Recent terror attacks in Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere have renewed discussion of whether it’s appropriate to use terms such as “Islamist” or “Islamic terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of such attacks. Some say that these terms unfairly denigrate and stigmatize the majority of Muslims who reject terrorism.
In turn, this presents the question of whether religious belief is a significant causal factor in such terror attacks.
Here are some indisputable facts: the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists and a majority also reject terrorism and violence as a legitimate means of achieving any objective, whether it’s religious, political, or otherwise. It’s also indisputable that there are factors other than religion that play a role in causing someone to embrace terrorism. Terrorism primarily appeals to those who feel disenfranchised, economically and politically impotent, and socially isolated. You don’t find many terrorists who are married with children, gainfully and happily employed, and actively involved in civic associations.
All that being said, it’s also undeniable that religious belief does play a significant role in motivating those who resort to violence in the name of religion, and this includes those who resort to violence in the name of Islam. To begin, of course, we have the terrorists’ own explanation of their motivation. They claim that their actions are justified by the tenets of Islam. There is little point in arguing that their understanding of Islam is mistaken. When it comes to religious belief, there is no objective test for determining whether someone’s interpretation of the Bible or the Qur’an is correct.
And frankly, it’s just silly to say the “real” cause of religiously motivated terror attacks is some political or economic grievance. When terrorists shout “God is great” as they go about killing people, that’s not code for “we want unemployment benefits.”
Moreover, religion can have, and has had, the effect of inducing a dogmatic mindset in some believers. If you maintain that you are privy to The Truth, and that anyone who opposes you is an enemy of God, you may feel disinclined to treat “infidels” with respect.
Here we should note that there is nothing within Islam that makes it inherently worse than any other religion in terms of predisposing its adherents to violence. Christians have had as sanguinary a history as Muslims. In terms of barbarity, the notorious St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris (resulting in the slaughter of about 13,000 Protestants) rivals any action undertaken by ISIS.
The difference, of course, is that the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred in 1572. Today, although there are some Christian terrorists, Hindu terrorists, and Jewish terrorists, the overwhelming majority of terror attacks, as confirmed by comprehensive State Department reports, are carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam. One explanation for this difference, although not necessarily the sole explanation, is that most countries with a predominantly Christian heritage have embraced secularism and with it the notion that the government should stay out of religious affairs and vice versa. This helps to foster an atmosphere of tolerance. Unfortunately, in too many countries where Islam predominates there are still laws that prohibit apostasy and blasphemy (all twenty-one countries that prohibit apostasy are majority Muslim) and the tenets of Islam are woven, explicitly or implicitly, into prevailing social and legal norms. Such a legal and cultural environment can hardly be expected to maximize respect for those who hold differing religious viewpoints.
For Islamic terrorism to recede, ultimately Islam and predominantly Muslim countries need to reform themselves. Islam needs its equivalent of the Enlightenment. Not only must apostasy and blasphemy laws be repealed, but the privileged status of Islam must be abolished and critical examination of religion encouraged. As long as the slightest criticism of Mohammed or questioning of Islam provokes a riot, then the extremists will have hope that their message will resonate.
It’s highly regrettable that some bigots believe that Islam is inherently evil or that most Muslims condone violence. Although its extent may be exaggerated, Islamophobia is a real phenomenon and should be condemned. But those bigoted toward Muslims would probably feel that way regardless of whether we stopped using the terms “Islamists” or Islamic terrorists.” Prejudice doesn’t depend on terminology. Furthermore, such terms are appropriate because they correctly identify a key factor behind the terrorism and violence that are plaguing us: religious dogmatism that causes some to view individual human lives as unimportant when compared to the greater glory of God.