How do Islamic Jihadists try to merge religion and terror?

After US forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 I came back to look again at the larger issues of how Islamic Jihadists merge religion and terror. Again in 2014 we confront this issue in the aftermath of terrible violence. I probed the topic back in 2006. Here are some of my questions and answers on the subject.

Why have religious conviction, hatred of secular society, and the demonstration of power through acts of violence frequently coalesced in Islamic activist movements?

Mark Jeurgensmeyer describes in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, how one of the men convicted of the bombing of the World Trade Center Mahmud Abouhalima expressed his understanding of some terrorist acts that have little impact on political reality:
"But it's as I said," Abouhalima responded, "at least the government got the message." Moreover, he told me, the only thing that humans can do in response to great injustice is to send a message. Stressing the point that all human efforts are futile and that those who bomb buildings should not expect any immediate, tangible change in the government's policies as a result, Abouhalima said that real change - effective change - "is not in our hands, only in God's hands."
"THE FOUNDATION OF THE NEW TERRORISM" in the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States provides additional insight and background.

Who has engaged in Hamas Suicide Bombings?

In other posts we discussed the "moods and motivations" that served for Bray and Hill as religious justifications for their criminal acts and for Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein for theirs. The Islamic examples of this post are equally gruesome and dramatic.

Between 2000 and 2004 Islamic terrorists committed over 100 suicide bombings in Israel. Jeurgensmeyer describes an earlier suicide attack in 1995:
On the morning of August 11, 1995, for example, a packed bus carrying students to classes and police officers to their daily assignments was inching its way from stop to stop in a crowded neighborhood of limestone apartment buildings in the northern section of the city of Jerusalem, near the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. At 7:55 A.M. a lone Arab passenger sitting in the back of the bus - someone very much like the smiling boy - suddenly reached into the handbag he was carrying and detonated a ferociously explosive bomb. It contained what police later estimated to be about ten pounds of the chemical explosive 3-acetone. It was an extraordinary blast, instantly incinerating the Arab, a visiting American sitting near him, and three Israelis seated nearby. The force of the explosion ripped open the side of the bus and continued outside, destroying another bus that happened to be traveling alongside. In addition to the five killed, 107 others in the two buses and passing along the street were wounded in the attack.
Jeurgensmeyer describes the moods and motivations of Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a terrorist who was targeted for assassination by Israel April 17, 2004. He was one of the seven founders of Hamas:

Rantisi's passionate commitment to the Hamas cause came in large part from his own experience of victimization. "Like most Palestinians," he explained to me, "our family has horrible stories to tell." In his case, one of the stories involved the destruction of his prosperous family's home in a village that was located somewhere between the modern Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Ashdod. The village, like the family home, was destroyed in the creation of modern Israel. When members of his family struggled against what they regarded as the Israeli occupation of their land, several were killed: Rantisi's uncle, three of his cousins, and his grandfather. In recent years Rantisi witnessed the continued encroachment of Israel into the limited land that Palestinians were allocated. According to Rantisi, one-third of the Gaza Strip is allotted to 1500 Jewish settlers, and the remaining two-thirds to the approximately one million Palestinians crowded there, many as refugees. Such developments have led to frustration. If the Israeli government continues to allow settlements to be built, Rantisi said, "We should use all means to stop it."
He said Palestinians have a right to resist Israel by any and all means, including the suicide bombing of civilians.
In such a context, Rantisi said, the actions of self-martyrs are understandable; they are responses. Another Hamas activist, Imad Faluji, had earlier described them as "letters to Israel." They were ways of notifying Israelis that they were engaged in a great confrontation, whether they had been previously aware of it or not, and that their security as a people was "zero." Moreover, Faluji said, these bombings showed that Israel's security "does not lie with Egypt, nor with Libya, nor with Arafat, but with us."

What are the motives of a suicide bomber?

