I think we all know the script now. A terrorist attack occurs. Hours later, the world learns the identity of the attacker (or, the identities of the attackers). Then comes the inevitable question, “What was the motive?” We wait and a familiar narrative emerges, but we can usually guess the conclusion.
Sometimes a consensus is quick. Few disagree, for instance, that Anders Breivik was motivated by xenophobia and ultranationalism when he killed 77 fellow Norwegians in 2011, or that anti-Muslim bigotry propelled Darren Osbourne to plough his car into a crowd of Muslims near the Finsbury Park Mosque in London in June 2017.
Yet other times, particularly when the perpetrators are Muslims, such a consensus becomes elusive. At least that is what we are told. Suddenly the motive becomes complicated. We’re told that the attackers could have been influenced by any number of factors, and for some — including many journalists, pundits, social scientists, terrorism experts, even heads of government— there is one factor that did not, or even could not, play a role: and that is the terrorists’ stated faith.
A week after the Westminster attack in March 2017, journalist Mehdi Hasan offered this argument in an article with the title, “You Shouldn’t Blame Islam for Terrorism. Religion Isn’t a Crucial Factor in Attacks.”
According to Hasan, Islam is not the “main motivation” in Muslim terror attacks, and if the attackers do cite religion as an influence, it is because they are “cynically appealing to Radical Islamic motifs or doctrines” that provide “a ready-made justification” for their violence.
A week after the 2013 murder of British Army soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, Hasan wrote in the New Statesman that “Muslim extremists usually cite political, not theological, justifications for their horrendous crimes.” As evidence, Hasan cites the words of Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men who killed Rigby: “The only reason we killed this man…is because Muslims are dying daily.”
He omits (because his argument depends on ignoring half of what jihadists say) Adebolajo’s multiple references to Islam during his 80-second on-camera rant. “By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone,” he said, his blood-soaked hands holding two blood-soaked knives. “So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands?” And, clearly providing a religious justification for his act, Adebolajo said, “We are forced by the Qur’an in Surat at-Tawba [the ninth chapter of the Qur’an], through many many [verses] throughout the Qur’an, that we must fight them as they fight us.”
Adebolajo’s statements indicate that we shouldn’t understand Islamist terrorist motives as being either political or religious. Rather, we should recognise that, in the mind of the jihadist, the two domains are inseparable. Simply put, their theological convictions inform their political beliefs.
That Adebolajo was not just using Islamism, the Qur’an, and Sharia as an “excuse” is evident by looking at the ten years that preceded his assassination of Rigby. After enrolling at Greenwich University in London in 2003, he began mingling with Islamists, including members of alal-Muhajiroun (a group once co-led by Anjem Choudary, recently found guilty of inviting support for the Islamic State). In 2006, Adebolajo participated in a demonstration outside the trial of Mizanur Rahman who had called for “another 9/11” in countries “all over Europe” in response to the publication of the Danish cartoons caricaturing Muhammad.
2009, Adebolajo attended a protest of the EDL (English Defence League, insisting those in attendance convert; and a year later he was apprehended and returned to the United Kingdom after attempting to emigrate to Somalia, where he hoped to live under Islamic law). Abebolajo’s interpretation of Islam was not an inconsequential factor in his radicalisation or his justification for murder.
And this is not a one-off. Countless Islamist terrorists have demonstrated that their political grievances and terrorist acts are inspired by a sincere belief in a radical interpretation of Islam.
Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, wrote a letter to his co-conspirators drenched with references to martyrdom and the glory awaiting them in paradise. (“Be happy, optimistic, calm because you are heading for a deed that God loves and will accept,” Atta instructed the attackers. “It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.”)
And two individuals who appeared in the 2016 Channel 4 documentary entitled The Jihadis Next Door later went on to commit acts of terror: one, Abu Rumaysah, became an executioner for ISIS, and another, Khuram Shazad Butt, led the group of terrorists that carried out the London Bridge attack in June 2017.
Of course, members of the “it’s-not-Islam” crowd will argue that these terrorists have followed a perverted version of Islam. But a reading of Islam’s most revered and influential texts — including the Qur’an, hadiths (collections of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad), the biographies of Muhammad, and tafaseer (commentaries by respected Islamic scholars) — indicates that all this violence follows Islamists’ accepted interpretation of the religion. The Qur’an is not written in a concurrent timeline. The beginning is not the earliest event and the end not the last. Tommy Robinson and Peter McLoughlin have written Mohammed’s Koran that does indeed put it in a chronological order.
Islamists express a desire to establish a religious state and resurrect a vast caliphate. They are following the Qur’an. Verse 18:26 of the Qur’an says that Allah “shares not His legislation with anyone,” and verse 4:59 declares, “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day.”
Some radical Islamist groups argue that violence can be used to restore religious rule in territory once controlled by Muslims that has ceased to be sufficiently governed by Islamic law. That would mean that Bradford, Birmingham and parts of East London can be subject to open jihad!
