Editor’s Note (Firstpost): This three part series looks at the complexity of ‘Islamist terrorism’ in the context of the recent terror attacks by the Islamic State, targeting Dhaka, Baghdad, Istanbul and Saudi Arabia. The series explores the dangers of defining terrorism in terms of either ‘religious’ violence or ‘political’ violence; terrorism is more complicated than we think it is. In part two, find out how ‘Islamic terrorism’ is the result of a dynamic flux of ‘politics and theology’.
How fair is it to delink religion and terrorism, especially ‘Islamist terrorism’?
‘Terrorism’ hardly exists in isolation, and is a compounded manifestation of a motley set of push-pull factors that contribute towards forming a terrorist’s identity. The argument, “they (attackers) are not Muslims, they are terrorists” is fundamentally flawed and rather, unwise. The ‘terrorist’ is not a distinctive entity based on a disassociated plane, but rather a by-product of an earthly concoction of selective religious interpretation, socioeconomic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, and psychological manipulation.
It would only be callous of us to oversimplify a violent act performed ‘in the name of God’ without going into where such a powerful invocation might be coming from. In delinking religion and terrorist violence, we only end up imprudently erasing a very important component of militant identity-formation that is theological indoctrination.
Not many outside academic circles have heard of Bader Abdalrahmanalaraj, Assaf Moghadam, or Robert Pape. Renowned experts in security and terrorism studies, all three of them have worked extensively on suicide terrorism, focusing mostly on Palestinian militant groups like Hamas. They have relied on first-hand narratives from Islamic militant leaders and functionaries, often spending months in high-intensity conflict zones like Gaza, to argue that suicide terrorism is neither secular nor religious but rather a mix of both, depending on what ‘level’ of analysis we are at – micro (individual), meso (organisational), or macro (socio-political). Their conclusions are, at the least, downright and important myth-busters – a common thread in their extremely detailed deconstruction of ‘Islamic terrorism’ is the dynamic flux of ‘politics and theology’ that, in lethal combination, amounts to a certain kind of violent outburst.
In his stellar PhD thesis at the University of Toronto, titled Harsh State Repression and Suicide Bombing: The Second Palestinian Intifada (Uprising), Dr Abdalrahmanalaraj argues that Palestinian suicide bombers are more of militant ‘nationalists’ than purely ‘religious fanatics’. But, he is cautious to not discount the powerful effect of doctrinaire preaching or cultural indoctrination on militant recruits, wherein ‘culture’ is contextually synonymous to the religious dimension of existence. He says, “One cannot entirely dismiss the effects of culture on a suicide bombing, if only because suicide attacks must be legitimised by societal leaders and become an accepted part of the cultural backdrop before they can be undertaken on a wide scale.”
Dr Moghadam, while talking about strictly religious motivations for suicide attacks, argues: “According to Islamists, the military fight against the nonbelievers is the real “Greater Jihad”. To support their claims, they invoke only those Quranic sections that equate warfare with the duty of the faithful Muslim.” He quotes the mufti of Jerusalem Ikrama Sabri, who once gave the following statement:
“The Muslim embraces death … look at the society of the Israelis. It is a selfish society that loves life. These are not people who are eager to die for their country and their God. The Jews will leave this land rather than die, but the Muslim is happy to die.”
This crucial narrative embodies the core of Palestinian Islamist terrorism, that is, nationalist politics veiled under the garb of a ‘religious crusade’. This bewildering mix is common to most terrorist doctrines around the world. Hence, although ‘religion’ is a facade, it exists nonetheless and enjoys autonomous agency in the spectrum of radical mobilisation.
Many casual commentators, particularly those who source their opinions from popular narratives or tend to draw quick judgments, vehemently argue that the version of Islam that extremists propound isn’t “true Islam”. This they do without attempting to even define “true Islam”. But, those who have actually spent time with radicalised militant recruits provide a more bluntly objective view. Dr Moghadam argues, while talking about ‘personal motives’ of fidayeens: “[…] paradise seems to offer the martyrs pleasures and benefits that he can only dream of in real life (referred to in the hadiths – sayings of the Prophet to supplement the Quran) – if the shaheed, therefore, is convinced that he will enjoy these benefits in the afterlife, then candidates for martyrdom are confronted with a powerful incentive to swap the little they possess for the luxuries they are promised.” This, however, must not be seen in absolute isolation because there are several other personal motives at play – like monetary and social benefits for the families of fidayeens.
The point here is that theological indoctrination is real, and plays an integral role in the process of radicalisation. In fact, most doctrinaire texts – like that of the Quran – are vulnerable to manipulation and misdirection by vested elites, given the abstract and often contradictory nature of their substantive content. There is no prudence in denying that the Quran has been routinely exploited to unleash mindless violence against innocents. Contrarily, it has also been utilised to promote interfaith dialogues and innumerable peacemaking/peace-building initiatives. One could say that the former is an “immoral” or “destructive” application of Quranic thought. But how much of it is not “true Islam” is doubtful, depending on how one defines “true”.
It is indeed a double-edged sword, and it seems like an evil bunch of power-hungry men are in control of the sharper edge today. What we must do to counter the “us versus them” cultural antagonism coming from conservative (or ultra-liberal) non-Muslims, rather than denying the widely interpretive nature of the Quran, is to highlight the peace-building abilities and avenues of this ancient text. Today, we are in desperate need for interfaith harmony. The Quran, through its rich repertoires of peace, love, and syncretism, could serve as a highly appealing instrument to achieve that.
Many scholars, observers, analysts, commentators, journalists, and politicians have attempted to understand the enigma of ‘religious violence’. But, I do not think anyone else has been able to recapitulate the role of religion in radical terrorism better than Italian sociologist Luca Ricolfi:
“Religious beliefs do not mould individuals, forcing them to become martyrs; they are sets of ideas that ‘are there’, as on the shelves of a supermarket, waiting for someone to make them their own. The question we should ask ourselves, then, is under what conditions individuals involved in a political cause discover the symbolic resources that religion, or perhaps certain religions more than others has to offer.”
[This piece was published, as part of a three-part analysis series, on 10 July 2016 in Firstpost]