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HomeIslamic ThoughtTerror in the name of Islam – Unholy War, not Jihad

Terror in the name of Islam – Unholy War, not Jihad

Parvez Ahmed, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law

Volume 39, Issue 3 2007-2008


The objective of this paper is to analyze current definitions of terrorism, explore the history of recent terrorism committed in the name of Islam, posit causal links between terrorism and the United States’ (U.S.) Cold War programs and policies towards the Middle East, and propose remedies to minimize and preferably eliminate the threat of terrorism. Before beginning, it bears reminding the reader that explaining terrorism is not the same as justifying it. Terrorism is abhorrent, but has been around as long as civilization has existed. The heightened concern regarding terrorism is justifiable as modem weapons can unleash destruction hitherto unimaginable. Thus, it is more important now than ever before to analyze terrorism in order to suggest appropriate remedies.

On September 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack ever to take place on American soil unfolded on live television. The carnage unleashed that day stunned Americans. It left Americans grappling with the question, “Why us?” The following day, September 12, 2001, President George W. Bush described the destruction caused in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania as an act of war against “all freedom-loving people” and vowed that the United States would use all of its resources to avenge this attack.2 This marked the beginning of the United States “war on terror” or in official Pentagon lingo, the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), which is primarily a Pentagon operation.

That ill-fated day the United States was not alone in its grief. People all across the world held prayer vigils and stood in solidarity with President Bush’s resolve. No one questioned America’s declaration of “war” on “terrorism.” Yet, can a war really be waged against terrorism? After all “terrorism” was not invented on 9/11, nor is “terrorism” an ideology like communism. Terrorism is a tactic. How does one wage a “war” against a tactic? Regardless of this difficult question, up until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the world followed the United States’ lead on GWOT. Since then, with the U.S.-led fiasco unfolding in Iraq and the roll-back of basic civil liberties in America, many are questioning not only the tactics, but also the very purpose of the GWOT. Some even question whether the threat of terrorism is as grave as it is made out to be. Mueller, for example, contends that the threat of terrorism has been “overblown.” Despite the low odds of terrorists succeeding, Mueller contends that:

Politicians will be inclined sanctimoniously to play to those fears … bureaucrats will stoke the same fears … The entrepreneurs of the Current Danger industry… will first work very hard to sustain and milk the one currently within their grasp… And the press., will continue to make sure that what bleeds leads.

Military Analyst William Arkin states that:

I think it is intellectually shallow to compare terrorists … with our enemies during the Cold War or the Second World War, who could have indeed destroyed our societies…. Every time we pretend, we are fighting for our survival we not only confer greater power and importance to terrorists than they deserve but we also at the same time act as their main recruiting agent by suggesting that they have the slightest potential for success.

Overblown or not, no one can fault any government for erring on the side of caution. Nevertheless, being cautious does not imply discarding conventional wisdom, even when fighting an unconventional enemy. Unfortunately, the U.S. government, aided by a pliant media, made a great show out of announcing the arrests of “terror suspects”; later it was discovered that the government was on many occasions admittedly wrong or that the threat was exaggerated.

In the months following 9/11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, acting pursuant to USA PATRIOT Act, section 412, rounded up and imprisoned over 1,200 Muslim and Arab men under the pretext of immigration violations. Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole contended that, “[t]housands were detained in this blind search for terrorists without any real evidence of terrorism, and ultimately without netting virtually any terrorists of any kind.”‘ Elaborate Justice Department press releases accompanied the highly-publicized initial charges of terrorism. Later, the Justice Department either dropped or amended the terrorism charges, without much fanfare, to other, often minor, immigration-related violations. During his 2004 presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry remarked, “I think there has been an exaggeration [about the threat of terrorism]. They [the Bush administration] are misleading all Americans in a profound way.”

Whether driven by politics or fear, terrorism remains a hot public issue. Politicians exploit it, the media hypes it, and late night comedians joke about it. Despite public interest, the discourse about terrorism is not one of serious debate. Rather it has degenerated into public posturing about who can “protect” us best and how one’s political opponents are “weak” or how their views “give comfort to the enemy.” Hoffman writes:

Terrorism is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore…. Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization ‘terrorist’ becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or, at the worst, an ambivalent) light; and it is not terrorism.

Global patterns of terrorism show that terrorism is not exclusive to any one faith, ethnic group or ideology. Pape asserts that between 1980 and 2003, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that recruits from the predominantly Hindu Tamil population in Sri Lanka and whose ideology is intertwined with Marxism, was the world’s leader in suicide terrorism. Despite this, Islamic groups receive the most attention in Western media.

That the 9/11 attacks were committed by Muslim men is one factor behind the popular assumption of a causal link between Islam and terrorism. This perception is greatly assisted by a veritable cottage industry of neoexperts pontificating with great certainty about the cause-effect relationship between Islam and terrorism. Is Islam a primary factor behind terrorism? Regardless of whether or not such a charge stands up to scrutiny, today there exists an unmistakable global trend of militant piety among people claiming to be representatives of their religions. Nevertheless, this trend is not exclusive to any one religion. This phenomenon has been described as “fundamentalism” in the West, although the term “extremism” would be more appropriate, especially in the context of Islam.”Extremism” is a better descriptor of this militant piety because it denotes a deviation from the normative teachings of a faith.

In its fringe manifestation, extremism leads to violence and terrorism in the name of religion. Armstrong notes that in the past century these extremists have unleashed shocking acts, including: gunning down worshippers in a mosque, killing doctors and nurses working at abortion clinics, assassinating heads of states, blowing up embassies, and flying airplanes into buildings.’ While such acts are in reality few and far between, the spectacular nature of the acts shatters our sense of security; this is precisely the intent of terrorists.

The rest of the paper addresses the subject matter as follows. Section II explores the different definitions of terrorism and attempts to identify some common factors that underlie all terrorist acts. Section III discusses Islamic perspectives on terrorism. Section IV looks at how jihad is defined in normative Islam. Section V discusses the perceived link (or lack thereof) between terrorism and Islamic teachings. Section VI presents an overview of the fallout from the global war on terrorism. Section VII traces the antecedents of terrorism and violence in the name of Islam. Finally, Section VIII summarizes what terrorists want and how to prevent terrorism.

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