Does Religion Inspire Terrorism?

By Jurgen Opfer.

It is not difficult to see why there is a public perception that religion is the inspiration for terrorism: in 1998 the then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright listed 30 of “the world’s most dangerous groups” and “over half were religious”. Some analysts argue that religion is now the ‘new terrorism’ and cite a religious rather than secular impetus, as a distinguishing factor.  Not everyone agrees with this point of view however; Antony Field (Professor of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick) asserted in 2009 that there is actually no ‘new’ terrorism, that there has merely been an ‘evolution’ and that there is ‘continuity’ from earlier terrorism to the present day. Field further explains that two of the distinguishing factors in ‘new terrorism’ are an increase in lethality and no scope for negotiations. The 9/11 attacks had the largest loss of life in a single terrorist attack since the beginning of the 1970 Global Terrorism Database. It is reasonable to deduce that these attacks were based on religion, since al-Qaeda seeks to destroy both the “Little Satan” Israel, and the “Great Satan” the USA.

A Terrorism Timeline

As not all commentators agree that the difference is only based on religion, it is important to first define new terrorism in order to determine how religion factors into it, and to examine whether religion is the basis of new terrorism, or whether the answer lies elsewhere.

In attempting to define new terrorism some commentators look at the way terrorist groups now organise themselves and allude to the fact that terrorist groups have abandoned hierarchical models and now use a flattened network model instead. This is understandable as al-Qaeda central becomes less relevant and terrorists increasingly become ‘home grown’. Meanwhile, others look to define the ‘new’ based on a time line.

David Charles Rapoport, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Political Science, and an expert in terrorism (1984) makes a compelling case for starting the time line just after World War II, stating that by the 1930s, terrorism had declined “so much that the subject would remain interesting only to antiquarians.” The first recorded terrorist act after WWII was the July 1946 attack on the King David Hotel by the Hebrew Resistance Movement. Although there is some doubt as to whether this act was religiously motivated, since then, there have been many acts of terrorism in the name of religion resulting in thousands of deaths and forced lifestyle changes for most ordinary people.

Bruce Hoffman, Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a specialist in the study of terrorism and counter-insurgency, (2006) argues that 1968 should be the starting point as this marks the advent of international terrorism. In July 1968, armed terrorists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an EL AL aircraft from Rome, bound for Tel Aviv. However, French scholar and analyst of the Islamic and the Arab world, Gilles Kepel, regards the PFLP as a nonreligious movement, calling them out for their communist ideology and referring to them as the “Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).”.

In Australia, as late as the 1990s, literature on terrorism made little or no mention of religion as a basis for terrorism. Professor Jenny Hocking, well-known biographer and a highly regarded scholar and commentator on Australian politics, counter-terrorism and security matters (1993) mentions the Church of Scientology, but only in reference to the fact that the Church took legal action against ASIO for improper surveillance. At around the same time ASIO released its annual report and even though the Middle East was mentioned as a region in which ASIO had security concerns, the report bundled the Middle East in with Africa, made only a cursory reference to the problem, and did not mention religion.

Motivation And Ideology

Examining how people become terrorists is an important tool for defining the problem. One answer might be that terrorists, like criminals, are conforming to rational choice theory (RCT), or as Martha Crenshaw of Stanford University’s Centre For International Security And Cooperation (2009) puts it, ‘strategic choice’ – a choice is made based on a cost benefit analysis. However, James W. Jones, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Rutgers University (2006) argues that it is a “mistake to seek to understand religiously motivated terrorists using the game theoretic or rational choice models”.

Indeed one of the problems facing commentators is the difficulty in deconstructing the multiple motivations that some terrorists claim. For example, Hezbollah, also known as the Party of God, Islamic Jihad and Islamic Jihad Organization, has carried out its many violent terrorism attacks based on Islamist Jihad religious principles, since it has attacked Israeli and American targets.

Several commentators have attempted to define individual motivations as well as group ideologies in an attempt to solve this puzzle. Marc Sageman, M.D., Ph.D., former CIA Operations Officer, forensic psychiatrist and renown counter-terrorism consultant eschews what he calls “The Macro-Social Level of Analysis…(or) understanding of root causes” and instead attempts to apply the “scientific method” to advance the understanding of terrorism.

God Fearing Terrorists

There is a conundrum regarding the link between religion and terrorism because Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike describe God as a kind, loving creator of the universe who stands for justice and mercy. Interestingly, all three religions have had major internal disputes leading to splits along sectarian lines, and often acts of terrorism have been targeted at the opposing sectors within the same religion.

When consideration is given to the fact that the ‘people of the book’ all worship a God who does not condone violence among his devout followers, it raises the question: how can people of faith, who are God fearing and worshipping, become terrorists or indeed engage in any type of violence? However, history has shown that all three groups have caused considerable death and panic through acts of religiously motivated terrorism.

Islamic Terrorism

Since the ‘9/11’ attacks by al-Qaeda, Islamic inspired terrorism has been at the front of the public consciousness and there is an abundance of literature about the attacks, as well as information about other terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and by other Muslim terrorists. So much so that Islamic terrorism now appears as the archetype, with al-Qaeda as the ‘poster child’. When a website points out that there were approximately 350 attacks by Islamic terrorist in the two months between the 20 August and 19 of October 2010, it is very tempting to jump straight to the label of Islamist, however, not all Islamists are terrorists. An Islamist is a Muslim who desires to convert everyone to Islam, but that does not imply that all Islamists wish to bring about that conversion by coercion or by terrorism, even though some do.

