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The ‘Religion Factor’ and 21st Century Terrorism

Date:05 April 2014
Author:Religion Factor
An iconic image from the 11 September 2001 that sparked much of the renewed interest in the links between religion and terrorism. Source: WIkimedia common
An iconic image from the 11 September 2001 that sparked much of the renewed interest in the links between religion and terrorism. Source: WIkimedia common


Research and policy on terrorism in the 21st century seems to assume a strong link to religion and that this somehow makes 21st century terrorism unique in comparison to terrorism from previous historical periods. But is this really the case?  Christian Frank  explores these issues in today’s post.

Terrorism and terrorist activities are not a new phenomenon. What we today understand as “acts of terrorism” have been a significant part of social and political relationships for millennia.1 Nevertheless, the academic analysis of terrorism as a form of political violence is rooted in modernity. The term originates from the period of the grande terreur of the Jacobins who killed thousands of people during the quarrels of the French Revolution (1789 – 1794). Being a method to conduct political violence – ‘as a means to an end’, as a weapon designed for the weak against the strong – terrorism became an important parameter of international relations and affected us through the centuries to come.

What is significant for the 21st century is the fact that terrorism seems to be one of the major spooks that is perceived to endanger our everyday lives, since on September 11 three airplanes hit the symbols of US-American omnipresence; with two planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City and one aircraft severely damaging the Pentagon in Washington. Nearly thirteen years later the world community seems to acknowledge that the attacks on a sunny morning in September marked an end to the promising ‘end of history’. Follow up wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, extensive and sometimes dubious counter-terrorism efforts, as well as terrorist strikes all around the world have tremendously shaken the relationship between Muslim-, Christian- and Jewish culture. To make things worse, the proclaimed Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) of former US president George W. Bush has in parts demonized Islam and brought massive turmoil into the Middle East as well as South Asia. Yet in the discourses that surround the GWOT, it tends to be forgotten that Islam and Muslim culture in itself is not homogenous, but is extremely diverse, with substantial internal disagreements and dissonances. As such, representations of “Islam” as a key factor in the perceived increase in terrorism in the 21st century often ignore or overlook the complex ways in which religion is entangled with political, economic, social, cultural and ecological dynamics that contribute to tension and fuel resistance and opposition, occasionally manifesting in acts of terrorism.

Bearing in mind the difficulty to present an acceptable overall definition2, it is possible to summarise the general features of terrorism as the use of violence against innocent civilians as the weapon of the weak which is designed to achieve political objectives while action is committed by an organized group where either the perpetrator or the target of violence (or both!) are not part of a government3.

But what distinguishes 21st century terrorism from terrorism the world witnessed in later periods? Prominent scholars claim that terrorism today is mainly driven by religion and the belief in spreading the word of faith through the method of undiscriminated violence.4 It has in fact become obvious, that the resurgence of the ‘religion factor’ within international relations has smoothly replaced the communist ideology which was dominant during the days of the Cold War5. As postulated by the Marxist historian Mike Davis6, it is the faith in god which has filled the gap of social space in the 21st century, a space that in the 20th century was occupied by the Marxist-Leninist ideology.

But has the ‘religion factor’ within in terrorism truly been a new driving force of violence? I argue that it is not the case! First of all it is important to make clear that the method of terror is not static. It is fluid, not a prerequisite of a single group or ideological preference and always a specific product of the dominating zeitgeist or the social-political context it is born into. One of the most prominent studies, illustrating the change within the patterns of terrorism, has been lined out by the scholar David Rapoport. In his historical overview of modern terrorism, Rapoport (2002)7 basically identified four phases of terrorist actions. They are characterized as waves, are consecutive, but also overlapping and last about forty years:

• First Wave: Anarchist Terror of the the late 1880s until the 1920s. Main theaters of action were the Balkans, Russia, Western Europe and Asia. Initiated as propaganda of the deed, ‘first wavers’ were eager to assassinate prominent officials and relied on bank robberies in order to procure money.

• Second Wave: The anti-colonial wave emerged in the late 1920s and lasted until the 1960s. Triggered by the Versailles Peace Treaty and the proclaimed principle of national self- determination, indigenous people of the former European colonies were eager to gain independence from their colonial masters and used the method of terrorist action in order to achieve their goals.

• Third Wave: Also known as the ‘New Left Wave’, was triggered by the agonizing pictures of the Vietnam War. Terrorists were born out of the student revolts in the late 1960s and were inspired by a radical Marxist-Leninist attitude. Their main area of operations has been the Western World and they identified themselves as the vanguard of the suppressed masses in the ‘Third World’. Prominent actors were the Red Army Fraction (RAF) in West Germany, the Action Directe in France and the Japanese Red Army. ‘Third Wavers’ are known for their internationalism as western terror organizations closely worked together with organizations (e.g. PLO) from the Middle East. With the end of the 20th century this wave ceased to exist.

• Forth Wave: The year 1979 marked a significant date for the current phase of modern terrorism. With the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by radical Islamists, the ‘Fourth Wave’ of terrorism is tied to a strong religious agenda, which distinguishes itself from other periods of terrorist action8. Nevertheless, religion was important factor in other periods, too. Clearly separating religion from politics is hence difficult as immediate goals of terrorism are often political9: But today, religion has created a different significance because it justifies the establishing of a new world order10. With the Soviet Union retreating from Afghanistan at the the end of the Cold War, Muslim terrorists and insurgents, backed by the US, Saudi-Arabia and Pakistan, acted in the believe that faith is able to bring down world powers and secularism. It was predominantly the Al-Qaeda network which was eager to keep on fighting against Western hegemony (far enemy), mainly represented by the United States, but also apostate regimes in the Middle East (near enemy). Beside this, we have to be careful to restrict religious terrorism solely to Islam! Other religious affiliated terrorists also committed political violence. The Norwegian lone-wolf terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011, Timothy McVeigh in 1995, and not least the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, were inspired by a fundamentalist inter- pretation of Christianity, eager to kill and injure hundreds of innocent people in the name of a misguided faith.

