Can Islam be a cause of terrorism?

In 2008 I have written the article analysing if the religion can be a cause of terrorism. After almost 10 years it sounds now a bit basic, but I think it is a good introduction to the series the articles I would like to do.

I am very moved by the recent attack in Barcelona, there are some research that states that the region where I live (Murcia) is on the top of the list in terms of possibility of violent radicalization, and I have a big need to analyse this. What causes radicalization, how racism influences the issue, how we can work the identity, and what we can do as youth workers. Will be coming soon…

Can Islam be a cause of terrorism?

In war it is essential to know the opponent, to understand the strategy their uses and their motivation. The global situation, which we have right now, might be called war as well – for example “war on terror” which the United States leads against Islamic terrorism, or “holy war” – the term which is often used as a synonym for jihad. In order to understand the problem we need to analyze what kind of role Islam plays in modern terrorism, what is the definition of jihad, and what is the perception of this term in the eyes of Muslims. In this paper I will analyze whether we are have a ground to talk about Islamic terrorism, if Islam and Islamic law are legitimate uses of power, if we can say that Islam is the reason of terrorism or if there are same others.
First, to analyze the connection between Islam and its’ role in terrorism we have to understand the term “jihad”. The word itself comes from Arabic and means “the struggle” or “striving” (in the way of God). Usually people translate word “jihad” as a “holy war” and based on this they make assumptions that Islam is the religion of violence. They very often associate jihad with fanaticism, cruelty, and intolerance. In fact, jihad is about being closer to God. It requires Muslims to strengthen the belief through moral, physical and intellectual.
According to the Muslim doctrine there are four ways of implementing jihad: by heart, by language, by hand, and in the end by sword. Jihad of the heart is spiritual and moral. For example, it might be by fighting with the one’s desires. There are the personal actions which lad to eliminate evil from life and improvement as a person. Jihad of the language it is simply promoting religion and the main ideas by talking about them and through giving the good example to nonbelievers. In jihad of the hand the main aim is to improve the Muslim community and combat injustice; it might be done even by making a good business. The most popular example of jihad by hand is zakat – one of the five pillars of Islam. Zakat is the obligation for all Muslims to give some percentage of their annual income to charity, those money are distributed among the poor. Finally there is jihad of the sword. This gets a bit more complicated, and here we can try to find out if Islam is really calling for holy war or not. In the Quran it is not clear. There are suras that are calling for the war against non-believers which legitimate the use of power, such as sura 9, verse 5: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” But in other suras we can learn that war and the use of military or any other form of aggression is legitimized only if the war is the defensive war, like Sura 2, verse 190: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors”.
This is a really big problem because it gives the possibility for plenty of interpretations. There are the liberal concepts which call to interpretate the Quran as a whole (not just a single sura which might lead to misunderstanding) and do not use violence. They are rather following the idea (as well from the Quran) that killing an innocent man is like killing the whole population: “We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people” [5:32]. But there are as well the fundamental interpretations, which claim that peace might be achieved only after the full victory of Islam in the world, and they are taking this to legitimize terrorism. Most of those fundamentalists are using sura 9, verse 29 to explain their actions: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
As we can see in the Quran there is no unequivocal answer if jihad allows Muslims to fight against nonbelievers and even encourage them to fight. It gives the fundamentalists the excuse to use their holy book to legitimize terrorists’ actions, but at the same time they forget that according to the Quran they are required to use the nonviolent methods to improve themselves as Muslims. The terrorists do not follow the ideas of the greater jihad, which rest on the constant improvement and elimination of all sins as well as work for the community. Terrorists don’t follow the Quran as a whole, they don’t admonish all the rules, and they don’t understand what it means to be Muslim. They are brainwashed and that is the main reason which explains their actions.
