Is terrorism caused by religion, or circumstances of oppression, be it economic or a military occupation from a foreign country? This question to me falls on the scale of nature and nurture. There are many people who believe Muslims represent the predominant threat because of their methods of terror; most notably suicide bombings. But is their religion in and of itself enough to come to this conclusion, and is their brand of violence inherently more dangerous than ours?
I’d like to dissect this as I see it, without appealing to graphs and data, as this topic stirs such visceral reactions that eyes go blind to data that points to any conclusion that contradicts the emotional surge of hate people have for certain ethnicities or religions. Islam especially. In this declaration of foregoing the appeal to empirical data, I am but presenting my humble perspective on this question, and am bound to ramble to and fro as I try and make sense of the topic.
What Is Terrorism?
The word terrorism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
What makes violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims more moral, ethical, or acceptable, if it is official or authorized? Who decides what we consider official or in a position to authorize such an attack? The latter question, on the face of it, is more easily answered. A sovereign nation, recognized by the international community, certainly has the clout to make these claims. Does that mean the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation, based on lies, were not an act of terror? And the drone strikes in Yemen, or Pakistan that have killed hundreds of innocents, and left thousands of others in fear and anxiety, is this not terrorism?
There are many circumstances that could be labeled – and are by many groups and some countries – as acts of terror, aside from those listed above. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinians is looked at by Palestinians, and much of the international community, as terrorism. In turn, Hamas firing rockets across the border is looked at by Israel and other international bodies as acts of terror. Where in the scheme of the broader view of warfare and occupations does religion play out?
While not unique to those terrorists who are Muslim, suicide attacks perhaps the most fearsome and emotionally jarring form of terrorism, and the one most ascribed to Muslim fundamentalists. This is the crust of the matter, so far as religion is concerned. As with all things, I see behaviors falling on that aforementioned scale of nature and nurture.
The religion, being the software run on the brain, falls under the category of nurture, as does the surrounding environmental conditions; a country occupied by a foreign invader, an impoverished people, or any other number of glaring variables. Nature, being one’s genetic predisposition towards violence, is easier to study, at least when it comes to sociopaths or violent behavior in general. Isolating actual terrorists, especially suicide bombers, to see how their brains operate obviously offers a far shallower pool of data.
Many acts of terror, such as the Oklahoma city bombing, were certainly arguably done out of political disgruntlement, and not religiously motivated. Other notoriously violent acts, such as the Sandy Hook massacre – which is not necessarily labeled a terrorist attack, as their is no evidence of a political agenda – don’t seem to have any deeper rational other than to appeal to the sometimes perverse and horrific nature of Man unconstrained by a healthy mind, and with access to deadly materials; in this case guns.
Is a massacre that is not motivated by a political or religious motivation any less heinous than one that is? This is where labels override statistics. 500 people can be shot to death a year in Chicago, but all the news media surrounding those tragedies pales in comparison to a terrorist attack that claims a dozen lives. There’s clearly a cognitive dissonance here caused by the emotional reaction to a type of violence, one that especially appeals to a mind colored with prejudice against a particular Other – be it religion or ethnicity.
What Part Then Does Religion Play?
It’s often said that there are no atheists in fox holes. A clever turn of phrase, and not actually true, but let’s explore that concept for a moment. Why would an atheist feel compelled to find god in a fox hole? Fear of death. If you believe that when you die you’ll go to heaven, or be rewarded with virgins, the sacrifice of one’s own life is in relative terms more bearable. Whatever the reason, we know that wanting something to be true does not make it true.
Before I go on a diatribe, I should point out that Steven Weinberg said it best:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Some methods of attack seem reasonably traced to scripture, using suicide bombings for an example. If one truly believes, at the level of the brain, that they will have an eternal and blissful reward, it is easier to take one’s own life. But this belief alone, or at least the words within the scripture, in isolation rarely lead people to commit acts of terror. Nothing occurs inside of a vacuum. If you have a genetic predisposition to violence, your people or country are oppressed, and you have the right ‘software’ running on the mind – and here religious software comes into play – that’s a recipe for terror.
Religion can play a more insidious and darker role though than a suicide attack from an Islamic extremist. When the US invaded Iraq it was in large part for oil, and while you can call it coincidence or poor wording that George W. Bush used the word ‘Crusade’, – just a stupid thing to say – we do need to examine something critical and disturbing. A large voting segment of the US, Evangelical Christians most, believe war in the Middle East, and especially in and around Israel, is a sign of ‘The End Times’.
