Is terrorism a religion of its own?

Transnational Institute

As a result of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, numerous voices have again risen to claim that "Islam" or "Islamism" has an unexplained, even positive, relationship to political violence. A French scholar of Islam expressed this with particular clarity:

"Islam justifies violence and does not know freedom of expression or religion. If it were to openly reveal its belligerent, anti-western and anti-reform side, which has been its own since the 11th century, European states, human rights and the principle of equality, loyal to human rights and the principle of equality, would be able to support it Do not tolerate soil ... Wherever you look in the Orient and Africa, the religion of Muhammad is enforcing itself today with violence: This applies to Sudan and Bangladesh, Mindanao and Kashmir, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Egypt , Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria and Nigeria. This is how the Arabic commandments teach 'The religion of Muhammad by the sword'. ... Since a reform failed at the beginning of the 20th century, Islam is still a conquering, warlike and theocratic religion " . (1) From such positions it makes sense to understand Islamically inspired terrorism as a whole or the acts of terrorism of September 11th as an integral part of Islamic religiosity. Islam is ultimately a religion of intolerance and conquest, with the "holy war" (jihad) at the center. Even if this was not shared by Samuel Huntington in this rough form, it ties in directly and indirectly with his controversial theses ("Clash of Civilizations"), such as the formulations, "Islam has bloody borders" (2).

But even positions that the Muslims actually want to protect against a general suspicion of violence, often end up with the opposite: A few weeks after the terrorist attacks in Rhenish Mercury, one could read the comforting phrase:
"Not everyone who prays to Allah is a 'warrior of God' and ready to take up arms". (3)
As undeniably correct as such sentences are, they suggest that perhaps every second or every third Muslim willingly and quickly take up arms. In this way, not only is a direct connection drawn from prayer to violence, which one would never claim for Christianity - despite its violent history. And while "not every" Muslim may be violent, they seem to pose a considerable risk overall. How would one feel in our foreign press organs that "not every German is a Nazi and kills Turks"?

Such positions mostly assume a global confrontation between the (modern, secular) West and (retrograde, unenlightened and violent) Islam. In such a comparison, the West would automatically take on the role of fighting violence - a civilizing mission that is not always formulated as openly as the Italian Prime Minister Berlusoni: "The West is destined to westernize and conquer the peoples. This he has already succeeded with the communist and part of the Islamic world. But there is another part of this world that stopped 1,400 years ago ". (4) Despite the often ritual talk of an "intercultural dialogue", the anti-Islamic connotations of the alleged dualism between the West and Islam are obvious.

Beyond its political instrumentalization, international terrorism represents a serious and dangerous problem in international relations. And the level of political violence - including its terrorist variety - is in fact in the Near and Middle East (in addition to some regions of "Christian" Africa, such as Rwanda and Burundi) is particularly high at the moment - and in many of the affected countries most of the people are Muslim.

State and "private" terrorism is one of the common experiences that practically all civilizations share: the term itself comes from the experience of the French Revolution, that is, "Christian" Europe. The terror of the ETA, the terrorism of Catholic and Protestant groups in Northern Ireland, the Catholic or Orthodox Croats and Serbs against the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, the violence of the German RAF and the Italian Red Brigades, the terror of Stalinism, Italian fascism and the Nazis are just arbitrary examples. In addition, we know terrorism in many non-Christian societies, the terror of Hindus and Sikhs, Jewish terrorism during the colonial period or by Israeli settlers and the military, the terror of the Aun sect in Japan and the earlier terror of the Japanese Empire in China and Korea - the list could be expanded almost at will. All of this does not mean two things: on the one hand, the terror of the various societies does not have to be "religious" always and everywhere, and even where it does so, it does not have to have real religious roots. Second, the spread and occurrence of terrorism in different cultures does not mean that it must always be just as threatening at all times and in all societies. This is certainly not the case - the cycles of political violence are out of sync, and neither are their forms of expression: while political violence may be expressed in one country or culture through popular uprisings or civil war, in others through terrorism, it can do so in another more conventional means of war happening. A scientific analysis of terrorism cannot separate it from its political and social framework and examine it in isolation, but must consider it as part of the spectrum of political violence as a whole.

If you look at the global figures from the US State Department, you can see two important points: First, the number of international terrorism attacks has fallen significantly over the past twenty years. In the years 1985-88 there were more than 600 attacks worldwide each year (in the previous years between about 490 and 565), the average for the years 1996-2000 was only 338. (5)

Looking at the number of attacks by region for the years 1995-2000, it is noticeable that the Near and Middle East - the region with the highest population density of Muslims - was at the lower end of the terrorist frequency - apart from North America. In the Middle East, the number of international terrorism attacks during this period ranged between 16 and 45 (annual average 33), while in Western Europe (focus: the Balkans) between 30 and 272 (average 101) and in Latin America (focus on Colombia) between 84 and 193 (average 121) were. (6)

The conclusion that "Islamic" terrorism is particularly virulence cannot be drawn from these figures. If you also take a closer look at the terrorist attacks carried out in Western Europe, there were certainly acts of terrorism by actors from the Near and Middle East, albeit on a comparatively small scale and often with a non-religious background (e.g. by representatives of the Kurdish PKK against their own members ). Considered soberly, Islamic terrorism was therefore only of moderate importance internationally as of September 11, in quantitative and qualitative terms - important enough to keep a strict police eye, as it was on other forms of crime, but in terms of its type and scope, no cause for particular excitement.

This assessment is, however, partly due to the term "international terrorism", which only includes cross-border forms of political violence. Acts of terror within a country that are perpetrated by its own citizens against the goals of their own country (e.g. not against the embassy building or staff of a third country) are just as brutal, but they are not attacks of international terrorism and are therefore included in the US figures listed above - State Department does not apply. The vast majority of political violence in the Near and Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole takes place internally, not against third parties. And in a considerable number of these cases it can also be argued whether it is actually terrorism or other forms of resistance and violence. The US State Department defines "terrorism" as "deliberate acts of political violence against non-combatants (" noncombatant ") by non-state groups or secret agents". (7)

Violent attacks by armed units on military forces are often and understandably perceived by those attacked as "acts of terrorism", especially when they are carried out using unconventional means - while they may be forms of unconventional warfare in the context of civil wars or acts of resistance. In this double sense, the Near and Middle East is a region with particularly pronounced political violence: at the end of the 1990s, 8 out of 27 major violent conflicts in the world took place in the region of the Islamic Orient. (8) Typical for the course of the conflict there are situations in which, in the context of uprisings, civil wars or organized political resistance, a broad mixture of forms of action and operation is used: peaceful demonstrations and other forms of protest, if possible even participation in elections, Damage to property or acts of violence with a more symbolic meaning, organized violent resistance up to the level of war, intimidation of the opponent and potential deviators on your own side, various forms of terrorism. If we take the violent conflicts of the last decade in Algeria, Turkey (Kurdistan), Palestine or Kashmir, then in all cases there is a close connection between chronic political conflicts and various forms of violence, which can and often also include terrorist attacks. Assessing the various dimensions of violence is not always easy. In particular, one must usually be careful not to automatically regard certain means of violence as terrorist or non-terrorist, e.g. assassinations or car bombs are always acts of terrorism, but rocket attacks by state military units are "military" (as opposed to terrorist) to want. The bombing of Adolf Hitler by Graf Stauffenberg is rarely ever referred to as terrorism (except by the Nazis) although it used the "classic" weapon of terrorists, while conversely, air strikes against civilians to intimidate them or to "break morals" can be terrorist. You don't recognize a terrorist by the weapon, but by the political and legal context and the target: attacks on occupation troops tend not to be terrorist, those on schoolchildren are always terrorist. Secondly, it is also only moderately helpful to want to make a formal distinction between terrorist and non-terrorist organizations: it is usually the case that organizations only selectively resort to terrorist forms of action, but are much more and more complex than mere "terrorist organizations": the Palestinian Hamas and the Israeli army are both responsible for acts of terrorism (such as political murders), but it would be simplistic in both cases to simply call them terrorist gangs. The South African ANC and the SWAPO of Namibia have also committed individual acts of terror during their underground work (9), the French foreign intelligence service (10) or the American CIA (11) were involved in such acts or did them themselves - despite the fact that they were or these organizations are not terrorist organizations, but liberation movements or authorities that did not shy away from terrorist crimes.

One of the numerous reasons for the difficulties in delimiting terrorism from other forms of violence lies in the well-known fact that the term terrorism has not yet been satisfactorily defined, that there are well over 100 different definitions that compete with one another and often reflect different political intentions. In particular, the delimitation of legitimate violent resistance from terrorism can hardly be achieved consensually, since the victims of such resistance always see themselves as victims of terrorism, while most terrorists also see themselves as legitimate resistance movements. The old observation applies that one man's terrorists are the other's freedom heroes. This basic problem naturally also applies to political violence by Muslims.

The causes of terrorism and other forms of political violence in the Middle East are diverse. A necessary - but not sufficient - basic requirement is a general situation of permanent economic and political crisis, which is characterized by economic, social and political aspects. An important element is the gap between the expectations and hopes of a large part of the population and the realities. It is not the poverty of the population or the lack of democracy per se that are directly and automatically responsible for political violence - extremely poor societies can also be remarkably peaceful. But if dictatorial conditions or poverty are no longer accepted by the population because people consider more prosperity and freedom to be desirable and possible - and both are denied to them, then a potential for conflict arises with a possible component of violence. Whether and in what form and to what extent the violence will actually manifest itself depends on many factors, including the legal and political possibilities of peaceful opposition. In a number of countries in the Near and Middle East, such chronic crises exist in the respective societies, which are increasingly characterized by hopelessness and anger. Corrupt and incompetent governments deny their own people basic political rights and at the same time are unable to offer economic prospects for the future. Massive youth unemployment, a shameless division of societies between rich and poor (the latter often demonstratively pro-Western) and a strong divergence between the public values ​​and norms of a society and social reality are warning signals. Sectors of the middle classes often come into consideration as social organizers of a resulting political radicalism (and later possibly its violent practices), for example the sons of rural families who acquire new educational elements in large cities or even abroad (especially at universities) - and then none or cannot find adequate jobs, but at the same time cannot or do not want to go back to their villages. The potential for political conflict is fed by social hardship and despair, but its organization is usually not supported by the poorest, but by representatives of the technical intelligentsia, doctors or lawyers.

A second factor usually plays a central role in transforming existing conflict potential into political violence: the symbolism of regional political conflicts. For the Islamic cultural area, these are above all Palestine, to a lesser extent Kashmir (especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and other cases. These conflicts have a strong mobilizing effect, they represent the oppression of entire peoples. In the Palestinian case in particular, mobilization can take place on a national basis (Palestinians are Arabs) or quasi-religious (Palestinians are Muslims), based on identification with the oppressed. The importance of this mechanism is exemplified in the fatwa (an Islamic legal opinion) that Usama ibn Ladin published with other extremists in February 1998 to declare "war" on the USA and Israel. In it he raises three substantive allegations:

  • The occupation of Islamic countries, in particular "the holiest of all places, the Arabian Peninsula", in order to "loot their riches, rule their rulers" ("dictating to its rulers"), and for other purposes by the USA;
  • The effects of US policy ("the Crusader-Zionist alliance"), the Gulf War and the embargo that has continued since then on the Iraqi civilian population "with more than 1 million deaths";
  • Israel's "occupation of Jerusalem and the murders of Muslims" and US support. (12)

Certain regional conflicts in the Near and Middle East can form an explosive mixture in connection with the conflict potential already existing within societies. They can be used politically to bundle conflicts and the potential for violence and to give them a direction - potentially also an outward direction. In this context, prevention of violent conflicts and terrorism should at the same time focus on the internal sources and causes of the potential for violence and the important, symbolic regional conflicts: as long as the majority of the population have no positive life prospects and as long as the Palestine conflict is not resolved - as long as the danger remains exist that the potential for violence is reproduced.You can then continue to express yourself in very different ways and against different goals, including terroristically.

Violence and terrorism are not new in the Middle East either, nor did they emerge with the emergence of Islamism. Just as there is and has always been religiously based but also secular violence in Europe, so also in Muslim societies. In the seventies, for example, the terrorism resulting from the Palestine conflict (e.g. aircraft hijackings) was justified not religiously, but "nationally", in connection with "national liberation" and the struggle of a liberation movement. The perpetrators were mostly Muslims, but their religion and religiosity played practically no role in the reasons for the crime. Today the same acts would with a certain certainty also or completely be supported by religious arguments - not because they now sprang from religion, but because the political discourse as a whole has shifted. Just as many political problems used to be expressed in the language of Arab nationalism or Marxism-Leninism, today the same basic problems are formulated differently, embedded in a different context - without necessarily being different. Political movements almost always express their demands, expectations and programs in a meaningful legitimation context, which grants them higher consecrations such as "history", the "nation", the "class struggle" or even "God". In part, they absorb moods in society, in part they shape it, but in any case they serve to strengthen one's own position to claim higher values, which can contain real aspects and reasonable justifications.

The current Islamic terrorism continues to feed from secular sources: from social problems and conflicts, oppression, hopelessness and lack of prospects. Without these sources, Islamist terrorism would not get beyond small groups of nuts, it would be no more significant than the German RAF was in the 1970s: noisy, loudmouthed, but politically isolated. Islamist terrorism is significant today not because it is Islamist, but because it has a base in some countries that does not arise from the Koran, but from social realities. On this basis, however, any form of religion can become an additional, powerful ideological weapon, including Islam. Its practical use here consists in the fact that it is non-Western (in contrast to nationalism, for example, which to a certain extent was a Western import product), that it appeals to an extremely high moral authority (God), which in addition, in principle, cannot be refuted can (God obviously cannot defend himself against his political instrumentalization) and that religion contains a particularly strong emotional component that some secular ideologies do not - or no longer - have.

Islam - or certain unorthodox interpretations of Islam - can in some circumstances help to strengthen terrorist perpetrators ideologically, to supplement their political motives with spiritual ones and thus to increase their motivation. Islam can also - like nationalist or other ideologies - fulfill the function of creating common ground and thus facilitating the formation of political coalitions: for example, appealing to the community of all Muslims, as in the past, and in some cases still, the commonalities of the Arabs are used politically . Conversely, it can of course be used for exclusion, for example by non-Muslims. It can therefore play an important role in strengthening group identity, motivating and defining in and out groups. It is noticeable that political Islam as the context of justification for terrorism (which is the rare exception, not the rule) is first used in the respective country, not internationally: the respective dictatorship or power elite is contested their Islamic character, often with very secular arguments such as Corruption or foreign policy accusations, but also the sinful way of life of the rulers. The assassination attempt on Egyptian President Sadat was a classic example. Such forms of terrorism usually take on an international character, for example when it comes to persecuting members of the opposition or diplomats from one's own country abroad. In rather rare - but potentially particularly dangerous or bloody exceptions - Islamist terrorism seeks Western targets abroad, as the above-mentioned statistics from the US State Department show.

An analysis of Islamic-inspired terrorism should not examine it primarily from a quasi-theological, but from a political and criminalistic point of view. Taking the terrorists' religious justifications at face value gets on them and is misleading. The religious confession of the perpetrators is their private affair - but their crimes are not, and the causes and sources of political violence and its terrorist forms do not lie in the relationship of the individual to God, but in the very earthly questions such as social and political justice, alienation and collective lack of perspective. The analysis of religious terrorism must also be carried out here, and this is where counter and preventive measures must begin first. In contrast, those who understand Islamic terrorism primarily as a phenomenon of Islam and act accordingly are playing into the hands of the terrorists. Among other things, you want to provoke a confrontation between "Islam" and "the West" and become the exponents of the Islamic side yourself. It is precisely this calculation that must fail if one does not want to add fuel to the fire.


1. "Islam is warlike", in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, November 18, 2001, No. 46 / page 11
2. Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?", In: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, no. 3, summer 1993, pp. 34/35
3. Rudolf Zewell, "Duty to act: Fight against terror - The" "just peace" "is not to be had for free", in: Rheinischer Merkur, October 5, 2001, p. 1
4. quoted from: taz of September 28, 2001, p. 4
5. US Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000, Appendix C: Statistical Review (Charts): Total International Terrorist Attacks, 1981-2000
6. Ibid, Appendix C, Total International Attacks by Region, 1995-2000
7. However, this definition is modified by restricting "combatants" several times: for example, soldiers would be combatants during their service time, but not after work. After that, an attack on a soldier could be terrorist or non-terrorist depending on the time of day and duty roster. Something like this makes the term terrorism more manageable for bureaucratic purposes, but analytically useless.
8. See: Jochen Hippler, Conflicts and Crisis Prevention, in: Foundation Development and Peace, Global Trends 2000: Facts, Analyzes, Forecasts, ed. by Ingomar Hauchler, Dirk Messner, Franz Nuscheler, Frankfurt 1999, pp. 421-437; accessible on the Internet at:
9. especially against internal deviants
10. For example the bomb attack on the Greenpeace ship "Rainbow Warrior" in New Zealand, which protested against the French nuclear tests in the Pacific. The ship was sunk and a photographer was killed.
11. Various assassinations of foreign politicians and even heads of state of the CIA were investigated in the US Senate in the 1970s and only then banned. However, this did not prevent them from being involved in acts of terrorism, such as the 1985 bomb attack in Beirut in which 80 people were killed; see, inter alia: US Senate, Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, November 20, 1975; and New York Times, 12.-15. and May 17, 1985
12. Text of Fatwa Urging Jihad Against Americans, published in Al-Quds al-Arabi, February 23, 1998, quoted from the Internet website:

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