Religious Fundamentalism’s Effect on Terrorism in the Modern World

From June 23, 2010.  A look at how religious fundamentalism has accelerated terrorism in the post-Cold War era.


In the eyes of the world and particularly the American public, the face of terrorism has vastly changed over the past thirty years.  It was once seen as something other countries had to deal with and we could watch from the sidelines passively and witness the chaos and destruction from afar.  After numerous terrorist attacks on United States’ embassies, military resources, and the World Trade Centers, Americans are very aware of modern terrorism and the religious underpinnings it has resonated to us.  Our addressing and understanding of the religious issues behind these terrorist groups is critical toward decreasing the number of incidents and quelling the anger built up by the fundamentalists pushing their agendas.

Much of the discussion of terrorism and religion centers around Islam and the fundamentalists that have committed attacks in the name of their religion.  These militants call themselves “Islamists” and their groups are defined by Mozaffari (2005) as “an Islamic militant, anti-democratic movement, bearing a holistic vision of Islam, whose final aim is the restoration of a world-wide caliphate.”  They see Western culture as evil and a great threat to their way of life and resist its infection of their society in every way possible.  Mozaffari (2005) identifies three stages of Islamist terrorism beginning in 1928, just a few years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  This started the first stage and would last until 1979.  During this stage, most of the terrorism conducted by the major groups at the time was directed at fellow Muslims and focused largely on political assassinations.  Suicide terrorism was not undertaken at this time and civilians were not included as casualties in any attacks.  The two most important groups operating at this time were Ikhwan al-Muslimin in Egypt and Fadayian e-Islam in Iran.  Both of these groups would be the foundation of new terrorist organizations in the next stage of terrorism.

The second phase begins with the Islamist revolution in Iran led by factions of Fadayian e-Islam and Ayatollah Khomeini (Mozaffari, 2005).  This is also considered the beginning of the “Fourth Wave” of terrorism by many experts, dominated by Islamic terrorism.  This is contested by Robinson et al (2006) who flatly state “Islamist attacks were relatively commonplace prior to 1979.”  By overthrowing the Shah in Iran, Islamists gained a very significant victory as this is the first time they would be in power over the affairs of an entire country and many militants in the future would look to this victory as a diagram for potential success elsewhere.  This stage saw a gruesome change in terrorist tactics as civilians became casualties and the attacks themselves were larger and more devastating.  Mozaffari (2005) describes this change in procedure as terrorism turning “into blind, generalized, and nondiscriminatory terrorism.”  This period also saw the beginning of suicide terrorism conducted by the Islamists.  Cited as the first suicide attack on the West is the 1983 suicide bombing of the military barracks in Beirut by Lebanese Hezbollah which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers.  Islamists also made it very clear to leaders in the Middle East they would not accept their countries working with the West and the leaders that made deals with countries such as the U.S. did so at their own peril.  This threat was viciously put into action in 1981 against Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat as he would be assassinated because of his close ties to the United States.  The attack was carried out by a group derived from Ikhwan al-Muslimin which included future Al-Qaeda number two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Mozaffari (2005) argues the third stage began on September 11, 2001, when the Islamist group Al-Qaeda struck at the continental United States for the first time, including the World Trade Center in New York suffering its second terrorist attack in nine years.  The group is led by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian who fought as a Mujahidin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s.  Four Islamist groups came together under the leadership of Bin Laden in the late 1990s and formed Al-Qaeda.  These groups were based out of Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh so their reach was wide and their membership ample (Mozaffari, 2005).  They immediately began striking at U.S. interests by bombing embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and instigating a suicide attack on a Navy cruiser.