No doubt the motives for becoming a suicide bomber are complex. However, as Jeurgensmeyer explains -- the story in many cases is similar and simplistic:
A study of suicide bombings conducted by Ariel Merari and other scholars related to the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Tel Aviv University indicated that most of the members of the suicide cell of Hamas received from three weeks to several months of training. Based on interviews with friends and family members of thirty three of the thirty four successful perpetrators of Hamas suicide missions in Israel in recent years, the study showed that they were recruited through friendship networks in school, sports, and extended families. They were held to their decision by having to commit to one another in friendship pacts and having to write letters that would be sent to their families after their deaths. Their parents and other immediate family members were kept in the dark about the young men's intentions, but the youths died with the knowledge that all would be rewarded: the dying young man would receive seventy virgins and seventy wives in heaven, and his family would receive a cash payment worth twelve to fifteen thousand U.S. dollars.
What are some of the justifications from within Islam for terrorist violence?

Jeurgensmeyer discusses basic Islamic theology and attitudes towards violence:
Violence is required for purposes of punishment, for example, and it is sometimes deemed necessary for defending the faith. In the "world of conflict" (dar al harb) outside the Muslim world, force is a means of cultural survival. In such a context, maintaining the purity of religious existence is thought to be a matter of jihad, a word that literally means "striving" and is often translated as "holy war." This concept has been used by Muslim warriors to rationalize the expansion of political control into non-Muslim regions. But Islamic law does not allow jihad to be used arbitrarily, for personal gain, or to justify forcible conversion to the faith: the only conversions regarded as valid are those that come about nonviolently, through rational suasion and a change of heart.
This attitude is not new to Islam:
"Islam has a history of military engagement almost from its beginning. Scarcely a dozen years after the prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur'an in 610, he left his home in Mecca and developed a military stronghold in the nearby town of Medina. Forces loyal to Muhammad instigated a series of raids on Meccan camel caravans, and when the Meccans retaliated, they were roundly defeated by the prophet's soldiers in the Battle of Badr, the first Muslim military victory. Several years of sporadic warfare between the two camps ended in a decisive Muslim victory in the Battle of the Trench. By 630 Muhammad and his Muslims had conquered Mecca and much of western Arabia and had turned the ancient pilgrimage site of the Kaaba into a center for Muslim worship.
Jeurgensmeyer gives the example of Egyptian writer Abd al Salam Faraj who argued that "the Qur'an and the Hadith were fundamentally about warfare":
The concept of jihad. struggle, was meant to be taken literally, not allegorically. According to Faraj, the "duty" that has been profoundly "neglected" is precisely that of jihad, and it calls for "fighting, which meant confrontation and blood." Moreover, Faraj regarded anyone who deviates from the moral and social requirements of Islamic law to be targets for jihad; these targets include apostates within the Muslim community as well as the expected enemies from without.
Jeurgensmeyer explains why the cultural implications of this thought are dangerous:
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Faraj's thought is his conclusion that peaceful and legal means for fighting apostasy are inadequate. The true soldier of Islam is allowed to use virtually any means available to achieve a just goal.51 Deceit, trickery, and violence are specifically mentioned as options available to the desperate soldier. Faraj set some moral limits to the tactics that could be used "for example, innocent bystanders and women are to be avoided, whenever possible, in assassination attempts" but emphasized that the duty to engage in such actions when necessary is incumbent on all true Muslims. The reward for doing so is nothing less than a place in paradise. Such a place was presumably earned by Faraj himself in 1981, after he was tried and executed for his part in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
In light of 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is important to consider a variety of opinions about the meaning of Jihad and about its dangers.

Sohail H. Hashmi writes in the Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 425-426. :
Three broad approaches to the modern reinterpretation of jihad may be discerned. First, the apologetic arose in the late nineteenth century in response to Western criticism that jihad meant "holy war" and that Islam was spread through force. Muslim apologists argued that the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions allow war only for self-defense against persecution and aggression. Some Muslim writers, particularly those in British India, restricted even further the legitimate scope of jihad by arguing that so long as no direct threat to Islamic worship was posed by European imperialists Muslims should not challenge colonial rule. The medieval theorists who had defined jihad as expansionist war were, according to this view, simply misguided.

