Dr. James Gaffney, Dr. Liyakat Takim

Terrorism: A Christian View

Terror means extreme fear.  As a name for certain kinds of violence, it is historically associated with la terreur, the ten-month period during which French revolutionaries under the leadership of Robespierre, systematically imprisoned and killed, without trial, suspected critics or opponents of their regime.  Most victims were members or supporters of the nobility and the clergy.  About 17,000 were killed and 300,000 were imprisoned (many of whom died in prison).  In 1794 public outrage put an end to the Reign of Terror and executed its leader.

Nature and Purposes of Terrorism

More generally, terrorism is a policy or practice that seeks to demoralize adversaries by deliberately provoking terror.  It takes many forms, and has had many objectives.  It always involves coercive or destructive acts, directed not against identifiable military opponents, but against non-combatants.  Since unpredictability intensifies and perpetuates fear, terrorism often prefers non-combatant targets whose unthreatening status normally assures them of immunity from direct attack.  For that very reason, deliberate assault on the defenseless implies an enemy who will "stop at nothing" and discourages any hope of settling disputes by conventional warfare or negotiated compromise.

Attempts to justify terrorism usually represent it as a last resort in a just dispute, by parties who have no access to political or military power comparable to those of their opponents.  Such is often the case within territories occupied by foreign powers, in minority groups oppressed by their own governments, or with frustrated activist movements that regard their objectives as morally urgent. Terrorism may also be  undertaken without any moral or ideological pretensions, usually for material gain as by organized crime.

Recent Prominence of Terrorism

Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon.  In modern times, however, it has attracted much wider attention for several reasons.  First, because of greatly expanded media coverage.  Second, because modern technology has provided terrorists with unprecedented means of destruction.  Third, because terrorism effectively terrified the most militarily powerful nation on earth.  And fourth, because terrorist groups have been organized with high efficiency on a worldwide scale of operation.  Radical Muslim groups, most notably Al Qaeda, have been outstanding in all four of these respects.  Al Qaeda, as well as other groups, employ terrorist methods for the avowed purpose of eliminating opposition, especially Western and pro-Western opposition, to  establishing absolute dominance of Islamic law (or their interpretation of it) in traditionally Muslim nations.

It was the use of those methods for that purpose that provoked the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition.  In Iraq, a situation resulted which combines, and often confuses, the insurgency of resistance to an occupying power, with the practical equivalent of civil war between hostile sectarian groups.  In both conflicts, Muslims, lacking the means for conventional military conflict, rely heavily, and devastatingly, on terrorist tactics.  Although Americans tend to compare this situation, in point of frustration, with the Vietnam war, a closer recent parallel was the resistance of Algerian Muslims to incorporation in the French Republic, a struggle in which Arab groups were also pitted against one another.

Muslim Connection Accidental

Despite recent developments, it would be erroneous and unjust to suggest a Muslim monopoly on terrorism.  Irish, Basque, and Tyrolean terrorism have caused bloody attacks in Europe for decades.  The highly organized American terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, is not yet quite extinct.  Jewish pressure for statehood included terrorist bombing of British civilians, and Israel's massively disproportionate retaliation  in Lebanon and Palestine elude that label only because carried out under military auspices.  Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel are, for the most part, politically motivated, and only incidentally (or opportunistically) connected with Muslim terrorism elsewhere. Random samples of those who resort to terrorism for "moral" causes must include Catholic "pro-life" assailants of abortion clinics, and "eco-terrorist" saboteurs of lumber operations.  Terrorist intimidation has been frequent in organized crime, notably by Mafia-style mobs and drug cartels.   

Although terrorism is most likely to be adopted by groups that are militarily, politically, and economically too weak for conventional warfare or effective diplomacy, it has also been employed by strong nations as part of their waging of war.  Some would consider as terrorism any deliberate targeting of non-combatants, even when carried out by military forces during war.  On that basis, many have regarded the U.S. atomic bombing of non-military targets in Japan and the British fire-bombing of residential cities in Germany in W.W. II as cases of massive terrorism.  Usually, extreme civilian "collateral damage," as by indiscriminate bombing or the use of such weapons as land-mines, is criticized not as terrorism, but as violation of "just war" provisions.  The distinction may at times seem merely academic.  It implies no difference in moral reproach. 

Terrorism Incompatible with Christian Morality

The main Christian objections to terrorism are borrowed from traditional moral norms for justifiable assault and homicide, including justifiable warfare.  These norms closely correspond to the provisions of most public law, both national and international.  Justifiable homicide by individuals or by governments (apart from capital punishment, itself controversial), is normally limited to defense against acts or threats of aggression, when non-violent or less violent means are unavailable.  Personal self-defense is limited to the use of force sufficient to deter actual or imminent aggression.  This extends to lethal force only when no other defense is possible.  Justifiable warfare is required to be waged without directly attacking or avoidably endangering non-combatants.  It is also required to refrain from inflicting damage disproportionate to the positive benefits of a foreseeable outcome.  It is often observed that the latter condition requires powers of foresight that are scarcely achievable by combatants in wartime.  The fundamental Christian objection to terrorism is that it inflicts injury and death on unoffending persons, who are neither criminals nor assailants.  It is plainly incompatible with Jesus' rejection of violence and retaliation, no matter how narrowly his words are interpreted.

