Religion and Culture as Motivations for Terrorism

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Tech Sergeant
Nov 5, 2005
Mr. Amir Frayman


The 'War on Terror', led by the USA and supported by other states, has been the main factor that shaped the international agenda over the past four years. Many financial resources, human capital and political and military efforts have been invested in the on-going campaign aimed to obliterate terrorist organisations wherever they are. The source of this terror originates from Muslim countries in the Middle-East and South-East Asia, but it threatens the entire international community and includes all human beings. This threat, which the international community identifies with Global Jihad, is by far the most dangerous threat to the world's peace and security.

The questions that are often left without clear answers pertain to the unique characteristics of the regions that enable terrorism to flourish. It is commonly believed that religion is what motivates terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and its associated organisations, to perpetrate deadly attacks against civilians. However, the fact that only a small minority of Muslims around the world support or are actively involved in these kinds of attacks, raises questions of whether religion is the sole motivator behind terrorism, and what part culture plays in this phenomenon. The answer lies in the assumption that religion and culture are interlinked motivators, and that the combination of specific cultural conditions with strong religious convictions has resulted in Islamic terrorism.

The Rise of Terrorism

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in human history. It has been an integral part of social behaviour for over 2000 years, and yet, no international consensus has yet been formed regarding what terrorism constitutes. The fact that there is no single acceptable definition, imposes many obstacles on those who wish to fight terrorism effectively . Nowadays, the most commonly agreed upon definition is: "The use of [or the threat to use] violence against civilians in order to attain political goals". The emphasis put on political goals is what differentiates terrorism from other types of violence (such as criminal violence).

It is widely known that the first terrorists were motivated by religious fanaticisms. David Rapoport, claimed that before the 18th century and the advent nationalism, anarchism, and Marxist ideology, "religion provided the only acceptable justifications for terror." The Jewish Zealots in the 1st century, the Muslim Hashashins and the Hindu Thugs, are the most recognised religious terrorists of the ancient times, which mainly used assassinations and scarifying people as their modus operandi. The emergence of nationalism, imperialism and Marxist ideology led to a change in the nature of terrorism, and since the 18th century (the French revolution), until the mid 20th century (the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s), it was mainly driven by secular motives while the influence of religion declined. The main features of this kind of terrorism were guerilla tactics, political kidnappings, sabotage and mayhem. The turning point in the nature of terrorism is perceived to be in 1968. The Vietnam War and the rise of leftist movements in Europe and the USA (mainly motivated by Marxism and anarchism), together with the ascendants of Palestinian nationality after the Six Day War in 1967, generated a new wave of terrorism which expanded into global dimensions and shifted from national motives to political and ethnic ones. This form of modern international terrorism is characterised both by the secular nature of the organisations and by its lethality, indiscrimination and intention to create massive havoc and fear among the targeted population.

In the post-Cold War era the world has witnessed the re-emergence of religious terrorism, mainly among Islamic organisations. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the discrediting of communist and Marxist ideologies, together with the rise of liberal-democratic values, contributed to the rise of religion as a substitute for secular motives. In addition, the rise of radical Islamic regime in Iran (1979), the war in Afghanistan (1979) and the rise of the Taliban regime (1996), led to a steep increase in the number of Islamic religious motivated terrorist organisations. Consequently, from the 13 known terrorist organisations identified in 1968, none was characterised as religious . Yet today, from the 42 designated terror organisations in the US State Department's list, more than half are Islamic religious-motivated.

The threat of terrorism intensified amply in the past decade, with the emergence of Global Jihad – a more extreme mutation of international terrorism. What distinguishes international terrorism, which the world dealt with during the 1970s, 1980s and mid 1990s, from the recent Global Jihad, is a combination between two main factors: the extreme ideology inherent in the Islamic radical belief of the holiness of the personal "Jihad" (martyrdom) ; and the deadly methods employed together with the willingness to use non-conventional weapons.

Global Jihadist movements led by the infamous Al-Qaeda network (which includes approximately 40 associated and affiliated organisations) headed by Osama Bin-Laden, pose the greatest threat to Western countries as well as to moderate Muslim regimes.

The Relationship between Religion and Culture

Before dealing with religion and culture as motivations for terrorism, there is a need to define these two convoluted terms. Many scholars have tried and are still trying to define them, and yet, like 'terrorism', there is no definition that generates consensus, rather a set of definitions that complete each other.

Religion is a vague term that constitutes many different aspects, some of them not entirely objective. One of the most comprehensive definitions of religion is comprised of four domains: a discourse whose concerns transcends the human, temporal and contingent; set of practices to produce a proper world and human subjects; a community which constructs identity; and an institution that asserts eternal validity. All four domains allow every human being to apply his own subjective definition of religion and to practice it accordingly.

Culture is another intangible term that can be defined in many different ways. The traditional way to define culture is by a combination of concepts such as: group or community with collective identity that can be conveyed by language, non-verbal signals, norms of behaviour, habits, clothes, art, etc. Ernest Gellner argues that culture is a "distinct way of doing things which characterises a given community…[culture] can be defined as systems of concepts or ideas which guide thought and conduct." Culture is more flexible than religion and therefore it can emerge from events or processes and can be changed accordingly.

Throughout the years religion has evolved as one of the central components of most cultures and became deeply involved in the practices of the community. Furthermore, religion is one of the most unpredictable aspects of any community's cultural identity. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish religion and culture as two separate concepts that comprise the collective identity of specific community or nation. Thus, religion and culture are directly interlinked and I will show that the symbiosis between the two have led to destructive consequences resulting in supporting and perpetrating Islamic terrorism.
The Use of Religion and Culture by Islamic Terrorist Organisations

Religion and culture are practically inseparable and Islamic terrorist organisations use this relation in order to operate in two realms. The first one is the religious realm, in which the violence first and foremost is portrayed as a sacramental act or divine duty, executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative. The other realm is the cultural one, in which culture provides the social cohesion required for legitimising religious-motivated terrorism.

Terrorism by definition is not an Islamic phenomenon. Why then have most terrorist attacks in recent years been perpetrated in the name of Islam? The main reason behind this is that Islam provides the necessary religious ground in which terrorism maybe nurtured as well as the cultural background that enables societies to accept and support terrorism. Yet, it should be noted, that most Muslim communities in the world do not engage in terrorism nor do they support it as a mean to achieve a general aim. The absence of a certain cultural environment necessary for perpetrating religious-motivated terrorism, explains why Islamic terrorism in most cases did not emerge from within Muslim communities in Western countries; rather it was done by outside terrorists from Muslim countries.

It is impossible to determine which is the predominant instigator, religion or culture, in relation to terrorism. However, the fact that religion is an integral part of the Islamic culture, provides the fertile ground for the growing phenomenon of religious-motivated terrorism. It is essential to recognize specific aspects of the Islamic culture in order to comprehend the motives that might lead to terrorism. For instance, the glory of ancient powerful Islamic empires serves as an important factor in the Muslim's will to revive the great days of Islam. In addition, the culture of warriors inherent in Islam since the days of the prophet Mohammed, constitutes concepts of religious punishment in the name of God, blood revenge, honor and respect, and deep rooted differentiation between Muslims and infidels. These two main aspects in the Islamic culture serve as driving forces in the collective identity of many Muslim communities. Consequently, the shift to violence while using twisted religious justification seems to permeate into some Muslim communities' way of life.

A twisted perception of religious decree together with particular cultural environment can be seen in the concept of martyrdom (Shahadah). This concept – the sanctification of God's name by self-sacrificing ones life – have become a popular modus operandi among several Muslim communities, owing to the fact that it is a religious duty whose glorification originates from the cultural foundation inherent in Islam. Many Muslim societies use religion to advocate martyrdom, by creating 'martyr worship cultures' , which take the form of suicide attackers. This however, creates a problem for Muslims, since although the cultural environment was ready to accept martyrs, the concept of committing suicide is unacceptable according to Islam, and whoever commits suicide is not allowed to enter heaven (another divine concept in Islam). Therefore, facing the need to use suicide terrorism, the modern "smart bomb" of Islamic terrorist organisations, a religious authorisation was required in order to justify the acts. A prominent religious scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, announced that "The operations carried out by the Muslim youth that defend the lands of Islam and the religion and dignity of Islam are the greatest forms of Jihad for the sake of Allah. They fall under the definition of legitimate terrorization…I maintain that it is wrong to consider these acts as 'suicidal,' because these are heroic acts of martyrdom, which are in fact very different from suicide." This announcement explained to Muslims that suicide attacks, although forbidden in Islam are justified if done at the will of God and it promises the suicide attackers entrance to heaven. Another religious scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Fadlallah, was also required to explain this contradiction between heaven and suicide attacks. His solution is conveyed in the following religious ruling: "There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself. In a situation of struggle or holy war you have to find the best means to achieve your goals."

All terrorist organisations cannot act effectively if the society that surrounds them does not support their activity. Mao Tse-Tung once said that: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." Although he was referring to guerilla fighters, terrorists are not different in their necessity to feel comfortable in their natural habitat. Therefore, in times when the natural surroundings do not accommodate terrorism, there is a need to create the essential cultural environment in which terrorism, and especially religious-motivated one, can operate. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader (and symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination), was not a religious leader. However, he consistently encouraged the creation of cultural conditions that would enable Palestinians to continue in their fight for their independence. One of the popular methods which Arafat adopted was using religious terminology and rhetoric in his public speeches given in Arabic (as language is a crucial element in any culture). In an interview to the Palestinian National TV in January 15, 2002, Arafat explained that dead Palestinian children - Shahids - are "the greatest message to the world". After the first female suicide bomber succeeded in her attack killing one Israeli citizen and injuring 140, Arafat said: "The Fatah Movement ... proudly eulogize their heroine Martyr, from the Alamari refugee camp, the martyr Wafa Idris." . Perhaps his most famous public statement was made in Johannesburg in the midst of the Oslo accords when peace was within reach: "The Jihad will continue, and Jerusalem is not [only] for the Palestinian people, it is for all the Muslim nation…We are in need of you as Moslems, as warriors of Jihad [in Arabic, Mujaheddin]." By using the words Jihad, Muslim nation and warriors in one sentence, Arafat linked religion and culture; Jihad used to illustrate the means, Muslim nation intended to provide the collective identity and warriors to represent the set of norms and behaviour inherent in Islam.

The Palestinian society serves as an example of a Muslim society with a cultural environment that is an effective platform for religious-motivated terrorism against Israel. In the peak of the Palestinian terror wave in 2002, the idolisation of Palestinian terrorists, regardless of the fact that their cause was more of a nationalist one than religious, illustrated the social cohesion of the Palestinian society and the legitimisation that it provided for terrorism. The ongoing massive use in electronic media, wallpapers, newspapers, street graffiti and more, created a culture of terrorism within a society that glorifies suicide attacks, manufactures heroes and is committed to continue the fight against the infidels (Israelis). As a result of this cultural environment, religious-motivated terrorism can flourish and the massive support it has among the people and the leaders provide the necessary legitimacy for terrorist attacks. For instance, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah (the main Palestinian organisation that controls the PLO), is a secular organisation which uses terrorism in order to achieve national and political goals for the Palestinian people. Yet all suicide attacks carried out by its members were done after comprehensive religious indoctrination, which provided the perpetrator with a tool to self-justify his act – in the name of God and for the liberation of Palestine. Furthermore, even the name of the organisation, indicates that its actions are derived from religious motives or justifications, as Al-Aqsa mosque is one of the holiest sites of Islam and martyrdom being an Islamic concept. Indeed, the religious culture within the Palestinian society, although most of the Palestinians consider themselves as secular, allows terrorists to use religion as a justification for their acts.

There is no indication in the Qur'an for the word terrorism. However, religious sages (Faqih – an expert in Islamic law) use religion in order to meet modern political modules and to serve specific aims, by using interpretations and contemporary methods. These religious sages use fatwas (legal pronouncement that is not binding to all Muslims) and their religious authority in order to justify terrorism as a necessary means for meeting the needs of reality. According to Magnus Ranstorp: "Terrorists take refugee in religion…which determines goals; they find physical or psychological sanctuary against repression; or they may use it as a major instrument for activism and for political action." Hence, religion serves as an instrument in the hands of Muslim terrorists in order to justify their actions, and to provide moral explanations to their inhumane actions. Culture on the other hand, provides the collective identity and the social behaviour that legitimises and supports terrorism as well as creates the necessary environment to recruit activists and to raise funds. Without the proper culture, religion by itself cannot be used as an adequate reason for terrorist attacks. Thus, the combination of religion and culture can generate the set of beliefs and values that motivate Islamic terrorism and produce social unity, regardless of the religious fervor of the community members.

Although it is often believed that terrorism is a manifestation of religious fanaticism, when looking at today's Global Jihad it is clear that it cannot be separated from the cultural background as well as from daily events. As religion and culture are intertwined, one should explore them together and put them in the political and socio-economic context in order to be able to comprehend the real nature of Global Jihad.

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