The second approach, the modernist, also diminishes jihad's military aspects and emphasizes its broader ethical dimensions within Islamic faith and practice. Like the apologists, the modernists dismiss the medieval theory as a distortion of Qur'anic ethics, pointing out, for example, that the division of the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb is found nowhere in the Qur'an or Prophetic traditions. A war is jihad, therefore, only if it is fought in defense of Muslim lives, property, and honor. Unlike the apologists, however, the modernists are motivated less by Western criticisms of jihad than by the desire to interpret this concept in a way compatible with modern international norms. Jihad in the modernist view is the Islamic equivalent of the Western idea of just war, a war fought to repel aggression with limited goals and by restricted means.

The third approach, the revivalist, arose in response to the apologist and modernist writings. By limiting jihad to self-defense, the revivalists claim, the apologists and modernists have debased the dynamic qualities of jihad. In the final years of the Prophet's life, the revivalists argue, jihad clearly meant the struggle to propagate the Islamic order worldwide. The goal of jihad today ought not to be to coerce people to accept Islam, because the Qur'an clearly encourages freedom of worship (especially 2:256); rather, it ought to be to overthrow un-Islamic regimes that corrupt their societies and divert people from service to God.

For revivalist writers, un-Islamic regimes include those ruling in most Muslim countries. The immediate goal of the revivalist jihad is to replace hypocritical leaders with true Muslims. Only when this long and painstaking internal struggle has succeeded in reestablishing an authentically Islamic base can the external jihad resume. Thus jihad is today largely synonymous with Islamic revolution in the works of most Muslim activists.
Finally, Daniel Pipes provides an alarming assessment of Jihad from a right wing Jewish perspective, see http://www.danielpipes.org/article/990 :
What does the Arabic word "jihad" mean?

One answer came last week, when Saddam Hussein had his Islamic leaders appeal to Muslims worldwide to join his jihad to defeat the "wicked Americans" should they attack Iraq; then he himself threatened the United States with jihad.

As this suggests, jihad is "holy war." Or, more precisely: It means the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims.

The purpose of jihad, in other words, is not directly to spread the Islamic faith but to extend sovereign Muslim power (faith, of course, often follows the flag). Jihad is thus unabashedly offensive in nature, with the eventual goal of achieving Muslim dominion over the entire globe.

Jihad did have two variant meanings through the centuries, one more radical, one less so. The first holds that Muslims who interpret their faith differently are infidels and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. (This is why Algerians, Egyptians and Afghans have found themselves, like Americans and Israelis, so often the victims of jihadist aggression.) The second meaning, associated with mystics, rejects the legal definition of jihad as armed conflict and tells Muslims to withdraw from the worldly concerns to achieve spiritual depth.

Jihad in the sense of territorial expansion has always been a central aspect of Muslim life. That's how Muslims came to rule much of the Arabian Peninsula by the time of the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632. It's how, a century later, Muslims had conquered a region from Afghanistan to Spain. Subsequently, jihad spurred and justified Muslim conquests of such territories as India, Sudan, Anatolia, and the Balkans.

Today, jihad is the world's foremost source of terrorism, inspiring a worldwide campaign of violence by self-proclaimed jihadist groups.
[Repost from 10/2006]


Anonymous said...

Nice post.
One question: "Between 2000 and 2004 Islamic terrorists committed over 100 suicide bombings in Israel."

Why the focus on _suicide_ bombings, as opposed to the type where the perpetrator has the opportunity to murder more than once?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

They are particularly heinous and the assumptions are that they are more deeply rooted in the religious culture of violence.

Anonymous said...

Heinous, true, but I'd take a suicide bomber who kills 5 over a homicide bomber who kills 3 twice.

Richard said...

Good post. I believe however that what has made fundamentalist Islam really lethal in the last few years is the mediatic frenzy created by the Jihadi websites (and to a lesser extent by Arab satelite TV), where the young recruits are trying to outdo each other in gore. The sad fact is that suicide bombing is as much an Internet phenomena as it is an Islamic one. The author Mark Sageman touched on this fact in his book "Leaderless Jihad".