Terrorism and faith

We seem to have this love-hate relationship with religion in the West.  Wait, let me rephrase that, since saying “the West” is too vague.  In some countries (France, Spain, Canada I would argue) we have reached a kind of post-religious society where all religions are tolerated but play very little role in the public sphere. Believe what you want, but park your faith at the door.  In others (the US for example), there appears to be a greater acceptance for the outward devotion and manifestation of one faith (i.e. Christianity) and a fear or distrust of others.  The recent (but not exclusive) debate over the place of Islam in the US in this regard has been particularly ugly.

Religion also entered the terrorism discussion a long time ago.  To cite but one example, a poll in the US (see story here) found that Americans are more prone (by 2 to 1) to believe that a person who commits a violent act in the name of Islam is truly Muslim than a person who carries out a similar act and claims to be Christian.   The reasons for this split are complicated, but the poll leads to the obvious question: are religious terrorists true believers and do their faiths condone or demand violence?

This is clearly a very complex question and cannot be even cursorily covered in a blog but I want to make two small points.  First, anyone can carry out acts of violence, regardless of religious background.  Historically, at least in the terrorism wave framework of David Rappoport, very few terrorists were motivated by religious doctrine.  Social change, deposing rulers or colonial overlords, and bringing attention to local grievances and injustices far outweighed faith as drivers for terrorism.  Yes it is true that a number of today’s violent extremists see themselves as paragons of their religion (many of whom call themselves Muslims) but there is a great deal of evidence that these people understand very little of their faith and practice it poorly.  So are they “true believers”?  They may think so, but that does not mean they are.

Secondly, and this has also been shown to be true, every faith has within it doctrine to support violence.  The assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was acting on one interpretation of din rodef – the idea that Jews can (and must) kill someone who intends to kill or harm others (Rabin’s peace treaty with the Palestinians was seen as a betrayal of Israel that put Jews in harm’s way).  Some Jews advance the killing of Palestinians by calling them Amalekites, the prototypical enemies of the Jews (derived from the Torah).  Christianity has certainly been no slouch in the violence department as the Crusades and anti-Jewish pogroms over the centuries demonstrated.  Too historical for you?  What of the ideology of the alleged shooter at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado (the militant anti-abortion movement is made up in part by Christian fundamentalists)?  I could go on with Buddhist and Hindu violence but I think you get the point.

The bottom line is that no religion is inherently good or bad, violent or passive.  All those verses and suras have to be studied in context to be interpreted, a practice that most extremists fail to grasp.  But at the same time, for people who become terrorists and who happen to belong to a particular faith group, that faith cannot help but have an influence on them.  Whether it is “kill the kuffar” or “no more baby parts”, religious extremists will see their actions as divinely inspired or commanded.  We cannot say that IS has nothing to do with Islam any more than we can say that extremist settlers in Israel have nothing to do with Judaism.

So yes, let us acknowledge that religion may be one factor that drives acts of ideological violence. But let us not make the uniformed error that any one religion more than others mandates violence.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply