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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Support for ISIL grows with distance from its atrocities

Online expressions of support for ISIL are greater among Arabic speakers in the West than in places under direct threat from extremists, Italian researchers find.

LONDON // Support for ISIL is stronger among Arabic speakers in the West than those living at the heart of the zones of conflict, according to researchers who studied months of SOCIAL media messages and online comments.

More than two million blog posts and messages were analysed by Voices from the Blogs, a team of academics from Italy’s Milan university.

They found little trace of the extremists convincing Syrians, with 92 per cent of tweets, online forum messages and blog postings showing clear disapproval of ISIL and its self-styled state covering parts of the country and Iraq.

Favourable comments also represented a minority view in postings originating in other Middle Eastern countries: just under 20 per cent in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

But in Belgium, from which the extremists’ combat in Syria and Iraq has drawn one of the highest proportions of citizens among European countries, supportive views were expressed in 31 per cent of the content analysed.

The researchers found higher levels only in Qatar – nearly 48 per cent – and Pakistan (35 per cent).

Backing for ISIL also appeared in messages and blogs posted in Arabic from the UK (nearly 24 per cent), Spain (nearly 22 per cent) and France and the United States (respectively just under and just over 21 per cent).

The researchers believe they have conducted the world’s first major scientific analysis of Arab speakers’ support for, or hostility to, ISIL. They studied Facebook, Twitter and blog content for more than three months from July.

“We think that these findings confirm one of the main lessons of our analysis,” Luigi Curini, a political scientist and member of the Milan team, told The National.

“The negative sentiment towards ISIS [ISIL] grows as we approach the front line. Indeed, countries located on the frontline – Iraq, Syria – or nearby –Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, but also Israel and Iran – display higher levels of opposition against ISIS.

“The comments are instead less negative in countries located far away from the frontline. This is true both for Arab, for example Qatar, and Islamic countries such as Indonesia, but the same happens in some western countries, for example Belgium.”

Mr Curini felt support for ISIL in Arab-speaking communities located far from the areas of conflict was probably influenced by their detachment from risk of violence, war and retaliation “but also because their civil rights and freedoms are not put in danger by the ISIS advance”.

In contrast, Arab speakers living close to the theatre of combat feared the loss of their own freedom and independence and had closer experience of the violence committed by ISIL.

The researchers concluded that ISIL aggression did not amount to either a religious war or a so-called “clash of civilisations”.

Although 36 per cent of positive comments cited “defending Islam” as a motivation, this was seen by the team as referring to nationhood as well as faith. Twice as many comments and blogs mentioned state-building as talked about revenge against the West.

Moreover, a high minority of negative comments – almost one in three – condemned ISIL for “using the Islamic religion as a shield for pursuing political aims: seizure of power and ruling a state”, Mr Curini said.

One tweet seen by researchers stated: “They are tyrants and have marred Islam. Every day ISIS makes Islam wear the mask of a barbarous sexual monster.”

Mr Curini added: “It is not by chance that the main battlefield, nowadays, involves the Islamic Kurdish people.”

He said one social media message, summarised as “who is with ISIS is also against Islam”, made the point that for many Muslims, the extremists were effectively anti-Islam.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae