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Explaining Religious Terrorism Part 2:
Politics, Religion, and the Suspension of the Ethical

August 23, 2004, Author(s): Mark Burgess

In recent years, a tendency towards increasing violence manifested itself across terrorism generally, with twice as many fatalities caused by terrorist attacks between 1980 and 1986 than had been the case in the preceding seven-year period.1 Religious terrorism proved especially prone to these higher levels of violence. By 1993, this was particularly evident from the record of Shia Islamic terrorist groups. Such groups inflicted 30 percent of the fatalities from terrorist acts since 1982, yet carried out just eight percent of all international terrorist attacks during the same period. As discussed in part one of this article in CDIs Explaining Terrorism series, this appetite for extreme violence was not restricted to Muslim groups, but shared by terrorists from across the religious spectrum.2

Various reasons have been suggested to account for the religious terrorists wiliness, if not eagerness, to indulge in mass-casualty attacks.3 For instance, a degree of systematic desensitization may have taken place among both terrorists and their targets and audiences, with increasing casualty tolls seen as necessary if the acts of terrorism are to achieve their goals. However, while such a phenomenon may indeed have taken place to some extent, this does not easily equate with the trend towards casualty aversion that has also been observed in high-income, low-birthrate societies - something that might just as easily allow (perhaps even assist) terrorists to achieve their aims by inflicting lower rather than higher casualty rates.


Likewise, while the improved technological means available today has undoubtedly enhanced their capacity to inflict death and injury on a large scale, this does not, in itself, account for the religious terrorists tendency towards (and success with) such attacks. As has been noted elsewhere, religious terrorists dating back as far as two millennia have achieved sustained casualty rates and affected their respective societies to a degree yet to be attained by their modern-day counterparts.4 All these factors point to the religious terrorists desired ends being the key factor in raising the threshold of death and destruction that they are capable of - something accentuated, but not primarily driven, by their available means or these means perceived effect.


Identifying Religious Terrorism


Of all religious terrorists, the Thugs - a Hindu sect active in India from the seventh until the mid-19th centuries - are probably the only historical example to be moved purely by religious motives.5 As this suggests, a group does not need to be wholly motivated by religious considerations to be considered religious terrorists. However, if the term is to retain a useful meaning, religious terrorism should be considered that terrorism which is motivated primarily by religion. An ethnic or (politically) ideological terrorist group does not cease to be so because their proponents have a religious element to their makeup - even if that religious element must be considered if any study of the group is to be effective.


The view that it is their motivation that sets the religious terrorist apart from their secular equivalents is not held by all commentators. In his article The Worldwide Rise of Religious Nationalism, one, Mark Jurgensmeyer, breaks what he sees as the potentially explosive mix of nationalism and religion into two subsets: Ethnic and Ideological.6 He differentiates these two categories thus, supplying examples of each

One of the greatest differences between the goals of religious nationalists is the degree to which religion is an aspect of ethnic identity - the sort of religious nationalism one finds in Ireland, for example - and the degree to which it is part of an ideological critique that contains an alternative vision of political order.  The latter is the sort of religious nationalism found, for instance, in the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in Iran.7

Such a reading, while addressing the religious element that is often present in many secular terrorist groups and the degree to which this is a factor, arguably risks misrepresenting such groups aspirations and motivations, and, as a result, mislabeling them in calling them religious terrorists. To take the case of the Northern Ireland conflict that is expounded upon by Jurgensmeyer as an example of Ethnic Religious Nationalism - in this and subsequent work8 - the protagonists are indeed divided along religious lines, with Republicans (who seek to abolish the Northern Irish state and unify the north and south of Ireland) invariably Catholic, and Loyalists (who seeks to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom) Protestant. Both sides also often express their hatred for each other in religiously-loaded rhetoric, and frequently resort to religious imagery and symbolism in promoting their respective political agendas. However, such groups are overwhelmingly motivated by a political not a religious imperative. As such, they should be considered secular rather than religious terrorists.


The same can be said of the Jewish organizations which were active before Israel became a state, and even of many of the various (nominally Muslim) organizations such as those operated under the auspices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Like the Northern Irish examples, the religious aspect of such groups is mainly a reflection of their membership demographic rather than their motivations. Religion is important, but not the main motivation for such groups. This differentiates them from others, for whom the religious imperative is foremost, and who can correctly be considered religious terrorists. This distinction is far from mere semantics. As with a medical misdiagnosis, a failure to correctly recognize the motivations of specific terrorist groups makes arriving at adequate countermeasures immeasurably more difficult if not impossible.

Degrees of Religious Terrorism


At the danger of making the issue appear deceptively simple, Figure 1 attempts to break the dynamics that differentiate religious and secular activity - including terrorism - down to their bare components. Of the two axes shown here, the means continuum is the easier to supervise - although, as the ongoing (albeit lower level) violence by Loyalist and Republican groups (despite most such groups ostensibly observing ceasefires) there shows, this is far from a clear-cut demarcation. To paraphrase the 17th Century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, peace is not merely the absence of war.

By comparison, the crossing of the secular-religious line is much more difficult to monitor. This is further complicated as groups do not necessarily remain at a static point within the quadrants formed by the ends-means axes. A group may increase or decrease the religiosity of its ends or the violence of its means. For instance, it has been claimed of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that it shifted its mission from fighting injustice domestically to inciting Islamic extremism globally, with its invocation of a global jihad earning it financial support from Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.9 Similarly, there is evidence of disillusionment among Kashmiri militants at what is seen as the transformation of a religious struggle into one that is being waged in the interests of the state of Pakistan.10


Often such realignment of ends or means (or both) will be almost imperceptible. For example, al Qaedas offer of a truce to European nations in the wake of Spains announcement that it was withdrawing its troops from Iraq, while far from political dialogue in its true sense, does indicates that Osama bin Ladens organization may not be as opposed to negotiation or discourse as was previously thought. Moreover, while al Qaedas enemies may not currently be disposed to negotiate with the group, this may not always be the case - witness for example the Reagan administrations dealings with Iranian state terrorists or Margaret Thatchers with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Furthermore, as the British experience with the latter group illustrates, nudging a group across the violent (terrorism)/non-violent (political dialogue) line can be an integral and vital component of a counter-terrorism strategy.


In addition, groups will often straddle the various quadrants. Al Qaeda again supplies a good illustration of this. The group undertook reconstruction projects in Sudan and Afghanistan even as it planned and carried out attacks. Bin Ladens group also has a distinct political tint to it religious ambitions - in this case the ultimate aim being the establishment of a pan-Islamic state - meaning that it bestrides all four quadrants to varying degrees. This political aspect is present with all religious terrorist groups, but particularly salient with regard to Muslims. Historically, the Islamic faith has not embraced the separation of church and state to the degree that is common in Western countries - most especially the United States. 11


This blurring of religion-and-politics/politics-and-religion that is characteristic of religious terrorism expresses itself in two forms. The first of these - the politicization of religion - attempts to apply political solutions (in the form of political violence through terrorism) to religious problems. It is religious terrorism that is more religious than political, although, as stated previously, this can change with the political imperative becoming the more dominant. Religious terrorisms second form of expression - the religionization of politics - attempts to apply religious solutions to political problems (again in the form of terrorism). Such attempts involve efforts to justify the violence, and attract and motivate terrorists, through religious rhetoric. It is religious terrorism that is more political than religious. This can also change with the religious imperative becoming the more dominant.


The mixing of religion and politics can be an oddly ecumenical and non-sectarian phenomenon: according to one of Israels former chiefs, the political and religious nature of their goals means that Jewish radical-right groups have much in common with Hamas.12 How this mix is adjusted leads to degrees of religious terrorism - from terrorism motivated (and a priori justified by) by religion, to terrorism justified by religion and merely masquerading as religious terrorism. Both versions can be similarly difficult to counter. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a scenario whereby religion, hitherto used by the leaders of a terrorist campaign (as in the latter variant) as a means of attracting and indoctrinating recruits as well as attracting and sustaining support, can become the chief driving factor. In short, the religious imperative can be as difficult to limit and control as it is to counter.


Rationalizing Religious Terrorism


Underlying this is the fact that, while it is their ends which set the religious terrorists apart from their secular counterparts, their means are also noteworthy and tend to be less restricted, resulting in higher levels of - often more indiscriminate - killing. This is not to say, as one scholar does, that religious terrorists are their own constituency, and execute their terrorist acts for no audience by themselves.13 This might be true were it not for the political considerations also inherent in the thinking of even those terrorists motivated primarily by religion. Al Qaeda may have wanted to kill a lot of people in attacking America on Sept. 11, 2001, not to say exact revenge for the wrongs they considered the United States to have inflicted on the Muslim world; however they also wanted to stage a publicity coup for themselves in telegraphing to the world what they were capable of. Similarly, the Taliban illustrated their appreciation of the need for political expediency to outweigh religious zeal when, in January 2004, they publicly apologized after one of their bomb attacks left 15 people - eight of them children - dead in Khandahar, Afghanistan.


As such incidents show, the terror inflicted by the religious terrorist is not an end in itself.14 Rather is a means towards a larger goal. Nor is this goal a conventional one. As the U.S. National Commission on Terrorism put it: Todays terrorists dont want a seat at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it.15 In addition, those whose terrorism has a religious nature or motivation see themselves as answerable only to God (or their idea of God) and their activities as divinely sanctioned. As a consequence, they operate within different moral, political, and practical constraints than secular terrorists. Far from being their own audience, the religious terrorists ultimate constituency is God.


The paradox of such violence being undertaken in the name of anyones idea of a good and just God, as religious terrorism tends to be (generally speaking religious terrorists no more consider themselves evil than do their secular counterparts - indeed they consider themselves righteous) was perhaps best addressed by the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Writing pseudonymously as Johannes de Silentio, in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard considered the dilemma of whether there can exist a teleological suspension of the ethical - a situation wherein normal moral considerations are justifiably over-ridden when appealing to a higher ideal.16 Examining the case of Abraham - a pivotal figure in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, who was prepared to sacrifice his own son when ordered to do so (as a test of his faith) by God - Kierkegaard concludes (some might say somewhat equivocally) that such a suspension can indeed exist. It seems likely that this conclusion (which Kierkegaard views as a temporary expedient and not an abolishment of normal ethical considerations) is shared by religious terrorists - or at least those who terrorism is genuinely motivated by their religious convictions (however misguided), as distinct from those who seek to justify their use of violence or recruit others to their cause by the subjective interpretation of religious doctrine.


As this implies, the religious terrorist cannot, as is sometimes suggested, be dismissed as an irrational madman anymore than his secular counterpart can. Just as terrorism often resides in the eye of the beholder, so too does rationality. To the religious terrorist, their actions are imminently rational, predicated as they are (or are taken by them to be) on the will of God. Dismissing a terrorist group as irrational on the grounds that its rationality differs from their own is something that the United States and the West can ill-afford to do if they also hope to defuse the threat posed by religious terrorism. Likewise, insisting that religious terrorists such as al Qaeda are fighting the United States because of a hatred of liberty, freedom, or the American way of life is of no use in countering them. Indeed, it may even prove counterproductive. Understanding ones enemy is a prerequisite to defeating them on the conventional battlefield. It is an even more crucial consideration on the unconventional one - especially when, as now, the enemy being faced is a religious terrorist.


1 Bruce Hoffman, "The Contrasting Ethical Foundations of Terrorism in the 1980s," Terrorism & Political Violence 1, no. 3 (1989), p. 361, n. 1. This cites statistics from the Rand Corporations Chronology of International Terrorism. According to this 1573 people were killed by terrorists during 1973-1979, whereas 3,225 people were killed by the same means between 1980 and 1986.

2 Bruce Hoffman, `Holy Terror: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 18, no. 4 (1995). The figure on casualties versus attacks by Islamic terrorist groups is again taken from the Rand chronology.

3 See, for instance, Wilkinson, Paul. Conflict Study 236: "Terrorist Targets and Tactics: New Risks to World Order." (Washington: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 1990), which considers this question.

4 David C. Rapoport, "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions," American Political Science Review 78, no. 3 (1984), p. 659.

5 See, Ibid. for more on the Thugs. Also, Mark Burgess, "A Brief History of Terrorism," Center for Defense Information (2003), and Mark Burgess, "Explaining Religious Terrorism Part 1: The Axis of Good and Evil," Center for Defense Information (2004).

6 Mark Juergensmeyer, " The Worldwide Rise of Religious Nationalism," Journal of International Affairs 50, no. 1 (1996), p. 2.

7 Ibid., p. 4.

8 See also, Mark Juergensmeyer, "Terror Mandated by God," Terrorism & Political Violence 9, no. 2 (1997), or Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror In The Mind Of God : The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd , rev. and updated. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

9 Jessica Stern, Terror in The Name of God : Why Religious Militants Kill, 1st ed. (New York: Ecco, 2003), p. 267.

10 Ibid., pp. 134-137.

11 For more on this topic see, John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics, 4th ed. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

12 Stern, Op Cit., p. 106.

13 Hoffman, Holy Terror: The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative," p. 273.

14 Such a notion is put forward in S. K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War, 1st ed. (Lahore: Wajidalis, 1979). Cited in Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden : The Man Who Declared War on America, (Rocklin, Calif.: Forum, 1999), p. xv.

15 National Commission on Terrorism, "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism: Report of the National Commission on Terrorism," (2000), p. 2.

16 Sören Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) The entire text is available on-line at: . Last downloaded April 22, 2004.