Bruce Duncan.

A talk at the SPC forum at Box Hill, 6 November 2014.

understanding terrorism book
Found in church hall (collecting k from scouts) ‘understanding Islamic terrorism’ by Mark Simpkins, flickr cc

The continuing threat from Islamist terrorists, now not just in Africa or the Middle East, but virtually anywhere the Islamist appeal may reach, has shocked the entire world. The atrocities involve mass killing not just of military prisoners but of innocent men, women, and children belonging to different faiths, and Muslims who were opposed to their militant jihadist practices and beliefs.

This alarm is forcing us to consider carefully the relation between Islam as a faith and the terrorist activity of extreme Islamist groups.

Just as European thinkers gradually developed what we now recognise as the just war tradition, so also there exist similar moral constraints on warfare within Islamic traditions. But the contexts for the emergence of these traditions were very different. The western thinking on just war resulted from melding the contributions from Roman and Christian thinkers, military codes, secular theories, and political circumstances and developments in Europe.

Islamic thinking developed along entirely different paths, earlier than European thought, as if in a parallel universe of customs and culture. Muhammad appeared as the Prophet inaugurating Islam in Arabia over 1400 years ago, and it spread rapidly, with Muslim armies conquering neighbouring countries across North Africa and the Middle East. For almost a millennium, Islamic forces intermittently confronted Byzantium until Constantinople finally fell in 1453, just as Muslims were finally pushed out of Spain, and Europe began its process of exploration and expansion in the New World.

Muslim civilisations have covered a huge range of peoples, customs, languages, and cultures. There is no more one standard form of Muslim tradition than there is of Christian tradition. Apart from the core beliefs in Muhammad as the Prophet of the one God, Allah, and submission to the will of God, there is great variety in how people understand and practice these beliefs. The Quran and the sunna (example) of the Prophet remain normative, but have to be interpreted for different circumstances.

The religious question: God and violence

muslims against terrorism
religious groups against terrorism 02 by byronv2 flickr cc

Both Christian and Islamic traditions sought to curtail violence. In the West, long and bitter warfare even among Christians finally resulted in a rejection of the crusade tradition, of war fought at the command of the Pope or religious authority, and, in conjunction with secular currents of thought, the emergence of the modern just war tradition.

In modern times, various popes have echoed Pope Paul VI’s plea at the United Nations in 1965 for an end to war. John Paul II appealed that all religions condemn violence in the name of God or religion. At the gathering of the leaders of world religions at Assisi on 24 January 2002, he said: ‘Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love!’ To the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, John Paul declared that ‘killing in the name of God is an act of blasphemy and a perversion of religion’. He repeated this in his World Day of Peace Message: ‘It is a profanation of religion to declare oneself a terrorist in the name of God, to do violence to others in his name’. Popes Benedict and Francis have repeated these declarations – powerful statements in the context of western tradition, but not easy to transfer into a Muslim context.

Yet Pope Benedict’s 2006 speech at Regensburg in Germany unfortunately quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor saying that Islam was ‘bad and inhuman’, which in much of the Muslim world was mistaken for Benedict’s own view, and severely set back efforts at dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

Pope Francis has opened new areas for dialogue and cooperation, particularly for his stress in promoting peace and progress, with special emphasis on the needs of the impoverished and hungry, migrants and refugees, which have deep resonance in Islamic values.

Islam and war

In the tradition of Islam, it is only religion that justifies war. As James Turner Johnson noted in Morality and Contemporary Warfare (1999, 186): ‘Jihad in normative Islamic tradition is war for the sake of religion’.

Within Islam, war was not simply seen as a cause of division but as a means to unity, to extend Islamic rule and hence bring peace. As Johnson wrote in The Holy War Idea (p18): ‘While for the West, war for religion is divisive and terrible, for Islam, jihad as war for religion is not divisive but unifying, and what is terrible is the world of strife jihad seeks to bring to an end.’ Peace was not merely absence of strife, but resulted from a just social order which humans bore responsibility to construct within a secure political order.

On the one hand, 114 passages of the Quran are said to encourage tolerance and peace. Hence the Quran says, ‘The believers [Muslims], the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians – whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is good – shall receive their reward from their Lord. They shall have nothing to fear and they shall not grieve.’ (Q2:62). Muhammad is told to say to the idol-worshippers at Mecca: ‘You have your religion and I have mine.’ (Q109). The Quran stipulated: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ (Q2:256).

Yet these verses were thought by various authorities to be abrogated by later verses, particularly the so-called ‘sword verses’, which according to Reuben Firestone assumed ‘the highest authority in all discussions of war’ (Firestone, ‘Conceptions of Holy War in Biblical and Qur’anic Tradition’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 24,1 Spring 1996, 84):

When the sacred months are past, kill the idolaters wherever you find them, and seize them, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every place of ambush; but if they repent, pray regularly, and give the alms tax, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving, merciful. (Q9:5).

This was understood by some Muslims as calling for ‘the systematic subjection of all non-Muslims’, and gave rise to an ideology of total war, of ‘Islam or the sword’ against polytheists.

Sura 9:29, the most important ‘sword’ verse, was associated with a raid in AD630 against the Byzantine Christians, expanding the scope of religiously motivated war. It declared:

Fight those who do not believe in God or the Last Day, and who do not forbid what has been forbidden by God and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of truth from among the People of the Book, until they pay the poll tax (al-jizya) out of hand, having been brought low.

It is particularly to these passages as interpreted in the classic tradition that extremists appeal for legitimation of killing and terrorism.

The interpretation of jihad: dar al-Islam and dar el-harb

A further difficulty in Islamic thinking on war arises from the basic template which emerged out of its religious assumptions in warfare. Muslim common law, but not Muhammad or the Quran, had divided the world into the realm of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the realm of war outside Islam (dar al-harb) which, because it had not made its submission to Islam, by definition could not know lasting peace. Since the fundamental goal of militant jihad was to extend the realm of Muslim rule, those who refused to accept Islamic rule could be killed. But as long as the People of the Book bowed to Islamic rule and paid the tax, they were to be left in peace and protected, as all worshipped the same God and considered themselves children of Abraham. At first, only religious groups following a prophet (Jews and Christians) were granted the status of protected minorities, but it was extended to Zoroastrians and later to Hindus and Buddhists.

Muslim international law (siyar) developed especially during the eighth century AD, and received its classical treatment in the work, Siyar, by the jurist Shaybani about AD800. For Shaybani war was not to be fought simply because of difference in religious belief, but in defence of dar al-Islam. Even here, though, the Muslims justified war on religious grounds on the authority of the imam, the successor of the Prophet, under religious rules of conduct and with the enemy defined in religious terms. Since the aim of Muslim warfare was not to destroy an enemy but to extend the realm of Islam, and hence to maintain as much of a country intact as possible, Shaybani forbad unnecessary destruction of life, of property and natural resources; genocide; and killing non-combatants or prisoners of war, historically predating similar developments in the West (Johnson, Holy War Idea, 143 ff, 24-27 and 117-19).

There were striking parallels between the western just war tradition and the rules of combat for Muslims. James Turner Johnson wrote in Morality and Contemporary Warfare (1999, 186):

The position is clear: there is no justification for warfare directed intentionally against noncombatants in jihad. Indeed, Islamic normative tradition on the conduct of war effectively converges with that of the Western just war tradition in that both cultures are able to accept the legal restraints imposed on the conduct of war in international law… jihad is war within limits, limits that trace ultimately to the Prophet of God.

In The Holy War Idea (p. 36), Johnson wrote:

Just cause, right intent, competent authority, a reasonable hope of success, the aim of peace – all these criteria of the [western] jus ad bellum are formally present in the rules governing jihad, as is the jus in bello for discrimination in targeting. At the same time, some criteria either do not appear or have a rather different content than just war thinkers are wont to provide. The jus ad bellum proportionality, for example, is present mainly as a type of prudential reasoning on the part of the authorities concerning the strength of the Muslim forces over against their enemies.


The eighteenth-century theologian, Muhammad ibn ‘abd al-Wahhab (1703-1791), led a movement in central Arabia against the Ottoman Empire to recreate as nearly as possible the conditions of Muhammad’s time. Wahhab’s ideas were later revived in Saudi Arabia and supported by that government for export through the Muslim world. This ideology emphasised a literal interpretation of the Quran and the sunna of the Prophet. The Wahhabi enthusiasts denounced other Muslims they judged as falling short of their ideals, and called for a militant jihad to establish a true Islamic state based on a literal interpretation of Sharia. These ideas had a major influence on three key later activists, Hasan al-Banna, Mawlana Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb.

Al-Banna (1906-1949) established the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and called on Muslims to resist western imperialism, repel invaders, and purify Islam. Insisting on the equality of all Muslims, he challenged the influence of traditional scholars by claiming a right to interpret Sharia as a layman, and attracted significant popular support. According to John Kelsay, ‘With the Brothers, we actually see something new in the history of Shari’a reasoning. The deference to the learned class as experts in religion is shown as a historical accident’, with lay Muslims able to read and interpret the Quran themselves.

Mawlana Mawdudi (1903-1979), founded the Jamaat-I-Islami in India in 1941, fearing Islam was being destroyed, and issued a call to arms. Unprecedented in modern times, he interpreted jihad to mean that the defence of Islam could mean armed struggle. Both al-Banna and Mawdudi ‘posited a struggle (jihad) between the forces of God and Satan, good and evil, darkness or ignorance (jahiliyyah) and light’. They called for a renewal of faith and social reform, according to Kelsay in Arguing the Just War in Islam (2007, 91.n, 52-53).

Their influence on Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was profound, and, in 1953, he founded the Islamic Brotherhood, an extreme anti-western organisation which sparked the growth of other militant and terrorist groups. He practised a highly subjective and individualistic interpretation of Islam. Qutb saw the world in polarities, of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb, with Islamic government a divine command, and jihad the means to achieve it. Like the Kharijites in the 7th century, Qutb taught that any Muslims who refused to participate in jihad could be killed. He denounced Muslim ‘governments and western secular-oriented elites as atheists against whom all true believers must wage holy war’. War was needed to spread Islam.

However, the clearest violation of Islamic norms comes in this call to strike directly at civilians. John Kelsay writes: ‘Let there be no mistake about this; Islam is very clear on the matter. The Prophet said: “Do not cheat or commit treachery, do not mutilate or kill women, children, or old men.”’ Bin Laden might think that ‘necessity makes the forbidden things permitted’, but this cannot be used as an excuse for murder. Kelsay ‘finds it most interesting’ that Bin Laden did not cite any precedents in Islam to justify his attacks (‘War, Peace & the Imperatives of Justice’, in Paul Robson (ed.), Just War in Comparative Perspective, 2003, 84-85.)

John Esposito (Unholy War, 157-58) insists that bin Laden and his ilk reject the traditional Muslim strictures on jihad: that violence be proportional and limited to repelling an enemy, innocent civilians should not be targeted, that property not be needlessly destroyed, and that jihad can only be declared by a ruler or head of state. Moreover, such a jihad might result in bringing severe retaliation against the Muslim homeland, thus violating prudential considerations of proportionality.

It is undoubtedly relevant that some of the key jihadists are ex-Marxist-Leninists who studied in France. The extreme jihadists are acting like Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard party, and have grafted this concept into a traditionalist Islamist framework.

Real grievances of the Muslim world

Westerners who depict the problem as a conflict between the civilised world and terrorists, or as a war between ‘freedom’ and fundamentalists who hate democracy, or a war against evil, overlook the real grievances felt by multitudes of Muslims and which the extremists exploit. Anti-Americanism is driven not by the democratic freedoms and prosperity of the West, but by the inconsistency in western standards, and what seems like hypocrisy over Israel, and US support for oppressive regimes in many Muslim countries. In Esposito’s view (Unholy War, 160), ‘The cancer of global terrorism will continue to afflict the international body until we address its political and economic causes, causes that will otherwise continue to provide a breeding ground for hatred and radicalism, the rise of extremist movements, and recruits for the bin Ladens of the world.’

Noone is likely to underestimate the task of developing deep reconciliation between Muslim and western cultures, in which forgiveness, one of the key themes of both the Quran and the Bible, must form a key part. Yet this recovery of forgiveness must be done in conjunction with a renewed commitment to social justice, which is traditionally critical in Islam as a sign of political legitimacy. In Hashmi’s view, ‘The fundamentalist writings are therefore focused on combating the social ills and international oppression they believe face the Muslim community’ everywhere (‘Interpreting the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace’, in Islamic Political Ethics, 2002, 209-10).

How do we explain Islamist terrorism?

Many Muslims have felt deeply humiliated at seeing their countries occupied and colonised by western forces, and are shamed at the failure to maintain the prestige of their cultures. Their grievances are many:

  • the failure to keep pace with technological and social progress of the West
  • the inability to secure peace and stable governments in numbers of countries
  • disillusionment with various forms of nationalism, socialism, communism, and capitalism,
  • anger at the fate of Palestinians and western support for Israel
  • resentment at intrusion by Western powers in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc
  • violation of traditional cultural norms in western media, dress, sex, music, materialism, and consumerism
  • loss of national or cultural identity

The extremists imagine they can appeal to an idealised view of the past, when Islam was the spiritual core of great civilisations, far superior to early medieval Europe.

They believe a purified Islam requires a literal interpretation of Koran and sunna in which violence and terror are necessary, especially against Muslim leaders who they consider have betrayed Islam by adapting practices and governance to accord with modern systems. They justify intimidation and killing of other Muslims to force them to adopt Islamist beliefs and practices. Even innocent women and children can be killed by terrorist acts.

Paradoxically, these beliefs can give individuals a new sense of purpose and self-sacrifice, since they are considered to be serving a noble cause in jihad. It comes as no surprise that many of the individuals attracted to Islamist ideas come from disturbed and troubled backgrounds.

The role of the Islamic community

Ultimately, the answer to Islamist terrorism and extremism has to come from the Muslim community itself, especially since such wanton violence will generate strong reactions from other groups, and increase the sense of marginalisation or worse that could result for Muslims. The outcome would likely result in significant harm and damage to the entire communities in which they live.

Yet it is difficult for the Muslim community to respond.

  • Islam has no central authorities, unlike the Catholic Church for instance. They have no one like the pope, and cannot call an authoritative body like a general council to make key decisions.
  • Islam lacks a clerical structure, and has no international group of scholars able to fulfill such a role. Religious scholars, the ulema, assume prestige and influence because of their knowledge of Islam, especially the Quran itself, but need to win community consensus.
  • The Quran assumes almost sacramental significance, especially in Arabic, as the very words of God, and it is difficult for scholars to embrace methods like the historical-critical method that we use with the Bible.

My final comment is that you can see why military campaigns alone, while necessary to contain these extremist groups and protect the innocent, will not defeat them. Rather it is the overwhelming rejection by the entire Muslim community that atrocities violate Islamic morality and bring dishonour on the name of Islam in the eyes of the world that will be decisive.

Moreover, the bifurcation of the world into sharply divided Muslim and non-Muslim spheres is no longer appropriate, and Muslim tradition must be reinterpreted in light of modern concepts of toleration and religious liberty. None of this is likely unless the long-running grievances against the West are addressed, beginning with Palestine.

For an excellent explanation of the Islamic State, see the interview on the VICE site with a journalist specialising in Islamic affairs, Graeme Wood.


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