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Students from Islamic madrassas (seminaries) chant anti-U.S., and pro-Taliban slogans as one of them carries a photograph of suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden during a rally, September 2001.
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What is religious militancy and its relationship to terrorism?

Religion can be a potent weapon to mobilize and unite people, and it has been used and misused in this way throughout human history. But religious militancy does not arise in a vacuum. Throughout history, extremist religious movements have been a response to historical circumstances, particularly arising when groups have felt threatened.

Religious extremism develops when some portion of a community rejects, often violently, the presence or influence of a challenge to its sense of self. Whether that challenge is cultural, political, or economic -- or a combination of these -- a violent or threatening response is seen by extremists as religiously mandated.

The Middle East currently has a number of issues that challenge its communities' fundamental living standards and values, and which have given rise to extremist religious reaction.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the most obvious issue that provokes extremist responses.

Religious militants as well as secular nationalist militants exist on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- most recently and specifically, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For example, Hamas, an Islamist alternative to the secular PLO, was founded in 1987 to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hamas and other Islamist Palestinian groups, like Jewish extremist groups on the other side, argue that the land of Palestine was given to them by God and that they will not give up any part of their claim to it.

Rescue workers search the scene following a suicide-bomb explosion on a bus in Haifa, December 2, 2001. [ enlarge ]

Some religious and secular Jewish militants in Israel argue that the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights are permanent parts of Eretz Israel (the "Land of Israel"). They advocate establishing and enlarging Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and take a hard line against Palestinian control, advocating or supporting violence or vigilantism. With the notable exception of Baruch Goldstein (a settler associated with the Kach movement who killed 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994), Israeli settlers have thus far not engaged in political violence on the same scale as radical Palestinian civilians.

The Israeli army, however, has killed many Palestinians during the recent and previous intifadas, the Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation that began in the late 1980s. In fact, more Palestinians have died in these conflicts than Israelis. Many Palestinians and other Arabs accuse the Israeli government of state-sponsored terrorism, but Israel says its military campaigns are necessary to protect its civilians from violent Islamist attacks.

Religion and Middle Eastern politics

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Other political conflicts have arisen around dividing communities by religion. Lebanon is a case in point, where, largely because of French colonial policies, groups compete for political power along religious lines.

Religious conflicts can also arise not between different religions, but within one. Religious extremists may oppose a government's policies in many areas, and insist that a purer, stricter form of religion (defined by them) would solve many problems.

Pilgrims surround Kaaba, the holiest temple in Islam, at the center of the ancient shrine of Mecca. [ enlarge ]

This was the case when, in 1932, the Saudi state was first formed in alliance with the Wahhabi religious movement, and its laws were set up to ensure compliance with Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. Much of the Saudi government's legitimacy is based on its country's role in Islam. Saudi Arabia -- the birthplace of Muhammad and the protector of Islam's holiest sites -- is propagator of the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam throughout the world, and itself practices the strictest application of the Islamic code of law. Today, however, the Saudi governing elite face opposition from religious extremists inside the country who accuse them of not being religious enough and of being too closely allied with an anti-Islamic West.

Religion can be an effective way to channel opposition to an external threat or to a repressive regime -- possibly the only political outlet if a regime has eliminated other opposition groups. An opposition movement organized around religion immediately inherits a number of advantages: a familiar language in which to couch arguments, and religious institutions like mosques, churches, synagogues, or religious schools that provide a convenient network for organization and recruitment.

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Other issues that religious extremists cite as grievances are cultural. For example, Islamists may advocate an absolute rejection of Western morals and cultural practices such as violence in American movies, midriff-baring fashions for women, and recreational use of drugs, which are perceived as serious threats to the very fabric of their societies.

Terrorism isn't new

An engraving of radical French leader Maximillian Robespierre lying wounded on a table, during the French Revolution [ enlarge ]

Just as religious extremism has been around forever, so has terrorism. While there are different definitions of terrorism, they all have in common the use of violence as a means of causing fear in a community in order to affect political decisions or policy. The first "terrorists" to wear the label proudly were French revolutionaries after 1789. Maximillian Robespierre, the radical leader in the post-revolutionary period, famously said that virtue is powerless without terror.

More recent examples of terrorist groups outside the Middle East include the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland, Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) in Spain, the Shinrikyo cult in Japan, and the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. Like terrorist groups in the Middle East, some of these groups justify their acts through religious arguments, while others base their acts in other, usually political ideologies.

What is terrorism?

There are many ways to define terrorism, and each definition includes or excludes different political groups. Any definition, however, would state that terrorism is the use of violence, or the threat of violence, as a negotiating tool in achieving a political goal. Furthermore, terrorism is generally defined as actions outside of a declared war between states, and with civilian victims. Whether or not the terrorists themselves are a legitimate government ("state-sponsored terrorism") or a non-governmental group or individual, varies between personal definitions.

There is also the issue of a revolutionary force -- for example, a state militia led by a charismatic leader seeking to overthrow an oppressive government. Was the Boston Tea Party the act of terrorists? Or is a revolutionary struggle exempt from that label? If there is to be a war on terrorism, each of us needs to define the term for ourselves and decide in every case whether the label applies.

Religion and terrorism

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Terrorist groups in the Middle East that do justify their acts through religion -- whether Islamic groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Jewish groups like Kach and Kahane Chai -- are combining the powerful tools of terror (to scare and therefore influence their opponents) and religion (to attract and therefore influence potential followers) to try to change the political environment.

Charismatic leaders can manipulate religion, defining their political goals in terms of an imperative from God. If they can convince followers that God wants a particular result and they are His tools, they may argue that any means to achieve these results are legitimate. Particularly susceptible to these arguments are those who might be described as desperate or dispossessed, those who feel they have nothing to lose.

Are Islam and terrorism connected?

Radical Islamist leader Osama bin Laden [ enlarge ]

Recent events, especially those of September 11, 2001, have focused attention on whether there is a relationship between Islam and terrorism. A few extreme Islamist groups, notably al-Qaeda, use terrorism to attack the West and its culture. The vast majority of Muslims, however, see the use of terrorism as anti-Islamic, because the Quran specifically orders Muslims to avoid harming noncombatants, even in times of outright war.

Inclusive vs. intolerant voices in Islam

A 19th-century copy of Islam's holy book, the Quran, hand-copied in Arabic, open to its first chapter, the Fatiha [ enlarge ]

Inclusive and intolerant interpretations of Islam have competed throughout Islamic history, with the pluralist tendency being the rule most of the time. Pluralist interpretations emphasize the Quran's call to live in peace, tolerate different interpretations and behavior within the community, and protect Christians and Jews. Intolerant interpretations insist that their strict reading of the Quran and tradition mandates an aggressive application of Islamic law by the state that would, for example, outlaw Sufi and folk Islamic practices, restrict the public role of women and require them to wear some form of veiling, and punish crimes like adultery and theft with stoning and amputation.


Many scholars prefer to use the term Islamist rather than fundamentalist for Muslim extremists. "Fundamentalist" implies that people are returning to an original practice of the religion. Islamists, however, want to create a new, modern political structure informed by a strict rereading of the Quran and hadith. They might want to create an Islamic state, as the Islamic Republic of Iran has done, or make Islam the sole basis for law in society.

Most Muslims are not Islamist; that is, they don't want to revamp their governments or their laws to abide by such a strict interpretation of Islam. Nor do most Islamists advocate violence. Many people in the Middle East might agree with the anti-Western attitude of the Islamists, because they see the West spreading a corrupt value system through globalization, or because they resent perceived exploitation by the West of other peoples and lands. Others might want to live in a society where Islam has a greater role. But the vast majority who hold those beliefs would oppose the use of violence to achieve those ends.

Muslim residents of the town of Jusici, Bosnia-Herzegovina [ enlarge ]

Oil-rich states, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states, have used their financial power to support likeminded conservative Muslim groups across the Islamic world. This support -- both through official state funding and donations from wealthy individuals -- might build mosques and schools or support Islamist political activities from Bosnia to Malaysia, from Egypt to the United States. These financial resources have affected the tone and practice of Islam for some people in Muslim communities worldwide. For example, some Bosnian Muslims received Saudi charity with the condition that they practice a more conservative Islam.

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Related sites

Making Martyrs: /jan-june02/martyr_3-19.html
NewsHour reports on the role of Palestinian suicide bombers in the Middle East conflict.

Looking for Answers:
Frontline asks, what explains the hatred behind the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history? And why has radical Islam sprung from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of America's key allies in the Middle East?

The Evolution of Islamic Terrorism: shows/target/etc/modern.html
Frontline addresses the rise and spread of militant Islamic groups from the late 1960s to today.

Hunting Bin Laden: Interview with Bin Laden: shows/binladen/who/interview.html
Osama bin Laden answers questions posed to him by some of his followers at his mountaintop camp in southern Afghanistan. Later, ABC reporter John Miller is asking the questions.

Bosnia's Muslim Aid Hard to Resist: -022619-8737r.htm
A Saudi charity offers Bosinian Muslims aid in exchange for religious allegiance.

World Conflict Quarterly Web Site:
The distinction between terrorism and freedom fighting

Understanding Religious Violence:
Video clips from a forum on understanding religious violence

Maximilien Robespierre:Justification of the Use of Terror:
Robespierre justifies the use of terror.

Patterns of Global Terrorism:
U.S. State Department's 2001 report on terrorism

Islam's Political Polyphony:
This article explains that there is no single role for Islam in Muslim politics.

Saudi Time Bomb?:
Frontline investigates the hidden undercurrents of Islamic extremism, its far-flung reach, and its threat to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Looking for Answers:
Frontline asks: What explains the hatred behind the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history? And why has radical Islam sprung from Egypt and Saudi Arabia - two of America's key Middle East allies?

Target America:
As the Bush White House weighs its options, Frontline identifies the lessons we have learned from America's first "war on terrorism" in the 1980s.

Battle for the Holy Land:
With Israelis and Palestinians in an escalating war, Frontline goes behind the lines and underground to reveal the tactics and strategies that led to the current violence.

Inside the Terror Network:
Frontline portrays the stories of three al-Qaeda terrorists who piloted the highjacked planes on September 11 and how they so easily eluded U.S. intelligence.

Terror and Tehran:
Frontline asks, does America's war on terror hold democracy hostage in Iran?

Roots of Terrorism Teachers Guide: teach/terror/index.html
In the wake of Sept. 11, Frontline produced a series of documentaries, all of which dealt with the roots of terrorism and the complex evolution of U.S. policy and Islamic fundamentalism. This guide provides accompanying student lessons.

God Fights Back: 1978-1992:
In the 1970s, alienated Iranians flock to the promises of Islamic fundamentalism and Egyptians and Algerians soon follow. In the 1980s, alienated Americans flock to the promises of Christian fundamentalism.

American Taliban: /jan-june02/walker_john_1-2.html
Students will explore one of the most unexpected stories in the war on terrorism, that of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

Taming Terrorism:
Students will learn about different international agencies working to eliminate terrorism, study the recommendations of various international summits and conferences, and debate the effectiveness of various proposed measures.

Beyond the Veil Web Site:
Beyond the Veil explores many of the profound cultural and political differences between Iran and America.

Target America:
As the Bush White House weighs its options, Frontline identifies the lessons we have learned from America's first "war on terrorism" in the 1980s.

Related topics

How were the modern nation-states of the Middle East created?

Culture: A Rich Mosaic

Religion: Three Religions, One God

Jump To:

The Arab-Israeli conflict

Religion and Middle Eastern politics

Terrorism isn't new

What is terrorism?

Religion and terrorism

Are Islam and terrorism connected?

Inclusive vs. intolerant voices in Islam



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