the question of why some people become radicalised and some do not, still remains unanswered. Violent extremist online content has grown rapidly over the last decade, coinciding with the rise of Web 2.0, the internet has enabled radicals to inform, influence and recruit supporters in all corners of the globe (Wolffe & Moorhead 2013, p.81). The lack of research specifically devoted towards exploring the motivations of an individual to search for radical online content in the first place, has contributed to the ambiguous nature of findings and has, arguably, misguided government counter initiatives (Aly 2010, p.4). We will explore why religions turn to violence and present theories of online radicalisation. We will then discuss initiatives set out by the Australian government in countering radicalisation and explore their limitations.

Religion and Violence

Religious activism has been on the rise since the late 1970’s and many have adopted a non-violent agenda to achieve their goals, such examples include; Mahatma Gandhi’s Quite India movement. However, many religious groups have used violence as a means to achieve and reassert their ideology (Gregg 2014, p.340). Heather Selma Gregg (2014, p.340) proposes three causal theories for religious activism that bring light to how and why religious groups turn to violence to attain their goals.

Social Movement Theory argues that the grievances experienced transforms into movements, directed at challenging government policies and social norms concerning religion. Religious resources, such as leaders and networks, are used to generate mass mobilization and help define moral frameworks and goals in the broader sense (Gregg 2014, p.344). When a movement has become frustrated, it propels groups and individuals to believe that violence is the only means necessary (Gregg 2014, p.344).

Fundamentalism Theory broadly involves individuals and groups who believe in the literal practices and beliefs of their religion, of which, are lost or corrupted, requiring an urgent need for action (Gregg 2012, p.345). Often seen as a reaction to modernity, fundamentalists may see violence as a legitimate tool in retaliation of this perceived threat (Rapoport cited in Gregg 2012, p.346).

Cosmic War Theory is activism most associated with religious violence. Mark Juergensmeyer (2000, p. 148) argues that nearly all religions contain beliefs and scriptures that recount a coming ‘divine battle between the forces of Good and Evil’ such examples include; the End of Days in Judaism and the Apocalypse in Christianity (Juergensmeyer 2000, p. 148). Some Islamic extremist groups show signs of cosmic war thinking. For example, Sheikh Azzam believed that a battle between the world and the ‘ dar al Islam’ or the Muslim world, was waging, stating that ‘it is not possible to reach glory except by traversing this Path. And glory cannot be architectured except by traversing this Path: the Path of the Blessed Jihad’ (Gregg 2014, p.350).

These three theories seek to explain common causes of religious motivated activism and violence. Furthermore, these theories go beyond the limits of time and space, offering a broad framework explaining why religions become involved in activism, which may include, violent extremism (Gregg 2014, p.342).

Theories of online radicalisation

Radicalisation is the process by which an individual adopts an increasingly extreme religious, social or political ideal that leads, from a passive and inactive belief to an extreme and violent action (Aly 2010, p.1). Numerous theories have been put forth to help understand this process but despite this, the question of why an individual becomes radicalised to violence still remains unanswered (Aly 2010, p.1). However, there is an agreement, amongst experts of terrorism, that the proliferation of radical messages via propaganda was a contributing factor in the advancement of Al Qaeda, from a niche ideology to an ideology that extends globally (Aly 2010, p.4).

David C. Rapoport (2014, p.49) provides insight concerning the impact of technology on religiously motivated extremism, stating that one of the reasons why the first wave of terrorism, ‘anarchism’, occurred when it did was due to transformations in technology. Developments in transportation assisted Russian anarchists to travel at length and helped inspire groups and individuals beyond Russian borders. New railway roads also assisted immigration (2014, p.49). Developments the telegraph and mass newspaper printing, allowed information to travel faster and wider. Present day, new innovations continue to ‘shrink time and space' and rather being hindered by elements of the modern world, such as globalisation, democracy, and the internet, religions have benefited from them (Rapoport 2014, p.49).

The Model of Online Radicalisation provides four important elements; the needs that motivate internet usage, the context of the audience and user, the functions and content that meets those needs and the goals of the terrorist groups that create the extremist content (Aly 2010, p.5).

Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (cited in Aly 2010, p.4) suggests the Uses and Gratifications Model to help describe the needs that motivate internet use; information, which affects the desires and needs for understanding; personal identification, which reinforces values as well as strengthens credibility; social integration, which helps personal relationships and strengthens social contact, and finally; entertainment, which allows individuals to release tension. Aly (2010, p. 4) then applies this model to the needs of contemporary Muslims; diaspora of Muslims, the solidarity shared amongst Muslims that transcends boundaries and creates a shared identity, a widely held perception that Western forces are in a conspiracy to undermine Islam, exposure to new media, and lastly, the widely held perception of a present-day crises, the war between Islam and the West (Aly 2010, p.4). These social factors make up the context in which media needs are created.

Online extremist content

Extremist websites can vary in their origin, purpose, and content. They range from sympathetic websites, which aim to kindle believers, to sites that are run by militant jihadists that advocate and encourage violence to achieve their ideology (Aly 2010, p.2). Regardless of their stance, all promote a worldview of ‘good versus evil, honour versus dishonour and Muslim versus West’, compelling the audience to choose a side (Aly 2010, p.2).

Extremist groups use the internet in three broad ways; media sites, which typically come in the form of online newspaper and television resources. For example JihadMedia TV, a channel found on YouTube where videos ranging from, interviews of leading ‘jihadists’ to terrorist tutorials (Aly 2010, p.3). Organisation sites which are websites of groups that offer information about their ideology, mission, and history, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and interactive or social networking sites that provide a safe forum for discussions with like-minded groups and individuals (Aly 2010, p.3). Arguably, the power of the internet resides in the ability to gain access to ‘alternative realities and alternative truths through which people can engage with a social network where the boundaries are set by terrorists’ (Aly 2010, p.5). However, mere exposure to extremist content and propaganda cannot lead to radicalisation but may be able to satisfy social integration, personal identity, and informational needs. Furthermore, it is important to note that the social context of audience members, also, cannot be assumed to be the only cause of radicalisation (Aly 2010, p.5). The social context of Muslims creates media needs that are satisfied by different functions and content online. Aly (2010, p. 4) argues that the internet should be seen as a facilitator of needs, in regards to attributes and content.

Australian Government initiatives

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

In response to increasing fears of online radicalisation, various programs have been put forth by the Australian government under the similar assumption that Muslim extremists have a skewed understanding of the Islamic faith, therefore, education and mentoring is the appropriate approach in countering radicalisation (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.453).

The focus of government funding has concentrated in two areas; education and youth issues. In 2010, with the recommendation from the Muslim Community Reference Group, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) task force was created and $9.7 million was allocated in the next four years to address violent domestic extremism (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.459). Two programs were put forth; Building Community Resilience scheme aimed to; provide communities the resources and skills to prevent violent extremism, provide education concerning engagement with political debates and giving support to individuals vulnerable to radicalisation (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.459). The Building Community Resilience Youth Mentoring programme involved the matching of successful role models with at-risk communities training them in political and social skills, this interaction could give youths the confidence and sense of hope that could act as a deterrent from radicalisation, which is assumed to originate from a deep mistrust and frustration of the system (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.459).


Shahram Akbarzadesh (2013, p.459) argues that although education in extremist interpretations of Islam is an important step, it ignores the broader social context in which Australian Muslims are being radicalised. Political alienation and socio-economic marginalisation are key factors in creating a social environment where Muslims may turn to extremist ideas (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.459). The ‘war on values’, used a political play by the Howard government, made Australian values distinct from Muslim values which had a profound effect on widening the gap between the political system and the Australian Muslim community (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.460).

In a report on census data, Riaz Hussan (cited in Akbarzadesh 2013, p.459) argues that Muslim households are clustered around the low-income bracket, with 2% having no income compared to a national figure of 1.06%. In the national census of 2011, home ownership which is a clear indicator of financial security shows that only 14% of Muslim household are homeowners compared to 32% of non-Muslims (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.461). In addition, 50% of Muslims are renting compared to an average of 28.5% for non-Muslims. Furthermore, unemployment for Muslims is estimated to be 12.6% in 2011, whilst the national average standing just over 5%. This data suggests that poverty and financial security are present issues in the Muslim community (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.461).

