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Violence and Terrorism >
Is Islam a primary cause and driver of terrorism?

Islam, like every other world religion, neither supports nor requires illegitimate violence. The Quran does not advocate or condone terrorism. To enhance their credibility and justify their atrocities, terrorists connect their acts of violence to Islam by ignoring the extensive limits that the Quran and the Islamic tradition place on the use of violence. As happens in other faiths, a radical fringe distorts and misinterprets mainstream and normative Islamic doctrines and laws. They pay no attention to Islamic law, which draws on the Quran to set out clear guidelines for the conduct of war and provides no support for hijacking and hostage taking.

Throughout the Quran, Muslims are urged to be merciful and just. However, Islam does give guidelines to Muslims for defending their families and themselves as well as their religion and community from aggression. The earliest Quranic verses dealing with the right to engage in a “defensive” struggle, were revealed shortly after Muhammad and his followers escaped persecution in Mecca by emigrating to Medina. At a time when they were forced to fight for their lives, Muhammad was told: “Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged—surely God is able to help them—who were expelled from their homes wrongfully for saying, ‘Our Lord is God’” (22:39–40).

Like the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, the Quran contains verses about struggles and wars. The Islamic community developed in Arabia, in the city of Mecca, where Muhammad lived and received God's revelation. The city was assailed by cycles of tribal warfare and surrounded by constant conflicts between the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and the Sasanian (Persian) empires. Nevertheless, the Quranic verses repeatedly stress that peace must be the norm. The Quran frequently and strongly balances permission to fight an enemy by mandating the need to make peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61).

Those concerned about Islam and violence often point to what some refer to as the “sword verse” (although the word sword does not appear in the Quran). This oft-cited verse is seen as encouraging Muslims to kill unbelievers: “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5). Critics use the verse to demonstrate that Islam is inherently violent, while religious extremists twist its meaning to develop a theology of hate and intolerance and to justify unconditional warfare against unbelievers. In fact, it is a distortion to apply this passage to all non-Muslims or unbelievers; the verse is specifically referring to Meccan “idolaters” who are accused of breaking a treaty and continuously warring against the Muslims. Moreover, critics do not mention that this “sword verse” is immediately qualified by the following: “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat [the charitable tax on non-Muslims], then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind” (9:5).

The religious language and symbolism used by extremists obscures Islam's true relationship to violence and terrorism, as well as the primary causes of global terrorism. It becomes easy for policymakers and experts to point to religion as the root cause of terrorism and violence. In most cases, complex political and economic grievances are the primary catalysts for conflicts, but religion becomes a means to legitimate the cause and mobilize popular support. As we can see in the global strategy of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda or witness in Palestine, post-Saddam Iraq, or Kashmir, the goals of terrorists are often basically nationalist: to end the occupation of lands, to force “foreign” military forces out of what they see as their homeland.

Of course religion does provide a powerful source of meaning and motivation. Its invocation lends divine authority that increases a terrorist leader's own authority as well as moral justification, obligation, certitude, and heavenly reward, all of which enhance recruitment and produce the willingness to fight and die in a “sacred struggle.” Secular movements have also hijacked religion to heighten their appeal. Yasser Arafat, leader of a secular nationalist movement in Palestine (PLO and then PNA), drew on the power of religious symbolism when he was under siege in Ramallah by using the terms jihad and shahid (martyr) to describe his situation. The Palestinian militia (not just the Islamist Hamas) chose to call itself the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, using the symbolism of the al-Aqsa Mosque (the holy site for Islam and Judaism in Jerusalem) and drawing on the imagery of jihad and martyrdom. While religious and nonreligious organizations and movements (whether al-Qaeda or the Marxist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka) may share a common strategy, those that are Muslim often strengthen their cause by identifying their goal as Islamic: to create an Islamic government, a caliphate, or simply a more Islamically oriented state and society.

Religious leaders and intellectuals can play an important role in the ideological war on terror. Wahhabi Islam and militant Christian Right groups do not advocate violence or terror. However, both promote exclusivist, nonpluralistic theologies of hate that condemn other faiths and can be used by militants. Hate speech is a powerful justification for blowing up the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, government buildings or abortion clinics—for assassinating “the enemies of God.” Christians and Muslims share a critical common goal, that of addressing exclusivist theologies that are antipluralistic and weak on tolerance. For these theologies contribute to beliefs, attitudes, and values that feed religious extremism and terrorism that affects all of us.

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