How Religious Extremism Changed the Face of Terrorism

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

How Religious Extremism Changed the Face of Terrorism

Posted on: 9th January 2017
Alon Burstein
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, PhD candidate

Over the past thirty years, religiously motivated groups have become the dominant actors using terrorism and sub-state violence. While, until the mid-1980s, conflicts such as those in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, and the Philippines were dominated by secular-nationalist, sometimes Marxist groups, religious sub-state actors have infiltrated and become dominant in nearly all asymmetrical conflicts worldwide. Even new emerging conflicts which begin as nationalistic or ethnic, such as the Syrian or Lebanese civil wars, have spiraled to include, and often become dominated by, religiously motivated groups. Has academic research fully understood the influence of this change?

Academics studying religiously motivated terrorism suggest that, unlike secular terror organisations, religious groups do not see themselves as engaged in an earthly conflict against an enemy that has committed some historic wrong.1Such as Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New-York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (California, Los-Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2003); Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New-York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003). Rather, they see themselves as soldiers in the army of God, fighting against ‘His’ enemies as part of a larger cosmic, eternal battle of good against evil. Two main outcomes of this crucial difference are predicted in the literature: 1) religious groups will tend to carry out deadlier, more extreme acts of violence as they are trying to destroy a demonic enemy rather than convince their earthly enemy to do something; and 2) religious groups will not negotiate or accept anything less than total victory, as their success has been prophesised by God Himself. How far are these theoretical predictions borne out by facts on the ground?

At first glance, both prophesies appear accurate. The most extreme terrorist attacks, including 9/11, chemical terrorism in Tokyo, and the lion's share of suicide attacks over the past 45 years, have been committed by groups guided by a religiously inspired ideology. In addition, these attacks are often not accompanied by a coherent list of demands from the group's enemy, and it could be suggested that their aim is more to generally lash out against that enemy, or in some cases bring about a prophesised Armageddon. Regarding the absolutism of violent religious extremist groups, the predictions also seem to have merit as, compared to the secular examples of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Colombian FARC, or the Kurdish PKK, religious terror groups tend to avoid  negotiation with the enemy of God.

The lion's share of suicide attacks over the past 45 years, have been committed by groups guided by a religiously inspired ideology.

However, despite these seeming corroborations, anomalies abound. Academic research predicting that religious terror groups will be inherently more violent and will not accept any negotiation with the enemy has been hard pushed to account for circumstances in which such groups, without any obvious change of ideology, deviate from these patterns. Deviations include distinguishing between national enemies despite religious affiliationtacitly accepting ceasefires and recognising negotiated agreements, and in some cases de-radicalising and accepting political process.

One factor which has been overlooked to date may provide the answer to these anomalies: the hybrid terror group. Dividing groups into ‘secular’ or ‘religious,’ researchers have not been able to sufficiently account for the full breadth of the extremism spectrum. A vast array of groups incorporate only certain degrees of religious guidance into their ideology, combining this guidance along with other elements such as nationalism (such as the Syrian Army of Islam) or racism (such as the KKK). As a result of this combination of religious and other ideological tenets, groups may ‘break the mould,’ following the predicted patterns of religious terror groups only to a certain degree.

The Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas is an example of this type of hybrid. Established in 1988 by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, the group’s founding covenant presents the combination of different principles that make up Hamas’ ideology. While article one opens the covenant by declaring that “The Movement’s program is Islam,” and article seven links the group to all Islamic movements worldwide, article six limits the group to historic Palestine, explicitly asserting that the group “is a distinguished Palestinian movement.” More explicit is article 14, in which the group declares its allegiance to three circles in no uncertain terms: “the Palestinian circle, the Arab circle, and the Islamic circle.”

The anomalies Hamas presents in the face of predictions regarding its behaviour can be accounted for by this mixed ideology. On the one hand, Hamas is true to its religious ideals of the “Islamic circle,” and refuses to negotiate directly with its enemy. Moreover, the group has repeatedly declared that, regardless of political circumstance, it will not recognise Israel’s right to exist. On the other hand, in keeping with its national obligation to the “Palestinian circle,” the group has repeatedly accepted ceasefires and indirect negotiations with Israel aimed at alleviating Palestinian suffering. Holding true to its “Arab circle,” the group has not openly joined in any Islamist attack against Arab states despite state leaders being depicted as heretics, and has repeatedly attempted to placate all sides of Arab conflicts and deny any involvement in any internal Arab strife.

This analysis helps explain the actions of other religious and hybrid terror groups as well. Many Salafi-jihadi organisations like al-Qaeda are bound to their international religious war – in al-Qaeda’s case against “Jews and Crusaders” – and make no compromises when it comes to violence. For hybrid groups, however, the level to which religion dominates their ideology may explain how far they are willing to compromise. This is the likely reason that, for example, some religiously motivated groups in Syria were willing to participate in a negotiated ceasefire with the Syrian regimes, while groups like ISIS and former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have rejected the very notion of a ceasefire. Similarly, this may explain why some Islamist groups in Gaza reject even indirect ceasefires with Israel while Hamas accepts them.

Academics and policy makers are struggling to devise effective methods of dealing with the global problem of terrorism and extremism. While the response to nationalist or ethnic violent groups has usually been a mix of repression and accommodation, which has often led to negotiations and in some cases to de-radicalisation, responses to religiously-motivated groups has nearly always been securitised, which has not proven itself as a long-term solution. Perhaps by distinguishing between those absolutist solely religious extremist groups and those with more complex hybrid ideologies, policy makers and academics could devise new strategies of dealing with terrorist groups, creating policy responses which would be more successful in de-radicalising these organisations and lead them to privilege certain more accommodating aspects of their agenda at the expense of others.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

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