Religious Radicals, Terror and Fundamentalism

Terror seems to have become the norm, even outside of the Middle East. Most often it seems to be caused by radical Islamist, making people suspicious of Muslims as a whole.

The reactions are often typical. There are those wanting to see the terror attacks as being representative for Islam and most Muslims. If not specifically, then at least as a hypothetical threat originating from Muslims as a whole, a reason to be suspicious of them as a group. And then there are those, who refuse to see this as linked to Islam at all, insisting that it has nothing to do with the religion, but rather is being done by a group of people, who totally miss the idea of Islam, taking the religion (and its followers) hostage, if not outright claiming that the terrorists are some conspiracy of shadowy figures, most often Israel or the States.

The truth, I suspect, is found in neither of those positions. I would rather suggest, that what we see is a religious modern phenomenon, namely fundamentalism, not only found in Islam, but also in several of the other world religions, even if it is not seen in the same level of extremity as is the case with for example ISIS. There are reasons as to why this approach would be fitting, for example the use of terror as a tool.

First, terror, while seemingly being the preferred tool among most Islamic fundamentalist movements, is not the only tool used. There are a number of tools, such as political activism, social activism, and the use of PR to promote the fundamentalist agenda. At the same time terror is a tool that is not only used by Islamic fundamentalists, but has been used extensively by ideological extremists through time. If terror should be specifically Islamic, why have we seen it used by non-Muslims then? Some people might argue here, that they are not claiming that terror is specifically Islamic, but that Islam embraces terror and that we only see Muslims use terror. This claim can be caused by ignorance of the many terror attacks committed by non-Muslims for other causes, that have nothing to do with Islam. We have for example a number of Jewish or Christian terror attacks, or a number of terror attacks committed by political non-religious movements or organizations. As a matter of fact, the earliest examples of terror in the United States, had no religious connotations.

Second, considering that terror is “only” a tool, it might be more crucial to look at what motivates the usage of this tool. Though terror might seem random, this is rarely the case. No one uses terror merely to use it, there is always an agenda behind, even when used by the anarchists in the States and in Russia, in the beginning of the last century. When we look at modern religious terrorism, we also see a number of different agendas, whether it is to destabilize a society, intimidate an enemy from certain actions, or something different again. Therefore the main focus shouldn’t be on terror, if we want to relate to the reasons. For example, stating that Islam is the biggest threat, cannot be argued to be based on the use of terror. We need to see beyond this to understand, why Islam would be the biggest threat, as far as we agree with this notion. The fact that we experience a huge number of Muslim citizens in Western countries, who are both active and constructive participants in their respective societies, should be a hint that Islam as such, is not a threat. If we base our conclusion on the minority within the Muslim communities, then we need to do so in all cases. Are Judaism then a problem in Israel and the territories, based on Jews using terror? Obviously not.

Third, when we look at those religious groups, who are using terror as a tool, we will be able to see them having a lot of characteristics in common, even if they are expressed differently. That is for example the refusal of the secular society, the insistence on only one certain interpretation of their religion being correct, a dualistic world view, the infallibility of their religious texts, and a certain selective approach to these texts and the world they try to interpret through them. For some it is also common to express Messianic ideas, but this is less common.

Some might here point out, that there are religious groups and movements, who seem to inherit these characteristics, without necessarily using violence. This is correct, and that is exactly the point. Terror is a tool, not an ideology. Depending on the respective fundamentalist movements outlook, this tool might or might not be embraced, as well as used in different ways. The goal is the same, the destruction of the secular society, in order for a religious society based on the respective movement’s interpretation of its respective religion. In this new religious society there is only room for the righteous believers as citizens, with those not being of this group either being accepted as tolerated citizens – in the best case scenario, or caused to disappear, either by extermination, forced conversion or expulsion – in worst case scenario.

Here we need some definitions, particularly the terms “terrorism” and “fundamentalism”. For the sake of the further discussion, it is also necessary to define “radicalization”, since being a fundamentalist is – as we have seen – a matter of how we understand the world around us and ourselves in it, while radicalization is a matter of our state of being. In their book, “The Psychology of Radicalization and Terrorism”, Willem Koomen and Joop Van Der Pligt, have some fair definitions of radicalization and terror respectively. Radicalization, they let us know, is “the development of a belief in opinions, views and ideas that might well result in a person committing acts of terror”, whereas terror is “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation” (which is based on the Global Terrorism Database – GTD).

Fundamentalism, as defined by Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, in their book “Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism around the World”, “refers to a discernible pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.”

The difference here is that radicalization is not necessarily religious, while fundamentalism is not necessarily radicalized, even if the two often is seen going hand in hand.

So how should we understand ISIS and their actions in all this? First and foremost, as we see in the definition of fundamentalism, it is based on a fear of the “erosion of religious identity”, leading to and attempt to “fortify the borders of the religious community”, and by that to “create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors”. We see this being expressed through their attempt to establish an “Islamic state” in Syria and Iraq, in order to create an alternative for the believing Muslims. The battle over the religious identity though, is not only fought against the Western countries and the ideas of secularism, but also against other Muslims.

This is a point that many of the proponents of ISIS equaling Islam seem to miss, even in the claims that ISIS is representing the “true Islam” (and ironically supporting ISIS by doing this). Most of ISIS’ attacks are directed against other Muslims, in order to consolidate the right to define “Islam”. Of interest is the matter that they are fighting other Islamic fundamentalist movements in this “war of Islam”, among the more noteworthy ones the Shi’as being represented by Iran and Hizbullah on the battle field. This is a sectarian dimension that isn’t new to Islam. What is new is the brutal enforcing of ISIS’ insisting of “complete Islam” in the conquered areas, where a number of non-Muslim groups have been either expelled, taken into slavery or killed. While there have been cases like this through history – for example with the Almohad conquerors from Morocco in the 12th century – this is an anomaly in Islamic history. This can be seen as an attempt on what Almond describes as “strengthening the enclave”, that is, creating a closed community where outsiders are not welcome in any way, in order to consolidate the religion (or religious identity).

It is noteworthy that ISIS is not only punishing people who are not Muslim, or who are Shi’a-Muslims, but even Sunnis who are not Sunnis the “correct” way. There are often reports of Muslims being killed, because they are not acting in what ISIS deem an appropriate Islamic way. We see that this is more than merely insisting on the correct faith – something that was enough for the Almohads, with few exceptions – but also on the correct behavior, down to the smallest details. This is also typical of enclaves as described by Almond, and can be seen in other fundamentalist enclaves as well, such as in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox societies. Obviously the punishments differ, but the end goal is the same; to make the believers succumb the requirements of behavior, so there will be no dissent – or at least as little as possible.

This insistence stands in stark contrast to a general acceptance of pluralist religious expressions historically found in Muslim countries. True, there have been exceptions, but those reminding us of what we see here, are few and stand out precisely because they are so radical in nature.

Obviously Muslim societies can’t be compared to Western democratic societies when it comes to the embrace of pluralism and individual expressions, maybe except a few cases. And it would be wrong to believe that what ISIS did in Nice is an attempt on punishing incorrect behavior. We should rather see it as a strategical attempt to strengthen the enclave, as well as showing strength. By the first I mean that they are trying to create a barrier between Western Muslims and non-Muslims. ISIS know fully well of the growing negative attitudes to Muslims in the West. Several surveys attest of a general negative feeling, when it comes to Muslims, found among the non-Muslim majority in Europe. This is what they are playing on, trying to expand on this and creating a negative reaction against Muslims. This will cause what is described by Almond et. al. as a “push”, that is, a situation where people are pushed into the enclave. Obviously this alone does not secure the Muslim populations in Europe to come running to the arms of ISIS, but it will strengthen the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims. ISIS can then use “pull” in order to convince Muslims that they are right, and pulling in Muslims who have become radicalized.

Many might argue that it should be clear, that what ISIS does is wrong, even for Muslims, so obviously the case described above is too simplified and is only an attempt to argue, that we should embrace Muslims or at least not criticize Islam.

Yes and no, obviously the explanation is simplified. When we are dealing with causes behind radicalization – and I believe that this is one issue, people in the West are not totally understanding – it is obviously more complex. Yes, Islam can be the setting for the radicalized person, but Islam is not the reason he is being radicalized.

First and foremost, while most people can see that victims “on the other side” can be at least partially innocent, often they explain the cause as in some way being their own fault, or excuse it in some other way. When ISIS is committing terror in Europe, the reaction will be criticism from the non-Muslim majority against Islam or Muslims as a whole, if not for being accomplices or supporting of the acts, then at least not acting enough against it, even if this can be done merely by condemning the actions. There is a general demand, that Muslims should condemn the terror – loudly – or accept that people will view them suspiciously. This will in turn create a negative reaction from the Muslims, having them feeling threatened, if not physically, then at least as being turned into the outcasts of society. Koomen and Der Pligt explains the consequences of this:

“… past research has shown that when people feel threatened – due to, say, critical feedback about their performance – they tend to stereotype more and to stereotype more negatively… When relationships between groups are strained or hostile, the desire to understand the other is usually suppressed in favour of promoting a positive image of oneself or one’s own group.”

Add to that how the target-group perceive of what is being said about them, which is described as “meta-stereotypes”. When the target-group believes that the majority is conceiving them in context of a number of negative stereotypes, they are in turn “inclined to display criminal, aggressive or antisocial behaviour.” On top of that they seek to justify this behavior, as well as expressing greater support for extremism – here it would be Muslim extremism. The result is that “[i]n combination with prejudice, then, a negative metastereotype can sometimes generate a highly undesirable response.”

This is not only the case with Muslims, but is seen also with other religious groups (as well as ethnic and political groups). In Israel the same can be seen both with Jewish Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists, as well as religious-Zionist fundamentalists, where there is an interest to establish a negative mutual perception between the fundamentalist enclave and the majority-society. The terror might not be as common or extensive, as is the case with ISIS, but it exist. There have been few cases with Christian fundamentalist violence in the States and other places, in the recent decades, but examples do exist, such as attacks on abortion clinics.

In conclusion, with all this in mind we should focus on what makes the Western pluralist societies so attractive and strong. Anger and frustration are natural reactions to terror, and we all feel it. It can be hard to deal with or let out, in a sensible way, but no matter how angry and frustrated we are, we need to be sensible, particularly if we want to prevent the situation to grow worse in the future. Western societies are based on the democratic notion of each citizen being master of his own choices and fortune. The legal systems are based on innocence until proven guilty, and each person only being responsible for his/her own actions and/or expressions. We can’t allow ourselves to ignore or forget this foundation, whenever tragedy strikes. These principles are not only for Christians, Jews, Atheist, etc. but also for Muslims. When we are lashing out against the broader Muslim community, we are helping ISIS. It does not mean that we should stop criticizing religion, even Islam, when needed, but we should be sensible about doing it and understand that when we insist that one group of Muslims – particularly such a brutal fundamentalist one as ISIS – has the sole correct interpretation of Islam, we are doing ourselves a great disservice.

About the Author
Peter Kaltoft is from Denmark, and moved to Israel in 2010. He reads and writes about religion and society. Subjects for the blog will typically be focused on religion in Israel, Jewish-Muslim relations, religious identity, and fundamentalism
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