Some Muslim terrorists are not Islamists, even when they commit their acts in the name of Islam, but became terrorists for other reasons. Sageman’s scientific method provides great insight in this area. Sageman provides hard facts and statistics and in the process dispels many myths, some of which are based on intuition and superficial observation. Indeed he contends that “micro-level” analysis, which concentrates on individual motivations, is deficient at helping to understand what is different about a terrorist to allow terrorism to take place.

Jurgensmeyer (2000) does not conform to this view and argues that terrorists choose their targets based on symbolism, in what he calls the “Theatre of Terror”. Another study of semi-structured interviews of 35 incarcerated ‘Middle Eastern’ terrorists basically supports Sageman’s contention that perceived motivations such as a sense of ‘justice denied’ or ‘vicarious poverty’  do not offer satisfactory explanations.

Sageman goes further, explaining that seeking “root causes” which is portrayed as “macro-level” analysis, also does not help. His views are not uncontested: a study by the RAND Corporation (Research And Development), a nonprofit global policy think tank first formed to offer research and analysis to the United States armed forces by Douglas Aircraft Company, into counterterrorism argues that “root causes likely play a role”. Unfortunately, even a combination of micro and macro analysis does not provide a suitable answer according to Sageman, who espouses a “new approach” which “bridges the gap between the micro and macro approaches”. Sageman provides a caveat in that some will argue that in this method the “focus is too narrow”.

Jewish Terrorism

The previously mentioned attack on the King David Hotel can be seen as the start of ‘new terrorism’ in 1946, although this was only marginally based on religion. The next two acts of terrorism carried out by Jewish people were definitively based on religion; the first was when Baruch Goldstein attacked the worshipers at the Mosque at the tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994. In November 1995, a Jewish student Yigal Amir assassinated Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhack Rabin. Apparently, Amir was “influenced by militant Rabbis” and he “acted alone and on orders from God.”  Rabin and his peace with the Palestinians agenda, was seen by Amir and others as being “dangerously irresponsible and were de facto enemies of Judaism.”

Christian Terrorists

Acts of terrorism by Christians mainly fall into two categories; the first is Christians against Christians across the sectarian divide, such as is found in Northern Ireland where Catholics represented by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestants such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters, carry out acts of terrorism and other violence against each other. However, Rapoport suggests that this fighting is political and that in fact none of the participants on either side believe “that God participates in the struggle.”

The second category is terrorist acts by Christians, because of perceived injustices, as well as ‘immoral behaviour’. According to the START global terrorism database, there were 179 attacks on abortion clinics between 1976 and 1997. In fact, not just the clinics were targeted, but individual abortionists were also attacked. One doctor, George Tiller, had several attempts on his life and in 2009 Tiller, who worked as a ‘late term abortionist’ and was labelled “Tiller the baby killer”, was shot to death in his Wichita Kansas church.

Timothy McVeigh was associated with Christian Identity, a group which has been implicated in various attacks.  Their theology is “based on racial supremacy and biblical law.” McVeigh was convicted and executed in 2001 for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. This attack killed 168 and wounded 650. McVeigh’s motivation was apparently revenge for the deadly attacks by the Clinton administration on two Christian entities at Ruby Ridge Idaho and the Branch Davidian Complex at Waco Texas in which 74 people including 21 children were killed.

The ‘New’ Terrorism

Terrorism does seem to have evolved into a new form, including increased lethality and failure to negotiate, as well as a flattening or decentralisation of the organisations. However, religion has become the most prominent feature in modern terrorism. The religiously motivated 9/11 attacks which killed over 3,000 caused the greatest loss of life by any act of terrorism and the fact that 350 attacks were carried out by Muslim terrorists in just two months shows that religious motivations outweigh the alternate motivations for the ‘new terrorism’.

Jones asserts that shame and humiliation is a ‘root cause’ and even though Sageman has warned against using root causes as an explanation, this concept cannot be totally dismissed. Jones goes on to say that “Religious terrorists are not content to simply withdraw and protect their purity; they seek to actively transform and purify the surrounding world.”  Jurgensmeyer opines that religious terrorists see themselves as cosmic warriors and feel the need to “assert the triumph of order over disorder” and Jones asserts that “the 9/11 attacks were not a political act; they were a religious act.”  In 2011, ‘home grown terrorists’ such as the Muslim brotherhood have abandoned hierarchal structures, preferring to use viral herding (which is the process of calling up and directing an instantaneous crowd through means such as text messaging and social media) throughout the Middle East. By using social networking to outnumber the authorities in several countries, they have so far succeeded in overthrowing the Egyptian government. Is the author suggesting that the Egyptian government was overthrown by terrorists? I think many readers would dispute this and are attempting to create a regional Caliphate, which seeks to destroy Israel, thereby blurring the line between religious and political terrorism. However, in the Ivory Coast, since Muslim Alassane Ouattara was elected, there is evidence of genocide against Christians led by Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Côte d’Ivoire, a country in West Africa, which is seemingly a religiously motivated civil war. In Libya, the Western powers have sided with insurgents, even though it is widely reported that they include members of al-Qaeda.

In light of the compelling evidence, as difficult as it is to conceptualise that the people of the book would defy the words of their own God, as revealed by the prophets, the reality is that religion is in fact the most serious motivation for terrorists in the current era, regardless of when the ‘new terrorism’ is deemed to have begun.

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 Jurgen Opfer is a consultant in defence security and intelligence. He has a masters in transnational crime prevention, is a member of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers and a member of the IEEE. He is also member of the Old Crows, the Electronic Warfare & Information Operations Association, and is on the board of directors of the Australian Chapter. Jurgen can be contacted at