It is around this time Osama Bin Laden becomes the face of the Islamist movement around the world as his message would begin spreading far and wide through statements and videos lashing out at the great Satan that is the West.  Snyder (2003) calls Bin Laden a “civilizational revolutionary” because he did not just call for the overthrow of one regime but wants the entire Arabian Peninsula to rise up and throw out the American trespassers.  He views the peninsula as a very sacred holy land housing the most important sites of Islam and the mere presence of non-Muslims there is an offense and sin against all who follow the Koran (McAuley, 2005).  Bin Laden considers the close ties between the Saudi Royal Family and the United States abhorrent and one of his most important goals is the overthrow of this regime (Snyder, 2003).  Many Muslims considered the assistance given by the royal family to the U.S. in the first Gulf War against Iraq a grave sin as they helped the Westerners wage a war against fellow Muslims.  It was this alliance that created the divide between Bin Laden and the rulers of his homeland and he will never forgive them for desecrating holy land in such a way.

With the overthrow of the Saudi Family in mind, Snyder (2003) makes an interesting observation about Bin Laden’s motive behind the September 11, 2001 attacks.  He states, “Bin Laden’s primary goal was to elicit an American response that would polarize and radicalize Muslims throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in order to weaken and topple regimes in the region tied to the West.”  In other words, Bin Laden wanted the United States to bring their military to the Middle East and cause enough chaos and destruction in the eyes of the Muslims there that they would be detested by Muslims even more.  The level of anti-Americanism is already high and Bin Laden needed to expose the region to more American dominance to stoke the fires of hatred toward the oppressors (Snyder, 2003).  Bin Laden and others believed a war and action directly against America would rally support for their cause and increase the level of extremism in the same fashion as the Iranian embassy hostage situation in 1979.  The revolutionary forces believed the new powers in charge under Khomeini were not radical enough so they stormed the U.S. embassy in the hopes of building support for more extreme causes.  This strategy was successful and aided in the resignation of more moderates and the hiring of more revolutionary people into the new Iranian government (Snyder, 2003).  Bin Laden believed America bringing a war to the area would cause the same type of push toward extremism on a much larger scale and lead to the ouster of moderate leaders with close ties to the West.

If Snyder is correct in his argument, then we must believe Bin Laden very much welcomed the United States’ attack on Iraq in 2003.  American actions against Iraq in the Gulf War and in the years after were used by Al-Qaeda as a recruiting and rallying tool to whip up anger toward the West.  The international blockade against Iraq during the 1990s has been believed to be responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children by starvation and malnutrition (Mozaffari, 2005).  This alone, according to Mozaffari, “justifies, in the eyes of the Al-Qaida Muslims, total war against the Americans.”  Stoking this fire is why Bin Laden had to strike at the heart of America on 9/11 in such a symbolic and vicious way.  His previous bombings on the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the attack on the USS Cole were not enough to bring the American military en masse to the Middle East to fight the war he wanted (Snyder, 2003).  He needed the attacks on September 11 to be as devastating and terrifying as possible to wake the sleeping giant.

Bin Laden’s history as a Mujahidin fighter in Afghanistan plays an important part for him as a leader and revolutionary in the eyes of those that follow him for two important reasons.  The first is the persona he is able to exude as a common man and not the person of a privileged upbringing that he actually is.  McAuley (2005) states Bin Laden is able to portray the image of a man living a very simplistic life, not needing many material goods or resources to keep him going and fighting the good fight.  He can also “claim the moral high ground: ‘America and some of its agents bargained with me ten times to keep quiet…They believe that people only live for worldly matters.'”  It is through this image Bin Laden is able to show himself to the people of the region as one of their own that understands their problems and concerns and is willing to listen and fight for what is right against the decadence and materialism of Western culture and most importantly, the United States.

