Why Moderates Support Extreme Groups

It's Not About Ideology

An Islamic State militant in Raqqa, Syria, August 2014 Stringer / Reuters

One of the big surprises since the end of the Cold War has been the growth of radical Islamist groups, especially those that adhere to Salafi jihadism, an ultraconservative reform movement that seeks to establish a transnational caliphate based on sharia law. These organizations reject democracy and believe violence and terrorism are justified in pursuit of their goals. Before 1990, there was only a handful of active Salafi jihadist groups. By 2013, there were 49.

The proliferation of these groups is puzzling because their goals are far more radical than those of the Sunni population they seek to represent. According to a 2013 survey of 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center, most Sunnis favor democracy over autocracy and large majorities strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. If so many Muslims disagree with the goals and methods of these radical groups, why have they multiplied?  

The answer has little to do with religion or ideology and everything to do with politics and security. In environments characterized by rapid political change, limited rule of law, and endemic corruption, moderate citizens have rational reasons to favor ideologically extreme groups. This is true in any country, Muslim or not. And it is true even if most citizens do not believe in the underlying goals and ideology of such movements. The rise of radical Islamism is not the result of increased support for extreme ideas but the result of average Sunnis behaving strategically during turbulent times.


When civil wars break out, as they have in Chad, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, moderate citizens have two options: either pick a side or attempt to remain neutral. The best choice is to align with the armed faction most likely to win the war and institute real political reform. Backing the victor protects an individual from postwar reprisals, and siding with a group that promises reform opens up the possibility of positive political change. But citizens do not know who will

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