Moral Arguments for Terrorism

The commonest justification offered for terrorist violence against non-combatants is the claim that in war an entire human community is usually implicated as supporters of the military.  Whether that support is material, moral, or political, the distinction of non-combatants is considered artificial and invalid.  Even children have sometimes been considered implicated, as being destined for future recruitment. 

A more extreme position rejects the moral primacy of individual human rights, and affirms the all-inclusive collective guilt of an offending community which deserves to be indiscriminately "punished."  Christianity has always rejected this concept in theory, but it has often been revived in practice by militant Christian groups, notoriously by persecutors of Jews considered to be collectively implicated in Christ's crucifixion.

The Moral Threat of Counter-terrorism

Terrorism is an offense that appears almost exclusively in accusations and almost never in confessions.  Revolutions very often begin with terrorism against an oppressive majority, only to end with terrorism against recalcitrant minorities.  The recent development of epidemic global terrorism has stimulated a response that may be even more ominous than terrorism itself.  The claim by the world's most militarily powerful nation, to be engaged in a "war against terrorism" threatens to justify national violence against no defined aggressor within no definable limits of either space or time, and to diminish protection of both civil and human rights.  It is a formula calculated to evade every moral and legal standard for the assessment of warfare.  The argument that what terrorism calls for is not diffuse warring but concentrated policing offers a more rational and manageable response.

Terrorism: A Muslim View

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. Generally speaking, terrorism refers to the act of engendering extreme fear in others and is often used to demoralize adversaries by inciting terror and anxiety in them. Terrorism takes many forms and often, although not always, targets non - combatants and innocent civilians, thus implying an assault on the defenseless.

In recent times, terrorism has become almost synonymous with Islam and Muslims. However, it would be erroneous and unjust to suggest a Muslim monopoly on terrorism. The Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Jewish Defense League have resorted to targeting innocent civilians to advance their cause.

From an Islamic perspective, there is no justification, even in warfare, to target and terrorize innocent civilians. The Qur’an does not accept the idea of unlimited or aggressive warfare, especially against non-combatants. By the assiduous usage of the term la ta‘tadu (do not transgress) in the context of warfare, it can be argued that the Qur’an qualifies warfare with a moral condition of restraint.

Undoubtedly, the most telling verse in the Qur'an regarding terrorism (as defined above) is stated in verse 32 of chapter 5: "Whoever kills one innocent soul it is as if s/he has killed the whole of humanity, one who saves one innocent being it is as if s/he has saved whole of humanity." The Qur’an also outlines the rules of engagement, who is to fight and who is exempted (48:17; 9:91), when hostilities should cease (2:192) and how prisoners should be treated (47:4). As there is no compulsion in religion (2:256), Muslims are not to impose their beliefs on others.

It is correct to state that Islam upholds the principles of personal responsibility and security and considers any attack on innocent people as a major crime. It focuses on the defense of the weak, the humble and the oppressed and enjoins jihad for their protection. As the Qur'an states:  "And why should you not fight for the cause of Allah, and for the helpless old men and women.... (4:75)? The mention in the Qur'an of the blessing of security "And hath made them safe from fear" (106:4) is another proof of the importance it attaches to security and its rejection of terror. It should also be noted that since oppression is seen as a form of inciting terror, the Qur'an urges opposition to and fight against tyranny wherever it may occur. It does not state that Muslims should protect only fellow Muslims who are oppressed.

Muslims are required to assist and stand up for the oppressed until they attain their rights. The first Shi'i Imam, 'Ali b. Abi Talib gave this advice to his two sons, al-Hasan and al-Husayn:  "Be opponents of the oppressor and defenders of the oppressed." He also said:  "To me the lowly are noble until I get their rights for them, and the powerful are weak until I get such rights from them."

To be sure, terrorism is reprehensible. In today's context, most Muslims disagree with fellow Muslims who target and kill innocent civilians even if they agree with the cause they are fighting for (liberation of Palestine, Kashmir, driving out occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan). However, Muslims also accuse Western and their own governments of institutionalized terrorism in that they drop bombs in areas where there is a strong likelihood of civilian casualties and threaten the lives of innocent civilians in pursuit of their national interests in the Muslim world.

The Qur'an takes a very strong stance against terrorism. It describes those who terrorize innocent civilians as those who corrupt the earth. As it states: "This is the recompense of those who fight against God and His Messenger, and spread corruption in the land. They shall be put to death, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the next awaits them a mighty chastisement."(5:33)

The verse mentions the subject and the purpose, namely war against society and spreading of corruption in the land. It also mentions the severe punishment to be dealt out to the perpetrators, which points to Islam's concern for the subject.

Due to the Islamic rejection of acts of terror, Muslim jurists have developed a plethora of terms to classify the various forms of terror and suggest appropriate punitive measures. For example, Islamic political jurisprudence has an elaborate discourse on al-baghy, i.e. armed revolt by a group against a just and legitimate government, and the intimidation of and causing harm to the general public. 

Rebels are defined as those who wage war against the ruling authority. Engagement in a war with rebels is different from jihad against idolaters. Even though they are a threat to the territory of Islam, rebels are not to be killed as they remain Muslims. No war can be fought until the rebels initiate hostilities. Jihad against them can only be waged when they break allegiance with the caliph and attack or pose a danger to Muslims. Their property cannot be confiscated and those rebels who are taken as prisoners of war must not be killed. They can only be exterminated in self-defense. The rules of war against rebels are different since it is hoped that they will return to the fold of the community. The goal against fighting rebels is to bring them back to the fold of submission, not to kill them.

Muslims jurists have also articulated laws on al-haraba, which is defined as "the use of weapons, on land or sea, by day or night, to intimidate people, in a city or elsewhere, by a male or female, strong or weak." Muslims are allowed to fight against robbers and brigands in self-defense. Brigands and highway robbers are treated like rebels with some exceptions to the rules of combat. The punishment against a thief is contingent on whether he stole property or killed people. Since they terrorize civilians and endanger security, highway robbers and brigands are also to be fought and punished either by execution or amputation of hands or feet. Islamic law also stipulates respect and loyalty to covenants and treaties even if it is discovered later that they favor the opposite party.

In conclusion, it is correct to state that Islam has always taken a strong stance against terrorism and regarding ppression of any kind as a form of terror. Thus, the Qur'an urges human beings at large to oppose and fight against any form of tyranny since it spreads corruption on earth and threatens the freedom and security of ordinary citizens.

Points of Agreement and Disagreement

Points of Agreement

Both the authors above agree that terrorism means demoralizing adversaries by deliberately provoking terror, and also that it usually entails destructive acts or attacks on non-combatants and innocent civilians. That said, however, there are many forms of terrorism, and any discussion of it must try to define it carefully (see Points for Discussion below).

It may come as a surprise to most readers that the majority of Muslims condemn attacks on non-combatants and civilians. Yet that is what the data (based on a Gallup world poll of Muslims in Muslim countries) cited by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, in their book, (New York: Gallup Press, 2007). This data is based on an extensive Gallup world poll done between 2001 and 2007, in which a sample representing 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims was interviewed in face to face interviews. Esposito and Mogahed write as follows:

Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views and are, in fact, on average more likely than the American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians. A recent study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast this with data taken the same year from some of the largest Muslim majority nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%, and in Iran, 80%.

Similarly, 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilian are targets are “completely justified.” As points of comparison, in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4%. In Europe, Muslims ion Paris and London are no more likely than their counterparts in the general public to believe attacks on civilians are justified and are as likely to reject violence, even for a “noble cause.” (pp. 94-95)

It is not clear if most Christian would condemn attacks on civilians. But certainly that would be Christian teaching, in which case Christians and Muslims would agree that terrorism and attacks on innocent civilians are not justified.

Points of Disagreement

Almost no one admits to being a terrorist. Rather, terrorism is something that one accuses one’s enemies of doing. Thus, many Christians might accuse Muslims of approving of terrorism. But Muslims, on the other hand, tend to see the U.S. as sponsoring attacks on civilians, in its bombing raids, its invasion of Iraq, and so on. Therefore, there will probably be disagreement on whether or not a particular  action is to be labeled “terrorist.”

Points for Further Discussion

As noted above, in any discussion of terrorism there must be a careful attempt to define just what is meant by “terrorism.” Consider, for example, the Allied bombing of Dresden, or the U.S. bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in 1945. All of these attacks targeted the civilian population (this is widely admitted, and is not controversial). Were these military actions terrorism? Or were they, as Gaffney surmises (above) rather “violations[s] of ‘just war’ provisions”?

A further point for discussion is this: to what extent is terrorism religiously motivated, and to what extent is it politically motivated? Most Western readers, because of media coverage, will probably assume that much of so-called “Muslim” or “Islamic” terrorism” is religiously motivated. That, after all, is what the labels “Muslim” or “Islamic” implies. Yet this is not the conclusion of Robert Pape, who has written a book on this subject (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House). Pape writes:

The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign—more than 95% of all incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw. (cited is Esposito & Mogahed, p.77).

Elsewhere Pape writes:

Before our invasion, Iraq never had a suicide-terrorist attack in its history. Since our invasion, suicide terrorism has been escalating rapidly with 20 attacks in 2003, 48 in 2004, and over 50 in just the first five months of 2005. Every year that the United States has stationed 150,000 combat troops in Iraq, suicide terrorism has doubled. (Dying to Win, p. 130). 

Is, therefore, terrorism mainly politically motivated, rather than religiously motivated? This is a point for further discussion.

Finally, of course, the crucial point is: what do we do about terrorism? How de we lessen or ameliorate it? What actions of the U.S. and the West generally tend to provoke terrorism? The answer to this question depends partly on our answer to question two, above.