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September 7, 1998

Is There an "Islamic Terrorism"?

Reuven Paz
ICT Academic Director
Specialist in Islamic Radical Movements

The Rationale - from political rivalry to religious conflict
The recent "war" between the USA and the Islamist [1] followers of Osama ibn Laden, has brought to light a problem that has been facing the Western world for several years, but which it preferred, for various reasons, to ignore. To begin with the terrorist activity of Islamic radical groups in a number of places around the world--and not only in the Middle East--has, since the early 1980s, been aimed primarily at the United States. In addition, the decline of the Soviet Union (1990-1991) seems to have forced the Western world to seek out a new enemy. These two trends converged during the 1990s with the growth of an aura of global conflict between socio-political cultures: Islam and the Muslim world versus America as the leading element of Western culture.

These perceptions harmonized with the views of radical Islam developed since WWII, in the wake of the creation of the so-called Third World and growing independence of underdeveloped countries. The permanent conflict in the Middle East and its prominent role in the Cold War gave Islamic radicals an excellent opportunity to further expand this theme of an eternal global rivalry between the main cultures of the world. Since 1948 they have seen in the Jews--as partners and allies of the new "crusaders" in the West--a new villain in the global conspiracy against Islam as a culture and religion, and against the Muslim nation in general.

The Need for an Enemy
The problem of the Western world--even more relevant today--is how to refrain from a rivalry that wears the guise of a war of religions between Islam and Western culture. The modern culture of the West--combining as it does elements of democracy, human rights, civil infrastructure, liberalism etc., with the social and human values of Christianity--seems to view the phrase "Islamic Terrorism" as politically incorrect.

Western man would prefer to believe that there is no problem between him and the general Muslim population or most of it, but only between him and certain marginal groups, which have no real support, sympathy or allies in their homelands.

On the other hand, Muslim perceptions increasingly see the West as an enemy, not necessarily for religious reasons but for socio-economic ones. The problems stems from a variety of causes: the growing hatred of the wealthy Western countries; the growing alienation of different factions of societies from one another; together with the burst of nationalistic disputes and open conflicts after the fall of the Soviet Union. All this has resulted in a sense of global cultural conflict between the USA--the sole leader of the West--and the rest of the so-called Third World, of which the Muslims are the greater part. This sense of conflict brought with it a growing "solidarity of the poor," cemented by religious ties. And this in turn gave rise to the feeling that an American or Western attack on any Muslim country or internal group constitutes an attack on the whole of the Muslim world. This solidarity is based also on the Islamist view that the unification of the Muslim world is their primary mission in the world. It is this cohesion that causes governments under threat of internal terrorism on a religious basis to join the general choir of condemnations of the West under the flag of artificial solidarity promoted by terrorists or radical and fundamentalist groups.

The West too is in need of an enemy. The absence of the USSR as a rival for the West seems to contribute also to this problem. Again--though not necessarily on a religious basis--Western society needs "someone to hate"--someone who will embody in vivid colors the eternal rivalry between God and the Devil, good and evil. Terrorism in general, and that of Islamic radical groups in particular, is perfect for the role, seeming as it does to threaten the most important elements of life in the modern Western world--peace and security.

In short, both sides have developed a sense of conflict between sworn enemies, with each more demonic in the eyes of the other. The veneer of religion causes them both to stick more firmly to their positions, in mirroring the eternal war between good and evil, light and darkness, which is deeply rooted in their religions.

What then is the root of the problem?

The real problem lies in the ambivalence--perhaps even hypocrisy--of the West, which is frightened by the very thought of being perceived as party to a religious war--a notion so old fashioned, un-liberal, politically incorrect and possibly frightening. Its leaders tend to bury their heads in the sand, ignoring very important processes taking place in the Muslim world in recent years.

The fear of using the phrase "Islamic Terrorism" seems to represent one of the weaker elements of Western counter-terrorism.

The Islamic perceptions of the global war
One of the Islamic radical movements’ greatest successes in the past three decades is their ability to present themselves to a large Muslim public all over the Arab and Muslim world as the bearers of true Islam, emphasizing those socio-political elements that attract the majority of the population. They appeal to the lower classes of society, who are seeking messianic solutions to their hopeless situation, by emphasizing the more political elements of Islam and the human values such as social justice. In addition, they have something to offer the intellectuals of the middle class, who seek democracy, human rights and civil infrastructure but are disappointed with the "imported" ideologies and forms of government--including socialism, liberal nationalism, fascism and communism and military dictatorships--as applied in the Arab world.

