Islamic terrorism is currently perceived in the media and by most Americans as the most significant threat to global peace. The conflict is most often seen as a so-called “clash of civilizations,” in which Western ideals of democracy and religious freedom are under attack by an Islamic “fundamentalism” which hates both. It is the purpose of this study to examine the elements within contemporary Islam that seem to give rise to terrorism and to uncover the root causes of the phenomenon. In addition, we will propose strategies for counteracting or neutralizing the threat of terrorism.
The Wahhabist threat ?
Viewed from the perspective of the Qur’an, Islam is in itself largely a religion of mercy, compassion, and peace, and the vast majority of its adherents are peace-loving (Abou El Fadl, 11). For them jihad refers simply to the inner “striving” of individual believers to serve God. Historically, however, the term has also held an outward interpretation in regard to the struggle against infidels.
The spread of terrorism and terrorist groups within the Muslim world today, however, has often been blamed on a particular reform movement within Islam called Salafism, more commonly referred to by its Saudi form Wahhabism, a puritanical or fundamentalist movement originating in Arabia. Wahhabism urges its followers to a more stringent life based on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. If it had not been for the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, Wahhabism might have remained just one of many regional expressions of Islam. Today, however, the Saudi monarchy, which has long identified itself with the movement, zealously pumps billions of dollars each year into the spread of Wahhabist doctrine worldwide.
Fundamentalism in general (whether Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Christian) is a global phenomenon. Its appeal lies in its ability to simplify the complexities of life into dualistic terms (good versus evil, light versus darkness) and to channel the anger of those who (like many Muslims) are disaffected by modernism or marginalized by globalization. Although Salafism’s austere tendencies and intolerance may indeed provide soil favorable to the growth of violent jihad (Salafism is quite diverse, but there is a small branch that both justifies and advocates terrorism), the spread of this movement is not the cause of terrorism (Economist). Instead, the chief blame for Islamic terrorism, whether against the West or against Middle Eastern regimes, must be attributed to the ongoing history of Western colonialism and economic and cultural imperialism in the region.
Western colonialism today
For the average Muslim, colonialism is not dead; it is alive and well in the West’s continued military interventions and its cultural and economic dominance in the Muslim world, including support for repressive, pro-Western regimes (the former Shah of Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Syria are a few examples). Similarly, the recent rise in Muslim violence against Christians (in particular in Sudan, Egypt, and Iraq), is rooted not so much in ancient rivalries between the two religions as in current hostilities between East and West. Such attacks are most often sparked by Western, especially American, interference in the region. Local Christians become targets because they are seen as allied with the West (a view that stretches back to the Crusades in the eleventh century) and thus become the nearest receptacle for Muslim rage.
U.S. intervention, bombing and drone campaigns:
The conflict we are now engaged in is really one of perception, that is, how people in the Muslim world see America. In 2004 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked the Pentagon’s own Science Board Task Force to study the impact of administration policies (specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism and Islamic radicalism. Not surprisingly, the report found that “…Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security and reduced ability to leverage diplomatic opportunities.” Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, and detention policies are meant to make us safe, we are told. In reality, they have had the opposite effect of radicalizing more and more Muslims and making the U.S. increasingly hated in the Islamic world. In fact, our foreign policies of the last fifteen years are probably the best public relations tool al-Qaeda or ISIS ever had. According to the report,
America’s direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights and the long-standing and even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States… Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be… deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination (DOD study, quoted in Greenwald).
Farea al-Muslimi, a young U.S.-educated Yemeni activist with deep ties to America, testified before a 2013 Senate hearing on President Obama’s controversial assassination program. Speaking with great emotion about the bombing of his own village by a drone, he said,
What Wessab’s villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time….What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America (Al-Muslimi, 3-4).
It is believed among some terrorism experts that Osama bin-Laden had planned all along for the U.S. to be drawn into an unwinnable ground war in Afghanistan: that our great military machine, like that of other empires before us, would founder upon that country’s unforgiving terrain and resilient population, and that we would be both bankrupted and exposed as the cruel imperial tyrant hiding behind the mask of freedom and democracy. Empires, after all, do not die in battle; they collapse from within, usually through overextending themselves. Bin-Laden ought to know: he assisted in the demise of the U.S.S.R. “We, alongside the mujahiddin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt,” he once boasted (Klein).
Muslims see that the U.S. lacks consistency between its rhetoric and international actions, that the U.S. is, and has always been, a nation tragically at odds with itself. We stand for one thing, but pursue another. We speak soaring words that make the world dream– of freedom, democracy and the sacred rights of humanity– but too often our ambassadors are not Jefferson or Lincoln; they are Caterpillar, Monsanto, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blackwater.
Blowback is the term government personnel use to describe the sometimes violent reaction in response to a military or covert U.S. action. For example, sixty-three years later we are still reaping the fruit of the CIA’s toppling of Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, and replacing him with an absolute monarchy. Supporting repressive regimes is convenient in the short term, but very costly in the long run. We cannot treat the Middle East as we do Central America.
The power of humanitarian aid
For fifteen years the U.S. has waged war in revenge for 9-11, “to make America safe.” Sadly, however, the real war we are fighting is really one against poverty and fear, oppression and ignorance, corruption and greed, and we are fighting such a war with daisy cutter bombs and drones—exactly as the terrorists would have us do—instead of helping to plant crops, building schools, or sending food and medical supplies.
Following the great Kashmir earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami disasters, both in 2005, the arrival of U.S. aid to these afflicted regions was not only greeted favorably by local populations, it also had a surprising impact on how the U.S. is viewed. Both the New York Times and Washington Post ran articles about this phenomenon:
A survey of 1,200 Indonesians one month after the tsunami…conducted by a leading Indonesian pollster, found that, for the first time, more Indonesians (40 percent) supported the U.S. terrorism fight than opposed it (36 percent). Sixty-five percent of those surveyed had a more favorable impression of the United States, with support strongest among those younger than 30, while support for Osama bin Laden dropped from 58 percent before the tsunami to 23 percent… Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston…said the experience in Indonesia could easily be replicated in Pakistan. Haqqani, a former adviser to several Pakistani political leaders, said that anti-American Islamic groups have begun to realize this and have opposed the U.S. aid because “this may take the wind out of their sails” (Kessler).
Al-Muslimi made a similar point in his testimony before the Senate and urged the U.S. to reevaluate the effectiveness of its drone policy in the light of more humanitarian goals:
There is nothing villagers in Wessab needed more than a school to educate the local children or a hospital to help decrease the number of women and children dying every day. Had the United States built a school or hospital, it would have instantly changed the lives of my fellow villagers for the better and been the most effective counterterrorism tool. And I can almost certainly assure you that the villagers would have gone to arrest the target themselves. Instead of first experiencing America through a school or a hospital, most people in Wessab first experienced America through the terror of a drone strike (Al-Muslimi, 3-4).
Reducing tensions in the Palestinian-Zionist crisis
In addition, a solution must be found to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict, which adherents to Islam worldwide tend to see as most symbolic of the injustices committed by the West against Muslims. In the eyes of most Arab Muslims, it was the West, specifically Britain, who seized control of Palestine after the First World War, allowed a flood of Jewish immigration, then essentially abandoned the local Arabs to their fate. Former President Jimmy Carter has been active in the peace process since his presidency. His organization, the Carter Center, has been in Palestine helping to negotiate peace for decades. In his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he states emphatically:
Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.…The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or even abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories (Carter).
Since the birth rate among Palestinians far outpaces that of Israelis, the so-called two-state solution is the only viable alternative for peace. Yet, to achieve this goal, Israel must cease its occupation and settlement building. To make the Israeli government amenable, Washington must apply pressure by threatening to cut off aid. (Israel now accounts for one quarter of all American foreign aid.) Most Israeli politicians would tremble, since they rely so heavily on U.S. gifts to maintain their massive military arsenal, the largest in the region. Yet taking such a hard line would mean standing up to the powerful Israel lobby in Washington (AIPAC), of which American conservative evangelicals also form no small part. For this to happen, the American public must pressure Washington. For the public to pressure Washington, they must first be told the truth. The old media narrative of a beleaguered Israel defending itself against unjustified Arab hostility must be replaced with a more balanced view that shows Israeli acts of brutality and oppression for what they are and a more human, less demonized view of Palestinians in their quest for survival. This could be achieved chiefly through a steady stream of accurate information leaked to key media outlets. It might also prove advantageous to exploit the current growing rift between younger Jewish-Americans (as well as young conservative evangelicals) and the Zionist old guard by exposing and marginalizing the latter’s views. Unless the U.S. takes this hard line, the situation will only grow worse. Tensions in the Middle East will continue to boil, providing more and more fodder for violent jihad against the West, until the U.S., too, like Israel, becomes an armed camp.
Achieving energy independence
Lastly, from the toppling of Mossadegh (1953) to the invasion of Iraq (2003), the underlying motivation for U.S. military intervention and support of dictatorships in the region has always been oil (Betz). Also, of the seven states that have appeared on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, five are major oil exporters (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria [Wenar, 84]). Achieving energy independence at home would thus reduce the need to project American power abroad or to prop up repressive regimes (such as Saudi Arabia). As one former Department of Energy official emphatically believes, “a combination of measures to reduce oil imports reduces the need for an American military presence in the Middle East” (Hakes, 8). In addition, although Wahhabism itself cannot be eradicated, its spread and influence could be limited over time by reducing the financial power that backs it (i.e., Saudi oil). To achieve this, the U.S. and its allies must be more aggressive in their pursuit of renewable energies.
It is the finding of this study that the rise in global terrorism is not so much linked to Islam in general but to particular trends within Islam, which are in turn a reaction against past Western imperialism and continued interference in the Muslim world. It is thus a conflict rooted more in history than in religion. Instead of playing a violent and futile game of Whack-a-Mole with terrorists around the globe, which has been clearly shown only to increase hostility toward America, the U.S should focus more on aid and humanitarian relief, which have been shown to have a significant impact on how the U.S. is perceived, thus undercutting terrorist recruitment. In order to heal its image abroad, the U.S. must also cease its support for repressive regimes, in particular its complicity in the continued occupation and oppression of Palestine.
Abou El Fadl, Khaled. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. New York: Harper-Collins, 2005.
Al-Muslimi, Farea. Testimony before U.S. Senate, “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing,” 23 April 2013. http://www.judiciary.senate.gov. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
Betz, Charles. “Blood, Oil and Ecology.”
Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Greenwald, Glenn. “A Rumsfeld-Era Reminder about What Causes Terrorism.” Salon (20 October 2009). Retrieved 10 June 2016.
Hakes, Jay. Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and The Environment. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
Kessler, Glenn and Robin Wright. “Earthquake Aid for Pakistan Might Help U.S. Image,” Washington Post (13 October 2005). http://www.washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
Klein, Ezra. “Bin Ladin’s War against the U.S. Economy,” Washington Post (3 May 2011). http://www.washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
“Salafism: Politics and the Puritanical,” The Economist (27 June 2015). http://www.economist.com. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
Wenar, Leif. Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. New York : Oxford University Press, 2016.