Vienna Observatory for Applied Research
on Terrorism and Extremism (VORTEX)
Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Boko Haram share a common ideology, which constitutes a very real and rapidly evolving threat not only to international peace and security, but also to the noble values of religion itself. In response, renowned Muslim theologians from the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have joined world-class scholars from the University of Vienna’s Institut für Orientalistik, to create the Vienna Observatory for Applied Research on Terrorism and Extremism (VORTEX). Dr. Rüdiger Lohlker, a senior professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna and respected counter-terrorism advisor to the European Union and various Western nations, heads VORTEX, along with research fellows Dr. Nico Prucha and Dr. Ali Fisher. LibForAll Foundation has worked closely with Dr. Lohlker since 2014.
This strategic initiative is designed to produce academically rigorous applied research concerning the ideology of religious hatred, supremacy and violence that underlies and animates Islamist terrorism, and contribute to developing the societal consensus, and sound government policies, that are necessary to marginalize, discredit and defeat Islamist extremism, which is contributing to the rise of Islamophobia throughout the non-Muslim world.
VORTEX partners include the University of Vienna; the Nahdlatul Ulama; GP Ansor (the NU youth movement) and a network of closely-affiliated organizations founded by H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid—Indonesia’s first democratically elected president and former chairman of the NU executive board—and Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, former chairman of the NU Supreme Council.
These organizations include Bayt ar-Rahmah li ad-Da‘wa al-Islamiyah Rahmatan li al-‘Alamin (Home of Divine Grace for Revealing and Nurturing Islam as a Blessing for All Creation); LibForAll Foundation and its International Institute of Qur’anic Studies (IIQS); Markaz al-Islam al-Mo’asser (the Center for Contemporary Islam, or CCI); and Majma’ Buhuts an-Nahdliyyah (the Forum for NU Religious Teachings, or MBN)—which are active on four continents and have been the subject of extensive international media coverage, as well as counter-terrorism research conducted by the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at Sweden’s National Defense College, among others.
Based in Indonesia, the NU is the world’s largest Sunni Muslim organization, with over 50 million members, 14,000 madrasahs and a rich, longstanding and well-documented tradition of promoting tolerance, pluralism and mutual respect among those of different faiths. In 2009, senior NU theologians—in conjunction with top leaders of the Muhammadiyah, the world’s second-largest Muslim organization—published a landmark book entitled The Illusion of an Islamic State, which the Wall Street Journal described as “pioneering” and the Washington Post hailed as “remarkable… a roaring success.” In his introduction to the book, President Wahid wrote:
VORTEX combines academic rigor with theological expertise and generations of experience countering extremist ideology and movements. European partners Dr. Rüdiger Lohlker, Dr. Nico Prucha and Dr. Ali Fisher monitor, grade and evaluate jihadist content on the internet and social media; document jihadist networks; and collect the Arabic and non-Arabic language hash tags used by ISIS to disseminate its messages worldwide. This includes:
Systematic analysis of extremist ideology and movements. This work is conducted primarily in Arabic, since that is the primary language employed to create and disseminate extremist propaganda. However, it also entails analyzing various “mutations” of extremist propaganda that target audiences using English, German, French, Indonesian, etc.;
Promotion of the highly successful model employed by Indonesian clerics to address the threat of religious hatred and extremism. VORTEX is positioning this “Indonesian approach” as a model for Western countries to study, and examine how and to what extent key elements of this model are applicable to individual Member States within the European Union;
Deciphering and contextualizing the core of extremist ideology, in cooperation with Muslim clerics acting on both a local and international basis. Our objective is to compete with extremist ideology on a global basis; contest the “monopoly on truth” that Islamist movements have claimed for decades; undermine their digital hegemony; and, ultimately, dismantle their ability to project strategic influence in the Muslim world and the West.
Recently, Dr. Lohlker published a landmark article in Strategic Review, refuting the widely held and frequently asserted view that Western governments, scholars and media outlets should neither critically examine, nor address, the religious dimensions of Islamist terrorism.
As C. Holland Taylor, Chairman & CEO of LibForAll/IIQS, has observed: “Our ability to dissuade hard-core extremists is limited. Rather, our strategic goal is to mobilize the vast, silent majority of Muslims who reject extremism. When mobilized, this ‘silent majority’ has the ability to isolate extremists. Mainstream Muslims can exert social pressure in millions of unique interactions, that peel away less committed rank and file extremists, isolating Islamist leaders and leaving them with a small and shrinking band of hard core followers, while providing government actors (i.e., security services, ministry officials, etc.) with the public support required to deal effectively with these remnants.”
The historical experience of Islam in Indonesia, and the nation’s long tradition of religious tolerance—as conveyed by the term Islam Nusantara—are essential elements of this work, which seeks to encourage and widely disseminate the view that Islam’s primary message is one of universal love and compassion (rahmatan li al-’alamin).
The government of Austria—through the Austrian Ministry of Interior—has provided direct support for the creation of VORTEX, which both Western and Arab media outlets have hailed as a strategic initiative of global significance, with the potential to serve as an example of best practice for Western governments and intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).