Although there is an overwhelming opinion by both policy makers and scholars that education in Islam plays an important role in challenging extremist narratives there are limitations (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.461). Socio-economic marginalization and political alienation are important factors that must be taken into consideration whilst creating policies. Young Muslims are seeking meaning to their experience and Islamic extremists provide a straightforward worldview of good versus evil. This message is simple and careful scholarship may not necessarily help counter extremist narratives (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.461). Furthermore, if the Australian government is promoting the ‘right’ and condemning the ‘wrong’ Islamic scholarship, this opens a series of issues concerning the power of the state, which may appear to be choosing the most compatible version of Islam to benefit the system (Akbarzadesh 2013, p.462)

Additional questions

Maura Conway (Weighing the Role of the Internet, 2014) argues that there is a lot of assumptions and case studies but a lack of substantial empirical data concerning online radicalization. The work that has been done has concentrated on online extremist content rather than the audience viewing them. Conway (2014) suggests two questions that need to be answered; is it possible for individuals to be radicalised via consumption of online content and online interactions? And, if so, what are the processes? To answer these questions Conway (2014) suggests; going beyond the Muslim context to enable for comparative analysis between different radical groups and how they operate; deepening the research to look past the online content by conducting interviews, asking why individuals are consuming this content and why producers are creating this content and ,lastly, gain insight from pre-existing internet research about credibility, how it is lost and gained, and how social bonds are created and broken (Weighing the Role of the Internet, 2014).


The role of the internet in the process of radicalisation is still being explored and understood. This presents a new challenge for the governments charged with creating counter-strategies (Wolffe & Moorhead 2013, p.81). Although many experts have questioned the veracity of online radicalisation, there is a common belief that violent extremism relies heavily on the dissemination of extremist narratives and with the introduction of the internet, these messages can reach further and wider (Zammit 2015, p.1). However, there is little evidence that suggests the mere exposure to propaganda can lead to radicalisation and little evidence that suggest the social context of audience members alone can be the only cause of radicalisation. Furthermore, questions of, can individuals be radicalised via online content and interactions, and, if so, what are the processes of online radicalisation, must be answered before effective policy making can be made (Wolffe & Moorhead 2013, p.81). In a world where religious tensions already exist a need for a balance of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ initiatives, the former being systems that intend to neutralise immediate threats, such as removing extremist online content, and the latter being long-term initiatives that seek the root of causes of home-grown radicals, such as social factors of marginalization and alienation, is crucial in the fight against online radicalisation (Wolffe & Moorhead 2013, p.21).


Akbarzadeh, S 2013, ‘Investing in Mentoring and Educational Initiatives: The Limits of De-Radicalisation Programmes in Australia’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 451-463, DOI: 10.1080/13602004.2013.866347

Aly, A 2010, ‘The Internet as Ideological Battleground’, Proceedings from the 1st Australian Counter Terrorism Conference, Edith Cowan University, Perth, AU, pp. 1-6, <>.

Aly ,A & Lucas, K 2015, Countering Online Violent Extremism in Australia:
Research and preliminary findings: Report in Countering Violent Extremism: Developing an evidence-base for policy and practice, retrieved 1 May, < >

Gregg, H.S 2014, 'Three theories of religious activism and violence: Social movements, fundamentalists, and apocalyptic warriors', Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 338-360, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2014.918879

Juergensmeyer, M 2000, ‘Cosmic War’, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, University of California Press, pp. 145-163, retrieved 1 May 2016, Deakin Library database.

Neumann, PR 2013, 'Options and strategies for countering online radicalization in the United States, ' Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, v ol. 36, no. 6, pp. 431-459, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2013.784568

Rapoport, D.C 2004, ‘The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism’, Cronin, A & Ludes, J eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Georgetown University Press, pp. 46-73, retrieved 1 May 2016, UCLA Library database.

Weighing the Role of the Internet in Past, Present, and Future Terrorism, 2014, YouTube, Dr. Maura Conway, 26 September, retrieved 1 May 2016, <>.

Wolffe, J & Moorhead, G 2013, Religion and security: Religion, security and global uncertainties , Report from a Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship, pp. 23–36, retrieved 1 May 2016, < >.

Zammit, A 2015, ‘Online radicalisation: how much does it matter?’, Andrew Zammit, weblog post, 20 February, retrieved 1 May 2016,<>

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Religion, Radicalisation, and the Internet
A Short Analysis for Australia
Deakin University
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ISBN (Book)
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Internet, radicalization, australia, policy, sociology
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Rosie Ung (Author), 2016, Religion, Radicalisation, and the Internet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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