The End Times
Is America’s support of Israel really in the best interests of the Israeli people? On the face of it, yes. Without the US Israel would have far less economic and associated military might, surrounded by countries that would smile to see them wiped off the map. Though with an extreme right wing government in place in Israel, and with the US thirsting for a war with Iran, we should not discount the religious motivations of many of those people in power. Perhaps these motivations aren’t even fully conscious; the mind has mechanisms to hide heinous truths from oneself to preserve a semblance of sanity, but let’s look at this a bit closer.
If you truly believe in revelations, that Jesus will return and there will be a rapture, then you’re rooting for the end of the world. Biblical prophecy surrounding the Jews returning to Israel and great wars erupting there are, to the eyes of believers, a sure sign of the end times. I’ve seen it preached when attending an Evangelical Church with my parents in law on more than one occasion. To many of them it’s the most exciting prospect they have in their lives, and it’s why so many of them so fervently want you to accept Jesus, because they don’t want to see you face the dark tide that is coming. But in the end, their faith inspires a desire that this rapture be true, that they will spend eternity with Jesus up in heaven, while the rest of the world is torn asunder.
Scripture: A Pathway To Peace, Or Terrorism?
Both. In the Old Testament there’s slavery, genocide, and unfathomable acts of immorality and terror. But you don’t see the majority of Jews and Christians committing acts of terrorism, just as you don’t see the majority of Muslims committing acts of terrorism. What you do see in the Muslim world is a less organized and often lethal response to slights against their religion; such as the Danish cartoonists for putting out a comic with Mohammed in it, or violent riots springing up in the wake of a burnt ‘holy book’. What you see in the Western world, be it religiously motivated or not, are more organized attacks; ones that result in the death of hundreds of thousands, and the occupation of entire countries.
The majority of politicians in the US profess to be Christian, and many seem to be leaning uncomfortably towards the fundamentalist end of the spectrum. Many will claim – others won’t even make this claim – that they can and will separate their beliefs from public policy decisions, but is this even possible?
Beliefs Do Matter
Beliefs matter when it comes to who you vote for, or if you’re a politician what you vote on, and how you react to circumstances in general. To the degree you believe in the literal word of god the less you can honestly proclaim to be able to separate your religious beliefs from your behavior. For instance, if we have a President who can’t wait for the rapture and believes he’s living in the end times, that should give us pause, and great concern, that he’s well placed to unleash a nuclear holocaust.
Terrorism, however you define it, is a problem. But what we should be careful to do is to keep the word in perspective. It’s violence in general, be it a war, a drone strike, or a shooting massacre, that is the overriding problem.
I would like to give you, the reader, a wider perspective as to how we view violence and warfare in general. Whether it’s small groups of religiously motivated ‘freedom fighters’, or the most powerful militaries in the world belonging to nations that stand top tier on the international stage, violence is perpetuated everyday. Using the word terrorism in place of massacre, war or murder should not be as provocative as it has become. Yes, religion has something to do with certain instances of terrorism, and especially the methodology employed, but to become fixated on one type of religion for its extremists and adherence to certain pieces of its doctrine, is to have a narrow perspective.
A War On Ideas, Not People
We need to fight a battle of ideas, not with violence and vengeance, but with good ideas and good arguments. Violence does beget violence. While a few tactical strikes to eliminate terrorists who have committed grievous crimes is warranted, going to war for a decade and occupying entire countries is not. Nor is the Patriot Act necessary, for that piece of Orwellian double speak legislation is a surrender to terrorism. To give up our rights, and our peace of mind, and to foster hatred in our hearts, poisons our neighbors and our country. Near all that has been done in response to 9/11 has served as recruiting tools for terrorist groups. We’re giving them their own propaganda tools. We’re giving them actual reasons to hate us and for them to view their scripture in a way that will make it easier to carry out acts of terrorism and violence.
The late Christopher Hitchens said that religion poisons everything. I love that guy, and miss him. I am not so bold as to make that declaration though. Instead I would say religion poisons most things. This is a more easily defensible stance, and as I am not imbued with the intellect to deliver a Hitch-Slap off the cuff whenever required, I feel on safer footing providing that nuance. What I do strongly assert is that violence and acts of terror would occur without religion, but if you add religion to the mix, it becomes a more volatile and destructive brew.
Here’s a debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges that is perhaps more informative and entertaining than the above article, which I thank you for reading. I hope if you do watch the video, the above may in some way add context. Sam Harris is great, but on this particular topic I’m not entirely with him, though nor am I fully with Chris Edges. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure where I am. Enjoy.