To locate the real causes of terrorism, we first need to revisit what it is. The word ‘terrorism’ is thrown around far too freely in today’s emotionally charged political outbursts. It’s almost reached a point where any violent criminal is labeled a terrorist. This only feeds the hysteria around terrorism and makes it more difficult for people to think about it rationally. So, paraphrasing the FBI definition, terrorism is:
1. A violent act which is both dangerous to human life and breaks the law, and
2. Is committed with the following objectives: a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or c) to affect the conduct of a government
An act of terrorism is therefore a violent, criminal act that is undertaken for purposes of forcing a group of people or a government to act in a certain way, often towards a political end desired by the terrorist. Applying this definition to several high-profile events helps clarify what is and is not terrorism:
• The Unabomber: A campaign of murder and violence to disrupt technological development for reasons outlined in a manifesto. Meets both parts of the FBI definition; it’s terrorism.
• The Boston Marathon bombing: Some suggest an Islamic group was behind this but, even if one was, no one – not even the perpetrators – cited a political motivation for the bombing. As a result, it doesn’t meet the second part of the FBI definition. It’s a hideous act of violence, but it is not terrorism.
• 9/11: This disaster was part of an ongoing effort by al-Qaeda to strike fear into the US and coerce us into changing our foreign policy. That fact – not the depravity of the plotters or the death toll – is what makes this terrorism.
• The Fort Hood shooting: This shooting was not committed as part of a political agenda. Therefore, while it’s a national tragedy it is not terrorism.
• The Parliament Hill shootings: The shooter left a videotape explaining that he committed these crimes to protest Canada’s Middle East policy. Again, it’s the violence paired with a clear political motive that makes this terrorism.
Note that even the few examples of terrorism listed above were not all committed by Muslims, nor was religion even the primary motive. Politics, and in the case of the Parliament Hill shootings, mental illness were the main issues. So even from these few cases, it’s clear that to broadly cite religion as the motive for terrorism - which is what Islamophobes do – is totally incorrect.
So we’ve broadly established the motivations for terrorism and identified that there is no single explanation as to what causes it. However, this does nothing to explain why most of today’s terrorists are Muslims. Why isn’t there an African version of al-Qaeda? Why don’t Christians engage in terrorism? The answers are that there is and they do. Boko Haram takes Islamic State as its role model in Nigeria, and Christians bomb abortion clinics in the US. However, one would (rightly) counter that despite these examples there is no denying the majority of today’s terrorism is hatched by Muslims. Why is this?
To start, let’s review some of the worst examples of religious-based terror, holy wars, and violence:
• The Roman Empire – State religion persecuted and killed Christians
• The Inquisition – The Catholic Church tortured and killed ‘heretics’
• The Crusades – The Catholic Church waged holy wars against Muslims
• Nazi Germany – An atheist state devised an ‘ultimate solution’ for Jews
• The Soviet Union – An atheist state persecuted people of all religions
• Islamic State – Muslim jihadists kill those who resist their brand of Islam
All of these examples have many causes beyond religion. Also, as with the recent acts of terrorism outlined previously, no one religion is behind them all. What they do share is that they were enabled by a particular religion (or anti-religion) being enshrined within government.
Similarly, the Middle East is made up of countries where one form of religion imposes itself on all via government authority. I would suggest that it is not religion itself, but the institutionalization of religion in government (i.e., theocracy) that explains the disproportionately high frequency of terrorism enacted by Muslims. This also explains why there are relatively few acts of terrorism enacted by today’s Christians; there are no Christian theocracies. That said, we have crystal clear hints of what Christian theocracy would look like today based on the death penalty laws enacted against homosexuals in several African countries thanks to the influence of Christian evangelists.
|The Spanish Inquisition|
In the end, I’m not positioning theocracy as the sole cause of terrorism, in the Middle East or elsewhere. It’s also most likely true that theocracy, mixed with inequitable social structures, political tyranny, racial prejudice and other toxic forces are the roots of terrorism. However, it does seem likely that theocracy helps explain why today’s terrorism seems to take root more easily in the Muslim World.
Part 5 of this Five-Part Post (“Implications for the United States”) will be added soon.