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Violence and Terrorism >
How can Islam be used to justify terrorism, hijacking, and hostage taking?

Although atrocities and acts of terrorism have connected Islam with terrorism, the Islamic tradition places limits on the use of violence and rejects terrorism, hijacking, and hostage taking. As happens in other faiths, mainstream and normative doctrines and laws are ignored, distorted, or co-opted and misinterpreted by a radical fringe. Islamic law, drawing on the Quran, sets out clear guidelines for the conduct of war and rejects acts of terrorism. It is quite specific in calling for the protection of noncombatants as well as for proportional retaliation.

As the Muslim community grew, questions quickly emerged about who had religious and political authority, how to handle rebellion and civil war, what was proper behavior during times of war and peace, and how to rationalize and legitimate expansion and conquest, violence and resistance. The community developed answers by referring to Quranic injunctions and the practice of Muhammad and his Companions.

The Quran provides detailed guidelines and regulations regarding war: who should fight (48:17, 9:91), when fighting should end (2:192), and how to treat prisoners (47:4). It emphasizes proportionality in warfare: “Whoever transgresses against you, respond in kind” (2:194). Other verses provide a strong mandate for making peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61) and “Had Allah wished, He would have made them dominate you, and so if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah allows you no way against them” (4:90).

From the beginning, the Islamic community faced rebellion and civil wars, violence and terrorism, epitomized by groups like the Kharijites and the Assassins. The Kharijites were a pious but puritanical and militant extremist group that broke with the caliph Ali and later assassinated him. The Assassins lived apart in secret communities from which they were guided by a series of Grand Masters, who ruled from the mountain fortress of Alamut in northern Persia. The Assassins' jihad against the Seljuq Dynasty terrorized princes, generals, and ulama (scholars), whom they murdered in the name of the Hidden Imam. They struck such terror in the hearts of their Muslim and Crusader enemies that their exploits in Persia and Syria earned them a name and memory in history long after they were overrun and the Mongols executed their last Grand Master in 1256.

The response of Sunni Islam and Islamic law was to marginalize extremists and develop a political theory that emphasized stability over chaos and anarchy. This, of course, did not dissuade all from the extremist path. In recent decades, alongside mainstream Islamic political opposition, terrorist groups have risen up to challenge regimes, terrorize their populations, and attack foreign interests. Often they portray themselves as the “true believers” struggling against repressive regimes and in the midst of a “pagan” society of unbelief. They attempt to impose their ideological brand of Islam and “hijack” Islamic doctrines such as jihad, claiming to be defending true Islam, to legitimate their illegitimate use of violence and acts of terrorism.

In Egypt, groups like Egypt's Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups assassinated President Anwar Sadat and other government officials, slaughtered tourists in Luxor, burned churches, and killed Christians. In Algeria, the Armed Islamic Group has engaged in a campaign of terror against the Algerian government. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda undertook a global war of terror against Muslim governments and America, distorting Islam and issuing their own fatwas (legal opinions) to legitimate their war and to call for attacks against civilians (noncombatants). Although these groups tend to receive the most media coverage because of the atrocities they commit, they represent only an extremist minority, not the majority of Muslims.

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