In conservative populations religion--particularly Islam--and men of religion, are highly regarded and have a good deal of respect and influence. One of the basic tenents of Islam is the division of the world into two defined parts in perpetual conflict--the world of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the world of heresy (Dar al-Harb). Thus, the perception of global conflict is deeply rooted in Muslim society. Furthermore, these perceptions were strengthened and enhanced before the Islamic radical revival by similar ideas developed under national, socialist or secular regimes, which had viewed the West as colonialist and imperialist. However, the basic hatred to the wealthy West under American hegemony has only taken a religious guise in the last three decades. The elementary perceptions of the Arab world fighting the Crusaders were an integral part of the ideology of Gamal `Abd al-Nasser and the leaders of the Syrian Ba`th party long before the present Islamic expansion in the Arab world.

The Islamists--whether ruled by the elementary doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood, or by the ideology developed by Sayyed Qutb, father of some of the modern Jihad groups--have always sought for global missions: the revival of the former Muslim empire, the unification of the Muslim world as one nation, and the reclamation of Islamic glory. All of these missions are based on a view unique to Islam, that religion is an integral part of politics and vise versa. There is a conflict of giants and Islam or the Muslim world is destined by Allah the almighty to win.

However, for the past few centuries of Muslim history, the West has had the upper hand over the Muslims and therefore some explanation for this is required. On the other hand the Islamist revival through the various movements, groups and ideological streams, had to plant in the general public the sense that the Islamic victory is close at hand. For this purpose two important perceptions were developed by the different movements, singularly homogeneous in viewpoint. One was the hidden power of Islam in contrast to the actual cowardliness and moral weakness of the West and its Jewish allies. The other was the global conspiracy against Islam as a religion and the Muslims as its adherents.

The combination of these two perceptions led most of the radical Islamic groups to the conclusion that they could win over the West in general or over what they see as its leading moral and cultural elements--the Americans and the Jews--by main force. As long as they were not governments or regimes, and perceived most of the Arab regimes as part of the global conspiracy, they looked for the soft belly of their enemy. Islamic Jihad thus departed from the ways of conventional warfare between regular armies recruited by a Khalifah, the politico-religious authority of the Muslim State--as dictated by orthodox Islamic principles, and deteriorated instead into a war of mere indiscriminate terrorism. And this terrorism is directed against an enemy whose corrupt morals transformed him from a dreadful colonialist into a "paper tiger."

In the eyes of the Islamist movements and ideologists, there is already a state of war between the Muslim world and the Crusaders’ political culture. From their viewpoint, members of Islamist groups are not terrorists, but permanent soldiers in the service of Allah. As the enemy is everywhere, not only in its own countries but also deep inside the Arab and Muslim world in the form of corrupt governments and diseased cultures, the soldiers of Allah must wage a constant war on many fronts. And as the conspiracy is against Islam and the Muslims, their war is actually one of self-defense. Just as the infidels fight using contemptible and foul methods, the Islamic answer should use all possible means of defense--including indiscriminate terrorism.

The popular legitimacy of Islamic Terrorism
The various Islamist radical groups have emerged outside of the Islamic establishments in the Arab or Muslim world. The later, being appointed and controlled by secular regimes, are perceived as subordinate to their masters, "the clerics of the regime" (‘Ulama` al-Salatin). Their religious rulings (Fatawa) were often denied, especially those dealing with cultural and socio-political issues. Various Islamist groups have their own clerics and religious rulings. Some of these rulings are given by ideological or political leaders who lack any official religious education and who issue far-reaching commentary of Islamic principles. They have therefore, no problem in forcing their views on their adherents, who view their ideology and doctrines as an integral part of true religion.