Nevertheless, there has been religiously motivated terror way before the research of modern terrorism emerged. Political violence was already committed in the early stages of human history. One of the earliest recorded incidence of terrorism occurred in the years A.D. 66 – 73 in the Middle East. It was the Sicarii11 (dagger men) movement that exhibited as one of the first, aspects and methods of modern terrorism. The Sicarii were a religious sect located in Judaism and took part in the Zealot struggle against the Roman occupation of Judea. They conducted an underground campaign by either killing members of the Roman occupation forces or Jews who were suspected to collaborate with the Romans12. Another example were the Assassins in the eleventh century. The Assassins were a sectarian offshoot of Shia- Islam and acted mainly in Persia and the Levant. Eager to kill their victims with a dagger, they kept their operations in secrecy, as they were sometimes disguised in order to conceal their activities13. Prominent targets of the cult were Conrad of Montferrat, the Crusader King of Jerusalem, but also prefects, caliphs and governors14 The Assassins are said to be one of the first recorded, to follow the method of suicide terrorism as they were willing to die during their missions15.

While these examples are diverse, they all have something in common – and it is not religion. Terrorism of the ‘Fourth Wave’ and from former periods is a reaction to the ruling zeitgeist, the dominant worldview and values system. Al-Qaeda is regarded as the vanguard of contemporary terrorist action, but it is by no means the only one. Although the organization has a clear religious identity, it is also motivated by the unequal distribution of global power that dominated the unipolar world-system after the end of the Cold War16. As in the case of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated offshoots all around the world, it is in part a battle over identity. Muslim terrorists regard themselves as the acting vanguard in a fight over the survival of their culture, religion and way of living17. Islamic fundamentalists see their identity marginalized by Western beliefs in individualism, liberal democracy and capitalism. Although there are multiple forms of radical Islam, it is especially the radicalized, Sunni Islam à la Al- Qaeda, that is misused as a ‘just cause’ to fight the US and its allies which are seen as the forerunner of a unified, global culture.

Perhaps then, it is more accurate to describe the radicalization of religious beliefs, and global terrorism in its extreme form, as a ‘siren song of a counter-culture’, seeking to challenge hegemonic discourses that can be perceived to exclude the voices at the margins. Whether terrorism is an effective means for doing this or not, however, is a different question.

1. David C. Rapoport. 1984. „Terrorism in three religious traditions“ American Political Science Review 78(3): 658-677

2. Spencer, Alexander (2006): Questioning the Concept of ‘New Terrorism’. In: Peace Conflict & Development. Issue 8. p.440.

3. Lutz, James M. & Lutz, Brenda J. (2010): Terrorism. In: Collins, Alan: “Contemporary Security Studies”. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Hoffman, Bruce (2006): Inside Terrorism.Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press. p.82. & Rapoport, David (2002): The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11. In: Anthropoetics VIII, No.1.

5. Whelan, Richard (2011): Al-Qaeda’s Theorist. In: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. Volume 53, No.2. p.159.

6. Davis, Mike (2004): Planet of Slums. Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat. In: New Leftist Review. No. 26. p.30.

7. Rapoport, David (2002): The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11. In: Anthropoetics VIII, No.1. Accessed Online: [23rd March 2014]

8. Rasler, Karen & Thompson, William R. (2009): Looking for Waves of Terrorism. In: Terrorism and Political Violence. Volume 21, Issue 1. p.31

9. Sedgwick, Mark (2004): Al-Qaeda and the Nature of Religious Terrorism. In: Terrorism and Political Violence. Volume 16, No.4

10. Rapoport, David (2002): The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11. In: Anthropoetics VIII, No.1. Accessed Online: [23rd March 2014]

11. sica = short sword, that constitutes their favorite weapon

12. Laqueur Walter .(2001): A History of Terrorism. London: Transaction Publishers pp.6 – 7. Terrorism Research (2014): Early History of Terrorism. Terror in Antiquity: 1st – 14th Century AD. Accessed Online: [18th March 2014].

13. Laqueur, Walter (2001): A History of Terrorism. London: Transaction Publishers. p.8

14. Ibid. pp. 8 – 9.

15. Terrorism Research (2014): Early History of Terrorism. Terror in Antiquity: 1st – 14th Century AD. Accessed Online: [18th March 2014]. & Yonah, Alexander (2013): Terrorism Overview: History, Causes, and Definitions. In: Gürbüz U. (edit.): “Capacity Building in the Fight against Terrorism. Amsterdam: IOS Press BV.

16. Haynes, Jeffrey (2005): Al-Qaeda: Ideology and Action. In: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Volume 8, No.2. p.181. & Castells, Manuel (2010): The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Volume II. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell. p.20.

17. Haynes, Jeffrey (2005): Al-Qaeda: Ideology and Action. In: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Volume 8, No.2. pp.186 – 187.

Christian Frank is an intelligence officer of the German Armed Forces and is currently enrolled in the masters program “International Relations Online” at the Freie Universität Berlin. The above presented article is an abstract of the first part of his M.A. Thesis: “Explaining the patterns of 21st century terrorism: Why has the intensifying process of globalization in the post-Cold War era fostered the emergence of Al-Qaeda as a decentralized terror network?”


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