One verse that supports this argument is 5:50, which reads, “Is it the judgment of [the time of] ignorance they desire? But who is better than Allah in judgment for a people who are certain [in faith]?”
There are, of course, tolerant and peaceful verses in the Qur’an like ‘There is no compunction to religion’ or ‘Transgression should not be done’ But these are early in the timeline. The belligerent verses that came toward the end of Muhammad’s career — when the Muslims’ military and political power were ascendant and they override the more tolerant verses.
Other statements from Qur’anic texts also lend themselves to justifying the use of violence to spread submission to the one true faith. (The word Islam actually means submission, or ‘to submit’.)
The two most trusted hadith collections (Bukhari and Muslim) testify to Muhammad declaring, “I have been commanded to battle mankind until they declare that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
Also Ibn Khaldun wrote, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation) to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam, so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them at the same time.”
The verses, hadiths, and commentaries cited above all provide a firm theological basis for Islamists’ desire to legislate and enforce Sharia and jihadists’ use of violence to topple secular regimes and establish a religious state. But this still leaves us with the issue of Islamist terrorism, including why it is carried out and how the terrorists justify killing civilians — and even themselves.
As the statements by Tsarnaev and Adebolajo prove, many Islamist terrorists see their attacks as a legitimate form of defensive jihad.
Terrorist attacks cannot be viewed as distinct from radical Islam’s stated goal of toppling regimes and creating a pan-Islamic state. Osama bin Laden explained the singular purpose behind al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Muslim world and the West this way in his ‘Letter To America’ in 2002: “The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah, to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine. And our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you” [emphasis added]. And in a 2016 article entitled “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You” published in its magazine Dabiq, ISIS explained that it hates and fights the West, first and foremost, not because of its foreign policy but because of its disbelief. “The gist of the matter is that there is indeed a rhyme to our terrorism, warfare, ruthlessness, and brutality,” the article explains. “We have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah — for those afforded this option — and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims.”
Some have seized on and applied this rationale to justify terrorist attacks on civilians. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the world, stated that Israeli women and children can be targeted because of Israel’s law mandating a stint of military service (even though many potential conscripts are granted exemptions).
Al-Qaeda has stated that attacking Western civilians is justified because of their collective political support for governments that engage in hostilities in Muslim lands.
Takfir is a component of Islam, dating back to the Sunni-Shi’a split and the Kharijites of the seventh century. It was used most notoriously by Ibn Taymiyyah, who argued in fatwas around the year 1300 that Muslim Mamluk troops could engage in battle against the invading Mongols despite their leader’s recent conversion to Islam. The Mongols, Ibn Taymiyyah claimed, were not true Muslims because of the influence of Shi’ite and Mongol beliefs and customs on their society.
In recent decades, jihadist groups have used takfir as a justification for killing both troops and civilians.
Finally, there is the controversy over suicide terrorism — whether Muslims can kill themselves while attacking the enemy. At first glance, it appears that Islam prohibits such actions. Indeed, verse 4:29 says, “And do not kill yourselves.”
Verse 4:74, however, encourages martyrdom by promising “a great reward” to those who “fight in the cause of Allah” and “sell the life of this world for the Hereafter.”
Numerous hadiths indicate that Muhammad approved of fighters entering battle against overwhelming odds, even if their death was all but certain. According to one, Muhammad said, “In order that the people have a livelihood, it is best that they have a man who holds on to the reins of his horse, battling in the way of Allah. He flies upon [his horse’s back] every time he hears the call or alarm, wishing for death or expecting to be slain.” There are so many references in the Islamic scriptures that can be interpreted so as to allow force, coercion and domination of others, meaning Islamists see it as a manifesto of global control, by fair means or foul. The latter being demonstrated too many times over the 1400 year history for it to be coincidence.
The point of the above is this:
First, they counter arguments about the motives of radical Islamic terrorists. Yes, these terrorists do harbour political grievances against Western powers. But these grievances derive from their beliefs. They are living out an extreme yet learned interpretation of the faith.
Second, some argue, for instance, that terrorism cannot be a cause of jihadist and terrorist violence because throughout its 1,400-year history, not all Muslims have exhibited such behaviour. A worrying number have though.
As Fareed Zakaria put it in a Washington Post editorial in 2014, “You can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause. So, if you are asserting that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant — ‘the mother lode of bad ideas’ — then, since Islam has been around for 14 centuries, we should have seen 14 centuries of this behaviour.” Well, I personally, would argue we have: the above examples being just a few available.
Finally, there is a alleged practical benefit to establishing the connection between militant Islam and Islamism, jihadism, and terrorism. Grasping this connection is essential to understanding the beliefs, we are told, and motivations of the radical groups at odds with the West. They are at odds with civilisation itself.
We should pay attention when ISIS says “We will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or — as a last means of fleeting respite — a temporary truce.”
Mutual coexistence with Islamism is impossible. We need learn this lesson sooner rather than later.