The second reason his time as a Mujahidin is important has to do with the structure of his group, Al-Qaeda.  The organization works in somewhat small cells and is able to elude detection because of the way they break up responsibilities and the way each cell is unaware of the actions of the others.  This structure closely resembles the tribal nature of the Afghan Mujahidin and the forces that stood up to the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980s (McAuley, 2005).  Afghanistan was ruled and ran mostly as a group of tribes at that time so the people Bin Laden is trying to reach can relate to his past and the way he presents himself.  McAuley (2005) points out this can also be a hindrance to Bin Laden and his movement.   If the people adhere to the idea of tribes too closely it can “prevent the formation of national consciousness” and keep Bin Laden from pulling the region together under the next caliphate.  The public might stay too fragmented to rise as one against the forces of the West or the moderate rulers in the region.  This would defeat the chance of uniting the peninsula, one of Bin Laden’s ultimate goals.  Bin Laden refers to this dream time and again through passages of the Koran such as “Let there not be two religions in Arabia” or “Expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula” (McAuley, 2005).

A large part of the overall change in terrorism in recent decades from nationalist to Islamist is due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s lone superpower.  Robinson et al (2006) state, “The perceived failure of the global socialist program deprived many ‘third wave’ Marxist groups of legitimacy and the ability to play on superpower rivalry to mobilize military and political support.”  This simply means the money to supply these groups was no longer there.  The Soviet Union had collapsed after its defeat in Afghanistan and could no longer shell out the money to spread its message of communism around the world.  The country was now too busy picking up the broken pieces of itself and it had no time for building outside its borders.  The United States no longer had another superpower to rival its global dominance so it had little reason to pour money and resources into smaller countries to fight proxy wars against the failed idea of communism.

The global order was no longer about the Cold War rivalry between two great superpowers but, as many people point to Huntington’s thesis, about a “clash of civilizations” that had emerged to replace the seemingly perpetual nuclear standoff (Robinson et al, 2006).  It was now Western culture and civilization against the values of Islam and its most ardent and passionate followers.  Marginalized groups around the world had to find new ways to finance their resistance fights against their oppressors and many found it using religion as a fund raising device.  Through Islam, these militants could play on the passions of donors, garner enthusiasm for their causes, and could find support all over the world because of the spread of the religion to every corner of the planet.  Fundraising for these terrorist organizations is supported by the fact they are perceived as the underdogs in the fight against the imperial West and they can play on this reality to paint a picture of constant need.  As Rogers et al (2007) point out, “Terrorism has assumed many forms, but all appear to be driven by a sense of grievance – for example that land essential to identity is occupied by others – or the perception that rights and privileges are threatened.”  They go on to state many terrorists have had a family member or close friend “killed, maimed or abused by the perceived enemy” and this makes recruiting easier when actions are undertaken by foreign powers in their homelands (Rogers et al, 2007).  Simply put, every casualty in the war on terror, civilian or combat, could add an unknown number of recruits to the potential ranks of the organizations the West is fighting.

This perception of being an underdog is as much a boon for the terrorist as it is a burden for the United States.  Drury (2003) claims, “The more it (the U.S.) flexes its military muscle, the more it looks like the oppressor, the more it risks losing the war of propaganda – even among its own citizens.”  The author goes on to point out some Americans have actually left the United States to join Al-Qaeda and fight against their country of origin.  It was natural when much of the world sympathized with the U.S. after the attacks on 9/11 but that sympathy faded quickly and was erased by the time military forces had invaded Iraq in 2003.  America was at that point no longer seen as the hurt animal licking its wounds in the corner but the bully predator exerting its will on any prey it chose.  This made building support and coalitions for military actions in the region difficult to impossible and forced America to consider “going it alone” in fighting its War on Terrorism.

Another set of factors that may have contributed to the decline in nationalist terrorism and the increase in Islamist attacks are trade and foreign investment.  Robinson et al (2006) found in their study of terrorist attacks that trade openness attracts more incidents from Islamists and reduces the number of strikes from nationalist groups.  They conclude, “This suggests that Islamist attacks are in part a response to global economic participation, while global economic integration apparently reduces Leftist terrorist mobilization.”  As global trade has continuously opened up over the past thirty years, it is no surprise Islamist attacks have increased.  Robinson et al (2006) also state direct foreign investment has been found to reduce both types of terrorism but has a lesser effect on Islamist terrorism.  This is also not surprising considering the reaction of Islamists to any type of ties found between their governments and the West.  It is likely most leaders would be reluctant to take any foreign investment with a strong terrorist presence within their borders unless they believed the investment would be approved by the group.