But, the main success or failure of these terrorist groups does not depend on their religious commentary or authority. It lies in their ability to gain legitimacy from the general public or from the greater part of it in each Muslim country, as well as in the Arab world in a whole. The need for public sympathy and support is a crucial element of every terrorist group without regard to its ideology or political affiliation. However, in a society where religion has so great an influence as in the Arab and Muslim world, the teachings of Islamist groups are perceived by certain parts of society as the true principles of religion. The socio-cultural elements of their teachings are often combined with the "secular" tradition of hostility toward the West under American hegemony and/or toward its protection of Israel and the Jews, who are according to the Quran: "The worst enemies of the believers." [2]

This popular support for various Islamist terrorist groups in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world, increases the solidarity of a large public with the sense of conflict with the West and with the United States. This accord supplies popular legitimacy to indiscriminate terrorism in the cover of a religious duty of Jihad. This phenomenon from time to time affects not only the general public but certain governments as well. The American strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan was not perceived by Arab governments, at least in their public reactions, as part of legitimate counter-terrorism, but as an unjustified aggression. Condemnations of the United States were heard in various degrees from the entire Arab world, including those normally regarded as moderate, such as Egypt and Jordan, not to mention the Gulf states. Certain forms of terrorism as "the weapon of the poor" are regarded by both peoples and governments as self defense, while the American attacks are considered "war crimes."

So long as Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism have popular support--whether in the form of ideology or in the form of movements and organizations--its influence over large parts of the Muslim world gives it the legitimacy to wage a war that is perceived as between the West and the Islamic world. Arab and Muslim governments will not attempt to delegitimize those movements until they begin to threaten the regimes themselves. In fact, governments often join, either publicly or privately, in promoting the notion of hostility to the West disseminated by the radical Islamic movements or groups--hostility that provides the soil in which the seeds of terrorism in the name of Islamic Jihad may grow.

In addition to the foregoing, the West in general and the United States in particular, should take into consideration that in various forms there already exist several Muslim regimes that promote Islamic radicalism and support Islamic terrorism: Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, the Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The last has shown in the last year increasing qualms about assisting the United States in fighting terrorism against American targets on Saudi territory, for example, in Dhahran and Riyadh. Some of these states were and are state-sponsors of terrorism.

The USA and its Western allies confront not only Osama ibn Laden and his partners from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama`at al-Islamiyah. They must not regard their Islamist enemies as marginal groups in the Muslim world. They actually confront large portions of the Islamic world, whose backing for the "marginal" groups give them the public legitimacy to promote their terrorist activity.

In Conclusion
There is an Islamic terrorism based on socio-religious perceptions. It may not include the whole Arab and Muslim world, but it perceives the terrorism it wages against the West as an integral part of its religion. The West in general and the USA in particular cannot ignore it and should therefore unite their efforts in an attempt to find different means of countering this kind of Islamic terrorism.

The West should learn from one of the best students of Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism, the Dutch scholar, Prof. Johannes Jansen:

"In a fiercely competitive society the dominant religion may preach that the greatest virtue is to love one’s neighbor. The religion of a group which over the centuries has become marginalised may, on the other hand, preach that God has exclusively and explicitly chosen those who follow his commandments. This group may come to believe that it plays a central role in the history of God and his creation. In a society where the law is not much more than an interesting but highly theoretical matter, the major religion may proclaim that following God’s laws is the only way to put things right. . . Islamic fundamentalism is both politics and religion. It has a dual nature. When it is analyzed as if it were a movement that has political nature only, mistakes are made because fundamentalism is fully religion at the same time." [3]

In the Islamic world one cannot differentiate between the political violence of Islamic groups and their popular support derived from religion. They, at any rate, do not recognize any disparity.

The important question remains as to how the West should defend itself against Islamic terrorism. To address the question would require another article. Suffice it to say that in order to deal with this problem, the West must first recognize that the present terrorism on the part of the Arab and Muslim world is Islamic in nature.


The term "Islamist" is often used by Islamic radical groups and scholars of the Islamic revival, to emphasize the distinction between orthodox Islamic groups and movements that follow orthodox Islam, and radical or fundamental groups. It also serves the claim of many Muslims and Muslim organizations that the phenomenon of these radical or extremist groups does not represent true Islam but stems from a misinterpretation of the religion, and even heresy. They also claim that Islam cannot be used for terrorist activity because of its peaceful elements.

Quran, Surat al-Ma’idah, verse 82.

Jansen, Johannes J.G., The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism (N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. ix-xi.