In this point the most interesting question is, who are the terrorists? Who are the people responsible for attacks like 9/11, Madrid or London 7/7 bombing? Marc Sageman in the introduction to his book “Leaderless Jihad” presents the portrait of the typical terrorist. He presents Omar Sheikh, a person in charge of many terrorist acts, who spent five years in an Indian prison. What is interesting about him is that he was born in the UK in a middle class family, he attended the best schools, and for the first part of his life he lived in a “Western style”. Also, for a long time Islam was not important to him. This picture is sort of typical. If we will look at the biggest terroristic attacks in the past few years we will see that most of the people in charge of the attacks were either born in a Western culture or they were living in Europe or the US for a significant part of their lives. From the terrorists in charge of September 11, Mohamed Atta born in Egypt, who studied in Germany where he got in touch with Al-Qaeda; Ramzi Ahmed Yousef born in Kuwait, who since 1992 lived in the US; Mahmud Abouhalima, who was born in Egypt and since 1981 lived in Germany; Ahmed Mohammad Ajaj, who was born in the West Bank and immigrated to Houston, Texas, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was born in Kuwait and studied in the US. Most of the attackers completed their studies in Western universities where they for the first time got in touch with Al-Qaeda. Terrorists, who were in charge of the London bombing fit to this scheme as well. There were four boys with ages between 19 and 30 who were living in UK, who were studying or working, including one of them had pregnant wife.
What we can observe from presented information is that the majority of terrorists are either born in Western countries, or immigrate or study there for a significant part of their lives. A lot of them convert to Islam, from being atheists or agnostics. Lots of them became fundamentalists just after converting or realizing the importance of religion. It leads to the thesis that Islam itself is not a cause of terrorism and fundamentalism. As we can see from the example of terrorists who were in charge of the London bombing, two of them were good students, British citizens, and people who were not very interested in religion. However they changed after their trip to Pakistan. We might assume that they were brainwashed over there and it was the cause who they became terrorists and participate in the London bombing.
Marc Sageman in his book presents a conversation between two Egyptian Muslims. One of them, Ahmed Al-Sayed Osman Rabei, was implicated in the Madrid bombings, and the other, Mahmud, was his roommate and a nonterrorist. This conversation shows their different perspectives on religion. When Rabei claims that Americans are enemies of God, Mahmud answers: “Listen to me, there is only one God. Frankly, I do not care if someone is Jewish, Orthodox, or Catholic; everyone is free to pray to the God he chooses, and it is neither up to me nor up to you to judge. (…) I only know one thing: praying to God. The important thing is for you to know God, to pray, and not to behave badly, and to not do things that are not right. All the rest is superficial (…)”. In this conversation we find the contrast between two types of Muslims: one type, which followed the Quran and another type, which went through brainwashing processes and became capable of being involved in terrorist attacks. We can see from this conversation that being Muslim requires the acceptance of other religions. In Mahmud words we can see a lot of respect and mutual understanding, and the space for intercultural dialogue. Opinions presented by Rabei, especially claims like: “Do you like it when they [Jews’] kill our brothers”, “(…) you do not see the blood that flows over the land of the world”, or “They are asses, disbelievers, they exploit you, and after you have been here you have nothing, neither your honor nor dignity” shows the high level of indoctrination and how much he combines religion with politics. Osman Rabei was a political asylum-seeker in Germany, and then he moved to Spain. He was suspected of being the “recruiter” of the group and imam who was in charge of indoctrination of young Muslims.
Sageman answers the question if Islam can be the cause of terrorism by giving one more argument. He says that most of the terrorists are not well educated in the religion. He writes: “The majority of terrorists come to their religious beliefs through self-instruction. Their religious understanding is limited; they know about as much as any secular person, which is to say very little. Often, they have not started reading the Quran seriously until they are in prison.” We can ask then, why the religion became such an important factor in their lives. By answering this question we will answer as well why they became terrorists. There are probably different factors: either they met someone who exposed them into the radical views, or they were discriminated based on their ethnic background in the countries they were living. There is no evidence that Islam itself could be the reason.
There are many Muslims living in peace and negating all types of violence. Those Muslims (like Mahmoud) are definitely the majority. Although they follow the Quran and as well the rule of jihad they do not become terrorists. Therefore the religion cannot be the cause of terrorism. Muslims who become terrorists are rather the exception, and the causes are mostly based on factors not connected with religion.

This paper includes quotes and is partly inspired by:
Sageman, Marc “Leaderless Jihad. The networks in the twenty-first century”, University of Pennsylvania Press 2008

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