Religion has also become a critical part of the discourse between Islamists groups and the West, particularly between Osama Bin Laden and former U.S. President George W. Bush.  Both figures used religious tones and imagery to demonize the other and attempt to rally support for their positions from around the world.  President Bush’s first formal response in front of Congress after the September 11 attacks came the following week on the 20th.  After the speech was delivered, there was “an uneasy sense that the President had just called for a new holy war: he named the enemy, he claimed God as his own, and he drew a bold line between good and evil – you were on one side or the other and there was no gray area” (Riswold, 2003).  This illustrates the difficulty the president faced when addressing the issue of terrorism and responding to the Islamist threat.  He had to choose his words carefully in order not to offend Muslims by condemning the whole religion or claiming the ensuing military action to be a “Crusade” to eliminate evildoers in the holy land.  The president had to be very careful and very specific when describing what the United States was trying to do and who they were pursuing to answer for the attacks.

Bhatia (2007) sums up the battle of language nicely by stating, “The use of religious metaphors in particular serves the purpose of categorizing the ‘other’ as morally devoid, and the ‘self’ as being in a position to pass moral judgement(sic).”  It is important to both Bush and Bin Laden to paint the other as pure evil and describe themselves as called from God to eliminate said evil.  A good example of Bush painting this picture of evil and simplifying the enemy into a barbaric cretin incapable of good deeds follows: “They don’t represent an ideology, they don’t represent a legitimate political group of people.  They’re flat evil.  That’s all they think about is evil” (Bhatia, 2007).  Looking at this statement closely reveals a lot about what one side will try to do to its enemy in times of war.  It is necessary to disconnect from them on a human level so their defeat and casualties will seem not as important and less than human to the people supporting this action.  Claiming the terrorists have no agenda or ideology is somewhat strange looking back on the situation now.  Saying this attempts to turn them into animals incapable of reason, love, and logic.  They are simply predators we must kill before they kill us and they have no beliefs or wants in the world other than murder.  It is as if they feed off of the blood of innocents and could not possibly have a legitimate grievance against our great government.  It was important for Bush to paint this picture to lessen the opposition to any military actions he decided was necessary.

Bin Laden’s rhetoric is very similar to Bush’s and, changing a few words, could easily be mistaken for things Bush might have said at the time after the 9/11 attacks.  Bin Laden stated, “Bush and his gang…are an evil to all humankind…The Islamic Nation that was able to dismiss and destroy the previous evil Empire like yourself; the Nation that rejects your attacks, wishes to remove your evils, and is prepared to fight you” (Bhatia, 2007).  Similar to Bush, Bin Laden reiterates the enemy is evil and he and his brethren are by default “good” so you must trust him to make the decision God would want made.  They must do what they can to make the enemy into a monster no one could love or respect and no one could possibly value their lives because of the evil in their hearts.  This makes going to battle and killing the enemy much easier from a  psychological perspective and admitting the human costs to the enemy with little guilt after the casualties have mounted.  Drury (2003) sums this up by stating, “When our enemies are the incarnation of evil, there is nothing that we can do to them that is off-limits.  No amount of pain and suffering that we can inflict is illegitimate.  The ultimate goal is the total annihilation of the enemy, which amounts to the eradication of evil from the world.”  It is easy to look at this reasoning and see the Bush administration’s logic for subverting the Geneva Accords and allowing torture to occur to prisoners of war in spite of little to no evidence supporting its overall effectiveness.

