Terrorist organizations and movements that base their ideology on religion are nothing new. Such organizations have existed since at least the 1 Century CE/AD as the Jewish Zealots, through the Middle Ages’ Persian Assassins, and many others across all major religions through to our times.
In the last two decades of the 20th century ‘religiously inspired’ Islamist terrorist organizations have made their mark on the world under the name of Al-Qa’ida (1980s to 2000s), and Al-Qa’ida’s latest off-shoots in the 2000s to-date as so-called ISIS/Daesh, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the like in Syria, Iraq, and Libya – most notably.
While religious terrorism not limited to Islam, most media, academic, public policy and security attention in the last three decades has focused on the Islamist terrorist organizations. The crucial moment in both terrorist and counter-terrorist circles ― both theorists and practitioners ― as well as global public conscience, was reached on September 11, 2001 when the Al-Qa’ida linked terrorists had carried out an attack on New York’s Twin Towers. The US response to the attack was what is known as Global War on Terror (GWOT) which ultimately led to Iraq invasion in 2003. In different forms and locations the ‘War on Terror’ lasts until today, as does the Islamist terrorism in its various forms and guises.
Islamist Ideology Exploitation of Religion for Political Purposes
Majority of the Islamist terrorist organizations base their ideologies on quasi-theological and pseudo-religious interpretations by their often non-theologically educated or qualified leaders or ideologues of the particular segments of the Qu’ran and the Hadith. Through their ‘liberal’ and non-orthodox interpretations of Islamic sacred texts they decide who the true and untrue believers among fellow Sunni Muslims are and treat them according to their understanding of what is and what is not Islamic. Shia Muslims, Christians and other religions are not tolerated and are treated with even less mercy, usually resulting in violent deaths of massive numbers, torture, rape, slavery, and similar inhumane treatment.
Moreover, what makes these groups and/or movements different and perhaps more dangerous than not ‘religion inspired’ terrorist organizations is the fact they justify their terrific acts and merciless treatment of enemies on the premise of ‘doing the will of God’ by ridding the world of the unbelievers. The dangerous ideological belief that their atrocities are ‘dictated’ by their respective ‘god(s)’ serves as an absolution from crimes tactic, as well as a wide brush with which any opponent to their view of ‘the right religion’ or ‘way to worship’. A proof of this indiscriminate and paradoxical enemy labeling can be found in present day treatment of fellow Muslims by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Indiscriminate and paradoxical because the terrorist organizations are the ones who decide who the enemy is.
How ‘War on Terror’ and Islamist Terrorism Feed Off Each Other
Facts on the ground show that the 9/11 attack and the US retaliatory response have in different ways facilitated creation of deep and, for many, unbridgeable chasm between the West and the Muslim world.
This chasm is evident even in the respectable policy making circles in the West, where a particular political movement has been born that claims that Islam in itself is a problem, and that its values are incompatible with democracy and its values. Among Islamist extremist and terrorist groups and ideologies similar phenomenon has been registered over time ― that the Western world and its ‘liberal democracy’ are incompatible and indeed anti-Islamic.
The fact that the 9/11 attack inspired ‘War on Terror’ policy has led to numerous military interventions and invasion in Muslim countries only serves to feed this narrative and perpetuate the conflict by attracting more young Muslims to join the ranks of the terrorist organization who use the conflict to justify their existence. Another key element in the Islamist ideology is the idea of the Muslim world submission to the Western imperialism and the need for liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation. This narrative is exploited ad nauseam, since the 1970s PLO to Daesh in 2017, and every other Islamist terrorist faction in existence.
Another more sinister side of the modern day Islamist terrorist organizations however remains hidden from majority in the general public across the world. The criminal background of many of the terror groups’ members, the connections to the secret services and non-state actors such as global multinational corporations who use terrorist groups as proxy armies for the attainment of the economic supremacy over competitor countries and their populations are the less known side of the story.
Reporting of the Muslim Death Toll and the Real Victims of Terrorism
While Islamist terrorists have attacked the non-Muslim countries on many occasions, including frequent attacks in Europe in the last two years, the death toll in the Muslim world incurred by both the terrorist and the GWOT-response is hundred-fold, and somewhere on the scale of 1:10000. The balance sheet of the victims in the Muslim world, in other words, is incomparably higher than that of all terrorist attacks in the non-Muslim world combined.
Although these statistics are known and widely accepted in the knowledgeable academic and policy making circles, the global public is unaware and sometimes purposefully misled by the global media about the real nature of the Islamist terrorism and its threat to the Muslim world first and foremost. The issue of making the truth about the nature of Islamist terrorist organizations, both from the ideological and the practical point of view ― in terms of their real goals and criminal nature should be made the goal of media, academia and the policy making world.
The Way Forward in Counterterrorism
The threats posed by, the global existence and reach of Islamist terrorist groups are undeniable facts and should be taken with due seriousness by the entire global community, and their respective security forces.
Steps to tackle the issue of Islamist and other terrorism should include adherence to international laws pertaining to the prevention of global crime, multilateral cooperation, end of military interventionism under the guise of spreading of Western democracy to the ‘democracy incompatible’ Muslim world by the equivalent of the terrorists’ ‘Sword of the Prophet’.
By making both the Western public and their Muslim counterparts aware of the true nature of the terrorist groups and their ultimate goals would help curbing the spread of this dangerous movement. Demanding more accountability from their respective governments, policy makers and the media from both sides would greatly help.
Through international economic and policy cooperation, provision of educational opportunities and cultural exchange, especially among youth, building trust for the rule of law and respective governments would do more in a decade than have the nearly four decades of ‘peace by war’ policy of ‘War on Terror’.