Total Pageviews

Monday, 17 October 2011

1.9 – Conclusion: Is Religion Really to Blame?

Drawing conclusions relating to religion per se is a complex process due to its very nature and the bold interpretation and reworking of texts and tradition that often accompanies it. Theories concerning human belief systems and levels of faith and religion are difficult to prove – ‘religion can never be fully explained, in part because there is no essence of religion that can finally be reified’[1] – and no religious conclusion is so clearly defensible or demonstrable that it could be presented as the only sufficient perspective. Achieving total neutrality can also be problematic as religion is a very personal concept, and the deep religiosity that forms the platform for terrorist action cannot usually be fully understood or related to unless one adheres to the same belief system – in most instances, a lack of unwavering faith precipitates a lack of belief in the viability of religion as the root cause of terrorism.

However this article will attempt to conclude whether faith is the prominent root cause for terrorist violence by drawing on the themes addressed in the main body of text and dissecting the two main arguments used to try and disprove faith’s place in terrorism – firstly that scriptural reinterpretation renders the text void of divine legitimacy, and secondly that religion is used as a front to gain support for political and nationalist goals.  

It has been previously noted that terrorist groups belonging to all three faiths employ narrow scriptural readings and adhere to somewhat distorted literary interpretations to provide support for their own goals. Although adherents claim promote a literal interpretation of sacred texts and total religious purity their principles appear to be ‘a blend of amendments to and a convenient exegesis of…sacred texts’[2].  Radical clerics exercise great creativity in order to justify the utilization of theological concepts. They are:

Highly selective in their choice and interpretation of sacred texts…they discard the time-honoured methods developed by the jurists and theologians for testing the accuracy and authenticity of orally transmitted traditions, and instead accept of reject even sacred texts according to whether they support or contradict their own dogmatic and militant positions.[3]

Referring to Christianity, Al-Khattor claimed such readings, ‘can justify any act you want it to justify. In the process of justification one may say I must do this (violent act or terrorist act) because this is holy. You can find within Christian scriptures, justification for anything you want to do’.[4] Within religious militancy, holy verses advocating violence are also given prominence over those preaching peace and restraint, and  groups ‘transform abstract political ideologies into a religious imperative, [wherein] violence is not only sanctioned, it is divinely decreed’. This has prompted the hypothesis that holy texts become void as sources of undefiled spiritual authority and legitimacy if they undergo critical exegesis or selective methods of textual understanding. For example, Rogers said of Islamism: ‘It is a bigoted form of religion that they’ve made up themselves…it is obviously based around their version of Islam, which I don’t think is Islam.’[5]

However, within Judaism and Islam there are principles that justify, if not demand, the application of clerical reinterpretation. Within the Jewish faith, the rabbinical consensus decrees that the method of scriptural discussion and interpretation is in itself an essential part of the study of the Torah. Torah has two meanings – either referring to the literal scroll of Holy Scriptures, or the process of interpreting the Torah, (as exemplified in the rabbinic discussions and the Talmud). The second understanding portrays Biblical study and interpretation as legitimate within the faith, which explains the differing schools of thought within Jewish sects. A classic example of rabbinic discussion is centred on a passage in Deuteronomy: ‘hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live’ (Deut 4:1). The word live has been highlighted by Jewish scholars to mean that God‘s rules, which would usually be strictly adhered to, may be overlooked in situations of life and death - the key is the preservation of life. Such interpretation is frequently employed by religious terrorists from all faith denominations, as they claim existing in a constant state of perilous cosmic war allows for the disregard of key dogmatic principles – ‘thou shalt not murder (Ex 20:13) -  as they take up arms to defend their lives and their faith, which are in jeopardy.[6]

Within Islam, ijtihad refers to a concept that also provides theological justification on the basis that Qur’anic tenets may be revised so they can cater to the changing times and geopolitical needs of the global Islamic community. Within Islamic law Ijtihad ‘allows for the process of religious decision making by independent interpreters of the Qur’an and the Shariat…on a personal level [it] vests each Muslim with the freedom to interpret the Qur’an and determine the extent to which it will influence their lives’.[7] Adherents can decide which laws of the Shariat to emphasize in their Qur’anic interpretations by invoking ijtihad, which explains why different Islamic practises have emerged, including militant fundamentalism.[8] The practise of scriptural revision thus qualifies as being theologically sound, (at least within Judaism and Christianity) and religious extremists often use ijtihad to provide Islamic legitimisation for their violent actions.

The second line of argument opposing the notion that faith plays a paramount role within extremist doctrine suggests that politics and desire for land and economic gain are the real motivations behind violence, and religion plays only a minor motivational role. It is true that ‘terrorist insurgencies do not emerge in a political, socio-economic, religious, or even psychological vacuum’[9] and the root cause of their violent behaviour consists of ‘multiple combinations of factors and circumstances’.[10] However, Judaism and Islam in particular, are not secular religions; they are ‘total civilisations, encompassing every aspect of the life of the individual as well as the community.’[11] Religion is relevant in every aspect of life and geopolitical elements, nationalist aspirations, and faith have become indistinguishable from each other. Neumann states, ‘…bin Laden’s appeal in some parts of the Muslim world is not based on deep religious conviction but stems, to a large extent, from the political grievances he articulates’. He continues to say however, that ‘Al Qaeda and its ideology would make little sense if one were to eliminate the religious element altogether’.[12]

Does statement like ‘nationalism is part and parcel of religious creed’[13] and the description of religious terrorism as ‘political theology’,[14] imply that extremist ideology was developed deliberately to entice individuals to groups for political means, or do followers believe beyond doubt that the apparent synonymy between politics and faith is the legitimate and pure version divine will? It is hard to give a definite answer, but either way, terrorists belonging to all faiths refer overwhelmingly to theology and religious symbolism and history, and employ well-established mainstream religious concepts to define their goals. It would certainly be wrong to conclude that faith plays no role in the complex ideologies of religious terrorist groups, for even though terrorist’s goals and objectives may be political in the sense they address worldly issues, the root causes, motivation and justification for their behaviour are undoubtedly religious.

Despite arguments referring to the ideological mixtures of extremist groups and their use of scriptural reinterpretation, this paper adheres to Dr Hoffman’s earlier definition and believes that if a group refers to liturgy, religious symbolism, or religious texts as justification, they should be defined as religious terrorists. ‘The religious imperative for terrorism is the most important defining characteristic of terrorist activity today.’[15] While it is never possible to prove whether an individual or group is motivated by one particular belief, it would be prudent to conclude that religion certainly plays an important role within religious extremist doctrine and provides a major root cause of violence.

[1] Wellman & Tokuno (2004), p. 1
[2] Rosnes (2008), p.12
[3] Lewis (2003), p. 118
[4] Al-Khattor (2003), p.58
[5] Rogers et al (2007),  p. 258
[6] This understanding is equally as relevant in Jewish daily life. Rabbinical consensus agrees, for example, that if one’s life is in jeopardy, the flesh of a swine may be consumed as a last resort, despite Leviticus 11:7-8 commanding, ‘and the swine…of their flesh shall ye not eat…’
[7] Venkatraman (2007), p. 14
[8] The other three are: Traditionalism, Pragmatism, and Modernism.
[9] Sinai (2005), p. 215
[10] Ibid
[11] Weinburg & Pedahzur (2004), p. 77
[12] Neumann (2005), p. 42
[13] Article 12, The Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)
[14] Neumann (2005), p. 43
[15] Hoffman (2006), p. 82


  1. This reminds me of a blog entry I wrote 6 months or so ago, arguing for the uselessness of the term 'religious terrorism'.

  2. It was once my view that belief in God would fade as society moved forward and populations became more educated. But now I realise the error of my thinking. I failed to factor in the fact that religion is essentially great business. Those who wield religion as their product are able to gain considerable power and wealth. The business model seems very sound. Because there are so many people in hopeless situations, there is a great market for "hope", a product that costs nothing and easy to sell.