Gen Z Digital Salafism

By: Milo Comerford, Jakob Guhl, and Moustafa Ayad

Background

Generation Z – young people who grew up in the 2000s – have had their social and political life defined by social media and ubiquitous connectivity.  Amid this ever-evolving technological landscape, Gen Z have found their identities essentialised and polarised from multiple directions, with traditional lines of authority questioned and a growing backlash against established ideological frameworks.

Meanwhile, Salafism – a reformist branch of Sunni Islam that champions a literalistic return to the faith practised by the prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers – has proven attractive to Gen Z Muslims as an emerging youth counterculture. It provides a clear, black-and-white, rules-based value system in a chaotic ‘post-truth’ world, a strong group identity, and a provocative contrast to the orthodoxies of the Islamic establishment.

In this context, a broad ecosystem of Salafi-inspired groups – from apolitical scholars to online activists and violent extremists – hold a near-monopoly on search queries concerning Islam, and dominate the ecosystem of religious videos on YouTube. Sectarian clerics are among the most popular online ‘thought leaders’ globally, with followings in the millions on Facebook and Twitter.

Salafism as ‘Extremism’?

Salafism challenges policymakers on whether it is inherently ‘extremist’ in nature, understood by ISD as the advocacy of a supremacist ideology which posits the superiority and dominance of one identity-based in-group over all out-groups (and which advances a dehumanizing, othering mind-set incompatible with pluralism and universal human rights). The core theology is undoubtedly rooted in a puritanical us-and-them view of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. Additionally, some Salafis are lenient in pronouncing takfir (declare other Muslims to be apostates) and some explicitly sectarian. The potential impacts of such perspectives on social cohesion and inter- and intra-faith dynamics in pluralistic societies are profound.

Salafism’s relationship with violence is highly ambivalent, as only a narrow jihadist subset of Salafis are defined by their belief in the legitimacy of using political violence to achieve their ideological aims. The Salafi spectrum has traditionally been broken down into categories such as quietist, politico and jihadist, with such classifications seeking to highlight differences in Salafi aqidah (creed), and manhaj (method). This reflects the fact that most Salafi adherents globally do not actively engage in politics and do not promote the use of violence. However, these lines have never been as neat as these categories suggest and they are additionally becoming increasingly blurred in a digital context that amplifies fragmentation and atomisation.

As such, the implications of such movements cannot be considered solely through the lens of (violent) extremism, but rather a broader set of potential harms, ranging from social polarisation, threats to democracy, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and targeted hate on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion and belief.

Salafism Across Online Platforms

Salafi communities and influencers have a large reach across a range of online platforms. 2021 research by ISD found that the largest Arabic and English language Salafi accounts have audiences in the tens of millions, with a cumulative cross-platform following of 117 million and 109 million respectively. Salafi content is becoming increasingly popular on Gen Z-focused platforms such as TikTok, where influencers with followings in the millions make full use of the platforms’ features to amplify and promote polarising sectarian narratives.

Salafi influencers use a broad range of formats to connect with different audiences. Ranging from lengthy sermons and interactive Q&A sessions to stylised informational videos, a broad spectrum of Salafi channels provide content relating to all aspects of life, from the spiritual and political to the private sphere. Binary black-and-white views are issued on the supposedly singular Islamic stance on complex questions relating to issues as diverse as gender roles, family life, sexuality, entertainment and education, including content aimed explicitly at children, and in largely gender-segregated online spaces.

Much Salafi content is anodyne and geared towards identity formation and practical religious guidance. Two-thirds of Salafi material coded by ISD researchers referred to discussion of general religious concepts and activities, while only 9% discussed specific political grievances; However, by using natural language processing approaches, we found numerous forms of toxic content among Salafis online, including content promoting sectarianism, misogynistic content and opposition to democracy.

As shown by previous research, the messenger-platform Telegram hosts particularly extreme Salafi communities, including supporters of proscribed terrorist like IS and al-Qaeda. While Facebook is the platform where Salafis have the most reach, our analysis at ISD revealed that Salafi discourse on Telegram, YouTube and Instagram contained a higher proportion of toxic posts. A notable core of Salafi posts was found to be ‘very toxic’: 1 in 20 Arabic Salafi messages and 1 in 30 English and German posts included directly threatening, dehumanising and supremacist content. This included sectarian content describing Shia as ‘apostates’, antisemitic descriptions of Jews as ‘oppressors’ and dehumanising references comparing religious out-groups to animals.