Bush is an Evangelical Christian but, as the leader of a secular nation, was able to use passages from the Koran itself in his rhetoric against the Islamists.  He quotes the Koran directly in one address stating, “In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil.  For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule” (Bhatia, 2007).  In this case the president was trying to turn the tables on his enemies by arguing their God was our God too and He would not support their actions.  The enemies of the United States would not be able to truly pray to their own God because He would not be listening to the evil and wicked.  He would only be supporting the just and good and Bush did his best to project to the world the United States represented the side of righteousness.  Again, that same statement could have been used by Bin Laden as well pointing out the West had become too decadent and materialistic and it was up to the children of Allah to smite them for their evil ways.  The rhetoric of both leaders is eerily related but this similarity would likely be found throughout most of history.  Calling the enemy evil and less than human and declaring God or the gods to be on your side probably goes back as far as military and political history can take us.

The war of words between the religions of Islam and Christianity goes much deeper then the leaders of the War on Terror.  Evangelicals in the United States have increased their dislike of Islam after the September 11 attacks and have tried to distance their beliefs from the teachings of the Koran.  Cimino (2005) points out many of the books released after the 9/11 attacks try to demonize the Islamic faith as a violent system of beliefs at its core and the God in the Bible and Allah in the Koran are two different deities.  The God in the Bible is the one true god and Allah is a false god from past religions trying to pose as an all-powerful being.  These writers even go so far as to say, “that Islam has so redefined biblical teachings and concepts (such as heaven, Christ, and God) that it is impossible to find common ground” (Cimino, 2005).  This seems to be an echo of the language of President Bush in that they are trying to make the enemy seem unintelligent to the point of being incapable of seeing an apparently obvious lie.  In other words, the enemy is stupid and evil and we needn’t worry about what happens to them as long as we keep our faith and are assured our God is the only true god to be worshiped.

In a couple of studies that would likely be very surprising to these Evangelicals, Silberman et al (2005) and De Soysa and Nordas (2007) found levels of overall terrorist incidents committed and repression of human rights was higher in Christian countries then in Muslim ones.  Silberman et al (2005) blame religion in general for deprivation of human rights and state, “religions often contain values and ideas that may facilitate prejudice, discrimination, and violence by encouraging the consciousness of belonging to a select and privileged community, and by emphasizing the ‘otherness’ of” nonbelievers.  This follows along with the rhetoric of Bush and Bin Laden, especially the “privileged community” idea of their own followers and allies  and emphasis on the “otherness” of their enemies.  Bush describes the United States as the democratic light of the world and we are hated because we are privileged and free.  Our enemies are jealous of our freedom and want to take it away by terror and leading us down the path of darkness into their worldview.  Bin Laden believes the Muslims of the world are the privileged few and they must protect their holy lands for that privilege to continue.  He also says the enemy has grown weak and corrupt and only the reemergence of the caliphate can stop the destruction and moral decay the West has brought on the world.

De Soysa and Nordas (2007) do conclude their study with a warning directed more at the West because of the democracy and freedom already in place.  They claim, “Policies based on the fear of Islam may itself lead to the violation of human rights and undermine democracy.”  The authors go on to state this oppression can show itself by a denial of rights to Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers and unfair treatment of Muslims through profiling and discrimination of their beliefs.  This begs the question: what rights are we willing to give up in the name of fighting terrorism and how oppressive are we prepared to be toward Muslims of all types to ensure our safety?  This may have been the most important domestic question in the months and years after 9/11 as it was a test of how the U.S. should treat its friends and neighbors during a time of peril.  A black eye on the history of the U.S. has long been the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and many saw the same possibility showing itself after 9/11 in American attitudes toward American Muslims.

