What Connection between Religion and Terrorism?

Recently the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations put out a report arguing for the United States to pay more attention to religion as it conducted its foreign affairs.  The report did not merely put this in the context of terrorism, but it certainly included terrorism among the issues it addressed.

The report argued that:

Without a more serious and thoughtful engagement with religion across a host of issues and actors, U.S. foreign policy will miss important opportunities…. And, we will undermine our ability to protect citizens from violence perpetrated by religious extremists. Indeed, pushing an uncompromising secular alternative can have the unintended effect of feeding extremism by further threatening traditional sources of personal, cultural, and religious identity.

At about the same time, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University posted an article on ReadingIslam.com summarizing the key points of his 2007 book, Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Esposito implicitly argues for less attention to religion as we consider issues of counterterrorism.

Who’s right?  Esposito notes that:

For decades, scholars and pundits have been debating about how terrorists and extremists are created. The causes of terrorism are said to be psychological (terrorists are abnormal, deranged, irrational), sociological (they lack education, are alienated social misfits), economic (they’re poor, unemployed, hopeless), political (they reject democracy, freedom, human rights), and religious (they’re fanatics, zealots, believers in a violent religion that rejects modernization and technology).

He then goes on to say that his studies–which are quite consistent with other work in the field–suggest that things like unemployment, poverty and lack of education do not appear to cause terrorism.  Nor are terrorists typically crazy.

So, is it religion that causes terrorism?  Does Islam in particular have a terrorism problem?  Esposito thinks not and he observes that “radical” Muslims, which he defines as those who thought that the September 11 attacks were justified, don’t seem to be more religious than “moderate” Muslims.  He writes:

Does personal piety correlate with radical views? The answer is no. Large majorities of those [Muslims] with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

He goes on to suggest that radicals simply wield religion instrumentally:

Examining the link between religion and terrorism requires a larger and more complex context. Throughout history, close ties have existed among religion, politics, and societies. Leaders have used and hijacked religion to recruit members, to justify their actions, and to glorify fighting and dying in a sacred struggle. [Emphasis added.]

Esposito uses the example of suicide bombings as a proxy for his broader argument that the cause of terrorism is political grievances.  He draws on the work of Robert Pape to argue that suicide bombings typically are done for strategic political purposes.  In other words, Esposito seems to be saying that politics/grievances–>violence and also politics/grievances–>religious rhetoric.

Here is where the conceptual trouble starts.  Nowhere does Esposito explain why the causal relationships might not go in the opposite direction: religion –>politics/grievances–>violence.  The possibility that religion might shape political views seems like a very commonsense idea that should not be dismissed out of hand.  Think, for instance, of all the people who are raised Catholic from birth and then later in life, when they grow old enough to learn what abortion is, decide that they are pro-life.  Is it a surprise that they should make such a decision?  I think not.  Surely no one would think it unreasonable to assume that many of them were influenced by their faith as they decided which side of this political question to come down on.

I’m a big believer that absent a specific reason to think otherwise, we should believe what other people say.  Sayyid Qutb, the founder of Salafi Jihadism spoke to precisely this question in his manifesto, Milestones, albeit from a conspiratorial angle.  He seemed clear in his mind that he was describing (and calling for) a religious struggle:

The enemies of the Believers may wish to change this struggle into an economic or political or racial struggle, so that the Believers become confused concerning the true nature of the struggle…The Believers must not be deceived, and must understand that this is a trick.  The enemy, by changing the nature of the struggle, intends to deprive them of their weapon of true victory.

Now it is true that Esposito makes a convincing case—one that I believe—that there is no particular connection between Islam writ large and violence, but that is where his analysis stops.  What about particular kinds of Islam?  I’m perfectly willing to grant that Islam doesn’t have a terrorism problem, but I also think that there is compelling case to be made that Salafi Jihadism, a sub-set of Islam does.

Worse yet, Esposito seems implicitly to be suggesting that there is only one cause for terrorist violence.  However, there is no particular reason to think that that must be true.  In fact, one of my personal analytic biases is that almost nothing is monocausal outside the realm of Newtonian physics.  Might it not be the case that one’s politics and one’s religion affect each other and that sometimes violence spurts out from that tangled interaction?

The Chicago study, then, is right on the money, at least as far as I am concerned.  Ideas, including religious ideas, matter in the real world.  In the end, we should address legitimate political grievances when we can but also we should not be afraid to recognize the power of and do battle with pernicious ideas, even when they come in religious form.  This requires a far more sophisticated public discourse about the relationship between religion and violence than typically comes from the Islamophobes or from scholars of Islam such as Professor Esposito.

Advertisements
Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 6:03 AM  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://onwarandwords.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/what-connection-between-religion-and-terrorism/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mark,
    Based on my own firsthand experience and research, I would say there is too much focus on religion. Most individuals who become terrorists in the jihadist sense of the term come from low practicing or non-practicing families. They take on the mantle of religiosity only after they have gone down the path of radicalization. Even then, most of what passes for “religious knowledge” is usually only a series of cherry picked lines from the Koran. They have no real knowledge or context for what they are saying. In short, individuals are often vulnerable to radicalization precisely because of their lack of religious knowledge, rather than because of it. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: So it goes……

    Tom Quiggin

    • Hi Tom. Thanks for the comment.

      As usual, much to work with there, but I wanted to focus on the comment you made about how many of these radicals do not have deep knowledge of Islam, having “only a series of cherry-picked lines from the Quran.” I’ve heard this too and certainly had this impression occasionally myself in my readings.

      That said, I would argue that lack of depth does not equal lack of sincerity. Nor yet does it imply that the small amount of knowledge has a correspondingly small impact on the person’s political views or behavior.

  2. From my POV, this is a major post on a key topic, and I hope you’ll forgive me for going on at length here in the comments section…

    *

    You quote Esposito as saying “radical” Moslems don’t seem to be more religious than their “moderate” co-religionists:

    QUOTE: Large majorities of those [Muslims] with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance. :UNQUOTE

    To my mind, both responses to questionnaires of this sort and mosque attendance offer very superficial metrics for devotion — a willingness to lay down one’s own life, as demonstrated by “martyrdom ops” is pretty convincing, although even there, ither considerations need to be factored in.

    As for Esposito’s depiction of “scholars and pundits” taking the religious aspect of terrorism into account by saying “they’re fanatics, zealots, believers in a violent religion that rejects modernization and technology” — all I can say is that I agree wholeheartedly with the Chicago Report’s comment:

    QUOTE: Without a more serious and thoughtful engagement with religion … we will undermine our ability to protect citizens from violence perpetrated by religious extremists :UNQUOTE

    When Esposito talks about leaders who have “used or hijacked religion” I can’t help feeling that accusations of hijacking are a bit like takfiri accusations of kufr — dividing religious devotions and practices into those we approve and those we don’t. I may sympathize with Esposito’s choices, and I certainly concede the right of, say, the Ihsanic Intelligence people to label their fatwa against martyrdom/suicide operations “The Hijacked Caravan” —

    http://www.ihsanic-intelligence.com/dox/The_Hijacked_Caravan.pdf

    — but I don’t think my own preference for the kind of Islam espoused by Bassam Tibi* entitles me to say that (eg) jihadist Salafis “hijacked” Islam, any more than the Crusades (or even, as some would have it, St Paul) “hijacked” Christanity.

    You write:

    QUOTE: I’m perfectly willing to grant that Islam doesn’t have a terrorism problem, but I also think that there is compelling case to be made that Salafi Jihadism, a sub-set of Islam does. :UNQUOTE

    Following Quintan Wiktorowicz in his “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement'” (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29:3, 207-239), I’d just like to emphasize that both terms, Salafi and Jihadism, are important here, and that there are other Salafi positions, which Wiktorowicz characterizes as “purist” and “politico”.

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10576100500497004

    The quote you offer from Qutb is illuminating, too:

    QUOTE: The enemies of the Believers may wish to change this struggle into an economic or political or racial struggle, so that the Believers become confused concerning the true nature of the struggle… The Believers must not be deceived, and must understand that this is a trick. The enemy, by changing the nature of the struggle, intends to deprive them of their weapon of true victory. :UNQUOTE

    One of the most interesting papers I find myself returning to again and again focuses precisely on the meaning of “true victory” in jihadist terms: Jeffrey Cozzens (you’ve mentioned him before as an influence on your own thinking), “Victory From the Prism of Jihadi Culture” lists 9 “expressive” metrics for jihadist victory

    Cozzens: http://intelros.ru/pdf/jfq_52/18.pdf
    Your mention of Cozzens: https://onwarandwords.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/poking-fun-at-terrorists/

    Three of these strike me as of particular interes heret:

    “Victory Is Found in Obeying the Obligation to Fight Islam’s Enemies, Not in the Outcome of Battle” is the strategic equivalent of the individual’s “victory or martyrdom” – the (spiritual) process is more important than the (political) outcome.

    “Creating a Parity of Suffering with Islam’s Enemies — Especially the Jews and Crusaders — Is a Victory” is a reflection of the precision with which jihadist theology permits like for like in warfare (see my quotation from Brig. Malik’s Qur’anic Concept of War in my response to David Ronfeldt) .

    My response to Ronfeldt: http://zenpundit.com/?p=3247

    And “The Presence of Miracles in Jihad Foretells of Victory for the Mujahideen” (the topic of a recent post of yours and comment of mine) is excellent in terns of both morale and religion — but can you see it featured as a metric in a US Army Field Manual?

    Your post: https://onwarandwords.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/jihadist-battlefield-miracles/

    To sum up — as you say, “This requires a far more sophisticated public discourse about the relationship between religion and violence than typically comes from the Islamophobes” .. or the Islamophiles.

    That has been the theme of much of my own posting at Zenpundit recently, and I’ve seen the beginnings of a discussion between military analysts and scholars of religion in the comments section there, on al Sahwa, David Ronfeldt’s “Visions from Two Theories” blog and in relation to a post of mine on Small Wars Journal.

    See for example:

    http://zenpundit.com/?p=3246
    http://zenpundit.com/?p=3311
    http://al-sahwa.blogspot.com/2009/11/emerging-role-of-analyst-can-we.html
    http://twotheories.blogspot.com/2010/03/incidentals-4th-of-5-apropos-terrorist.html
    http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/11/the-hasan-slide-presentation/

    There is much yet to be done, and it starts with viewing things through “the Prism of Jihadi Culture” as Cozzens puts it — such things as martyrdom, narrative, constraints on warfare, poetics, miracles, graphics, symbology, eschatology…

    *

    Bassam Tibi, in the Preface to the updated edition of his book, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder:

    QUOTE: To me religious belief in Islam is, as Sufi Muslims put it, “love of God,” not a political ideology of hatred. … In my heart, therefore, I am a Sufi, but in my mind I subscribe to ‘aql/”reason”, and in this I follow the Islamic rationalism of Ibn Rushd/Averroes. Moreover, I read Islamic scripture, as any other, in the light of history, a practice I learned from the work of the great Islamic philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun. The Islamic source most pertinent to the intellectual framework of this book is the ideal of al-madina al-fadila/”the perfect state”, as outlined in the great thought of the Islamic political philosopher al-Farabi. :UNQUOTE


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: