27 January 2020
Storytelling plays a fundamental role in the interpretation of reality. Stories, anecdotes and narratives shape our understanding of facts and events, triggering feelings ranging from sympathy and solidarity to hate. For these reasons, storytelling plays an essential role in radicalisation.
The latter – widely understood as the ‘process whereby people become extremists’ (Neumann, 2013, p.874) – has been fuelled by storytelling. Recent studies (Orofino 2020; Smith et al 2019) demonstrated how storytelling is used by many radical groups to attract new members.
This is the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a non-violent radical Islamist group founded in Palestine in 1953 and still active today in more than 45 countries around the world. The main goal of the group is to re-establish the caliphate (Islamic State) in specific areas of the Muslim world (majaal areas) through the re-Islamisation of the ummah (the global community of Muslims) with what they believe to be the ‘correct’ Islamic concepts.
For HT, storytelling has been their strength over the decades and served to win the group members around the world as well as to spread their radical ideology. Storytelling is the main tool of HT 3-fold strategy ‘Shock, Demolish, and Rebuild’ (Orofino 2015, p.404). Individuals are exposed to HT’s radical narrative as soon as they get in contact with members of the group (the ‘Hizbis’) either online or face to face. The first stage of HT strategy is exposing their audience to several ‘moral shocks’, which result from the trauma or discovering distressing truths. HT branches around the world continuously share impacting stories – often accompanied by strong images – aimed at disseminating both a sense of danger for all Muslims around the world and the urgent need to act upon it.
The stories shared by the Hizbis (mostly focusing on the massacres of Muslims around the world after the dismantlement of the Ottoman caliphate) work as catalysts for bringing individuals closer to the organisation, allowing them to learn more about specific problems and the solutions the group proposes.
After shaking the individual’s original convictions, HT’s storytelling aims at ‘demolishing’ all those concepts that contrast with the ideological pillars of the group (second phase of the strategy). The Hizbis use strong intellectual and religious arguments to convince their audience and new members (daris, ie students) of the validity of their beliefs. Storytelling usually takes place during halaqaat (study groups), lectures, and rallies, which all stand as tools for dismantling positive views of Western concepts like democracy, feminism, and personal freedom. In parallel, HT presents individuals its narrative on terrorism, connecting it to colonial history and identifying terrorism as a product of Western misconduct in the Middle East.
Finally, in the ‘rebuilding’ phase the Hizbies work to rebuild what they consider the ‘correct’ concepts and values in the minds of the individuals who are then ready to embrace HT’s ideology. Data from interviews with HT members from Australia confirm this strategy and the power of HT’s storytelling in radicalising individuals (Orofino 2020):
"Before the Hizb, I had never heard about the caliphate… I thought it was a 'historical relic', as it is usually thought even in Muslim circles…I think it is because colonialism changed the school curriculum, reducing the caliphate to a mere relic." Mohammad, HT Australia, personal communication, 19 March, 2016 in Orofino 2020.
"Although I grew up in Turkey, I had never heard about the caliphate as a viable system." Farah, HT Australia, personal communication, 12 March, 2016 in Orofino 2020.
As highlighted by Mohammad and Farah, the idea of re-establishing the caliphate sounded very strange to them in the beginning. Their statements stress how in the period between their first contact with HT and full membership, members-to-be go through a process of learning that changes their opinions, aligning them with those of the group. Mohammad transformed his initial conception of the caliphate as a ‘historical relic’ into a panacea for all problems of humanity.
Farah had a similar experience. She was born and raised in Turkey, the heart of the Ottoman caliphate, and knew nothing about the glory of the Islamic state until her first contact with the Hizbies. The organisation shocked Farah with their stories but also sparked her interest in those themes and initiated a process of demolishing and rebuilding of meanings and values in her mind. As a result, both Farah’s and Mohammad’s initial conceptions and interpretative frames progressively changed as their presence in the organisation was consolidated through the continuous storytelling process within HT, which has never stopped over the years.