While the most extreme content is found on less moderated platforms like Telegram, mainstream platforms continue to struggle with ‘post-organisational’ violent extremist content which is not directly tied to proscribed organisations, but which advocates for violence. Research shows how these Salafi-jihadist ideologues are able to operate on mainstream platforms until authorities officially move against them. Companies such as TikTok seem to struggle to keep their platform continuously and consistently free from harmful Salafi accounts they have previously banned.

‘Islamogram’: The sharp tip of digital Salafi mobilisation

Within the broader digital landscape of Salafism, there are specific online Salafi subcultures of concern such as the ‘Islamogram’ community. Islamogram represents a specific threat at the sharp tip of digital Salafism, with this online community with over 160,000 members borrowing heavily from the culture of the alt-right, with increasing ideological convergence around the alleged moral decline of the West and the need to return to an idealised ‘pure’ society. In some cases, it takes this fascist ideology and aesthetics even further, with Neo-Nazi Salafi communities online promoting ‘Aryanist interpretation of Islam’.

Recent research from ISD and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism drawing on a corpus of almost 9,000 memes and videos, demonstrates how far-right white nationalists are appropriating jihadist tactics and rationale, such as fiqh al-dima (the jurisprudence of blood), as well as how Salafi-jihadists are appropriating the language and aesthetics of Neo-Nazis, including referring to themselves as National-Socialist Salafis.

‘Islamogram’ is deeply opposed to and regularly attacks liberal Muslims and democracy, as well as LGBTQ+ and gender rights. Its supporters rely on coordinated ‘brigading’, misogynistic harassment and semi-ironic ‘shitposting’ characterised by plausible deniability. Within these spaces, a range of out-groups are on the receiving end of discrimination, exclusion or even violent threats.

Discord plays an integral part in the Islamogram online universe. In our 2021 research, ISD analysed six Islamogram-linked Discord servers with a highly active collective membership of almost 5,000 accounts function as closed-door spaces in which activists can discuss ideology, coordinate attacks on other servers, and launch new accounts and platform drives. Later ISD research documented that Islamist extremists are still active on at least 16 servers promoting totalitarian states, hate against marginalised groups and violent extremism, as well as serving as a platform for parallel Catholic extremist online subcultures.

These Gen Z-focussed ‘Islamogram’ communities have an ambivalent relationship with overt violent extremism. While many are opposed to ISIS as khawarij (outsiders), there are growing alt-IS and alt-Qaeda communities online which idiosyncratically combine Salafi-jihadist ideology with extreme right aesthetics and ideas. Others frequently express support for more locally focused jihadist groups such as Hamas and the Syria-based Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. These represent neither the scale nor the severity of the ideological challenge of ISIS follower networks at their mid-2010s peak. However, such account networks still numbers in the thousands, with followings in the hundreds of thousands.

Such ideological overlaps have been seen most recently in the case of Andrew Tate, who since converting to Islam (having expressed admiration for specific forms of conservative, patriarchal religious practice) has served as an unlikely bridge between online alt-right communities and the online Salafi communities outlined here. This unlikely alliance is built on opposition to LGBTQ rights, feminism, and euphemistic concepts such as “cultural Marxism,” “globalism” and “wokeism”, with disaffected young men in particular being drawn to online subcultures like the alt-right, the manosphere and the red pill movement, which are then blended with religious cultural references.

Conclusion

The broader online cultures and norms of Gen Z represent a particular set of considerations for engagement and intervention. The preferred communication formats at the cutting edge of digital Salafi discourse are no longer tedious three-hour lectures or lengthy online fatwas, but gamified theological conversations on Discord servers, religiously flavoured YouTube prank videos and reductive 60-second TikTok explainers on polarising ideological topics.

The specifics of Gen Z audiences bring in new considerations with implications for our understanding and forecasting, as well as how we build effective preventative responses. This represents a unique ‘extremely online’ constituency that operates freely across platforms – notably, many of the Salafi spaces have image and video formats as the default medium for proselytisation.

As such, there is a need to think afresh about the toolbox of responses when such online communities engage in harmful activities, moving away from narrow content moderation and takedown measures and broad counternarratives, towards upstream interventions and more innovative engagement efforts. So much of the appeal of these online spaces is their direct and subversive countercultural foundations, which are imbued with an inherent cynicism and sardonic humour which makes traditional counter speech responses unsustainable. Responses will necessarily need to engage with, rather than ignore, these subcultural elements if they are to be effective.

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This Explainer was uploaded on 19 September 2023.

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