This thought leads to a speech given by Parenti (2009) warning of the danger of super patriotism and the path it could lead the United States down if followed.  He defines super patriots as someone who “plays ‘follow the leader’ in a time of crisis.  Instead of sharpening his or her critical perceptions about things, he or she suspends critical perception and urges others to do the same and rally around the flag.”  Parenti advocates more cautious thinking in times when emotions are running extraordinarily high such as after 9/11 in order to keep our decisions in check and avoid irrational choices.  Some may argue a bill like the PATRIOT Act was rushed through Congress and we may have, to some extent, become that which we were fighting against by depriving some rights in the name of war.  Parenti’s words of caution should be heeded for future generations to remember the situation will pass and nothing should be done then that will be regretted later.

As the face of terror has changed over the past few decades, Americans now know we are a big target for Islamists and will continue to be for years and maybe decades to come.  Winning over the hearts and minds of religious fundamentalist of any ilk is difficult and probably impossible in most cases.  This does not mean attempts to bridge the gap and improve understanding of other cultures and religions should not be made.  Opening up our minds to the needs of others could go a long way in stemming the creation of terrorists looking to avenge a slight made by the United States, either directly or indirectly.  Will this stop the leaders of groups like Al-Qaeda from continuing their Jihad against America?  Probably not.  But every terrorist is a serious danger with the technology and potential of weapons today so every mind won over to peace is possibly hundreds of lives saved and worth the effort.

Bhatia, Aditi (2007, November).  “Religious metaphor in the discourse of illusion: George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.”  World Englishes.  Vol. 26 Issue 4, p. 507-524.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 27355936.

Cimino, Richard (2005, December).  “‘No God In Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse On Islam After 9/11.”  Review of Religious Research.  Vol. 47 Issue 2, p. 162-174.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 19330003.

De Soysa, Indra and Nordas, Ragnhild (2007, December).  “Islam’s Bloody Innards? Religion and Political Terror, 1980–2000.”  International Studies Quarterly.  Vol. 51 Issue 4, p. 927-943.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 27614505.

Drury, Shadia (2003).  “Terrorism: From Samsom to Atta.”  Arab Studies Quarterly.  Vol. 25 Issue 1/2, p. 1-12.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 10765068.

McAuley, Denis (2005, October).  “The ideology of Osama Bin Laden: Nation, tribe and world economy.”  Journal of Political Ideologies.  Vol. 10 Issue 3, p. 269-287.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 18590411.

Mozaffari, Mehdi (2005, July/Aug.). “Bin Laden, Islamism, and Terrorism.”  Society.  Vol. 42 Issue 5, p. 34-42.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 17121714.

Parenti, Michael J. (2009).  “Terrorism and Super-Patriotism.”  Sociological Viewpoints.  Vol. 25, p. 23-36.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 45683737.

Riswold, Caryn D. (2004, January).  “A Religious Response Veiled in a Presidential Address: A Theological Study of Bush’s Speech on 20 September 2001.”  Political Theology.  Vol. 5 Issue 1, p. 39-46.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 11266289.

Robinson, Kristopher K., Crenshaw, Edward M., and Jenkins, Craig J. (2006, June).  “Ideologies of Violence: The Social Origins of Islamist and Leftist Transnational Terrorism.”  Social Forces.  Vol. 84 Issue 4, p. 2009-2026.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 21517475.

Rogers, M. Brooke, Loewenthal, Kate M., Lewis, Christopher Alan, Amlot, Richard, Cinnirella, Marco, and Ansari, Humayan (2007, June).  “The role of religious fundamentalism in terrorist violence: A social psychological analysis.”  International Review of Psychiatry. Vol. 19 Issue 3, p. 253-262.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 25390354.

Silberman, Israela, Higgins, E. Tory, and Dweck, Carol S. (2005, December).  “Religion and World Change: Violence and Terrorism versus Peace.”  Journal of Social Issues.  Vol. 61 Issue 4, p. 761-784.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 18856406.

Snyder, Robert S. (2003, Fall).  “Hating America: Bin Laden as a Civilizational Revolutionary.”  Review of Politics.  Vol. 65 Issue 4, p. 325-349.  Retrieved from EBSCO on June 21, 2010.  Accession number 12071125.

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