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Islam and Terrorism


In his 23 year mission, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) fought 9 major battles. The total time it took to fight those battles was about one week. Roughly 138 Muslims and 616 non-Muslims died. The Prophet passed away in the year 632 CE. At the time of his death he controlled an area of some 3 million square kilometres. A land mass about the size of Europe (minus Russia) was conquered with less than a thousand casualties. What was the secret to the Prophet’s military success? Simply this: he stormed hearts not walls.

The Prophet always emphasized peace as his first and foremost priority but when he had no other choice, he fought to protect his faith and followers. Despite winning almost every major battle he fought, the Prophet instructed Muslims not to go about seeking conflict:

“Do not look for a fight with the enemy. Beg God for peace and security. But if you do end up facing the enemy, then show endurance and remember that  Paradise is under the shadow of the swords.”

Throughout the Quran Muslims are told not to initiate hostilities; that God does not love aggressors; and to conclude treaties of peace even if they suspect treachery from the enemy (see Quran 2:190; 4:90; 8:61 etc.).

The Quran gives hope to Muslims that enemies can one day become beloved friends through God’s Grace and that no one should deal unkindly or unjustly toward those who have not caused them any harm.

“It may be that God will ordain love between you and those who are now your enemies. God is All-Powerful. God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you for your faith or driven you from your homes or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.” (Quran 60:7-8)

In 7th century Arabia there were no rules of warfare, no protection for non-combatants and no prohibitions against heinous practices such as cutting off the ears and noses of those who died in battle. Muhammad, peace be upon him, made it unlawful to attack any civilians or clergy, to destroy crops or houses of worship, to kill animals or to mutilate the dead. If war was to take place, its only theatre was the battlefield. Even then, if an enemy solider decided to accept the message of Islam, it was unlawful to kill that person. They were to be treated as a member of the faith.

The Quran staunchly opposes the killing of innocent lives and God reminds Muslims that the sacredness of human life was taught to other faith communities before them.

“We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it as if he kills all of  mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.” (5:32)

The root meaning of Islam – and related words like Muslim – in the Arabic language is peace, safety and security. The Quran mentions 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. One of them is “As-Salaam” which means “The Source of Peace” (59:23). The Quran refers to paradise as “the home of peace” (6:127). Each and every day hundreds of millions of Muslims greet and say goodbye to another by saying, “May God’s Peace be with you.”  These words are also the last words Muslims utter when they conclude each of the five daily prayers. It is often said that Islam was hijacked on September 11, 2001.Terrorism is simply murder by another name; murder is one of the gravest sins in Islam.

In the sequel to this article, we will look at some of the root causes of terrorism and extremism.

Further Reading

Nothing excuses the killing of innocent people. The devastation and anguish that such violence causes is often beyond description. Ask the families who lost loved ones in 9/11 or 7/7 or the terrorist attacks in Madrid. Their agony is mirrored a world away by families who have seen relatives torn apart by air strikes in Afghanistan and Gaza or by suicide attacks in Iraq and Indonesia. The cultures and languages may be different but the emotional and psychological impact is very similar. Islam condemns the killing of all innocent people no matter if the killings were committed by an individual or a group or by a state. All of these crimes must be condemned.

To end any cycle of violence its root causes must be properly examined. Although Muslims die in greater numbers from terrorist acts than any other group, it is often their religion that is held up as the cause. But according to the University of Chicago’s Dr. Robert Pape, the world’s foremost expert on suicide terrorism, “The root cause of suicide terrorism is foreign occupation”[1] and “over 95% of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation.”[2] Pape heads the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) which maintains the world’s largest database on suicide terrorism dating back to 1981. He’s authored two books – Dying to Win and Cutting the Fuse – that back his claims with meticulous research and analysis. In Dying to Win he states the presence of “tens of thousands of American combat troops on the Arabian Peninsula from 1990 to 2001” made the probability of Al-Qaeda attacking America “from five to twenty times more likely.”[3] Al-Qaeda and its proxies were willing to use any means necessary to get foreign troops out of Muslim countries after the first Iraq war. The ensuing sanctions against Iraq led to an estimated 1.5 million civilian deaths – half of them children.[4]

CPOST’s research shows the largest Muslim nations that do not have a foreign army presence have produced suicide terrorists “on the order of 1 per 71 million people”; but in Persian Gulf countries, where American combat troops are stationed, the rate is “1 per million, or 70 times more often.”[5]

Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, millions of innocent Muslims have suffered throughout the world.

  • Civilian deaths from the current war in Iraq are estimated to be anywhere from more than 850,000[6] to over 1.4 million[7]
  • The UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that about 10% of the population (over 3.3 million people) are either refugees outside of Iraq or displaced within the country[8]
  • Over 500,000 American Muslims[9] have been under some sort of surveillance or have been interrogated by their own government since 9/11
  • 37,000 people in Pakistan have died from air strikes and terrorism[10]
  • The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) estimates 12,793 civilians[11] were killed from 2006 – 2011. A Boston University professor estimates the total number of civilian deaths since 2001 to be around 45,000.[12]

Thousands of “special forces” are operating in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Chad, Niger etc. To add further injury, a sophisticated network of propagandists are making millions of dollars posing as “experts” and stoking fear and hatred against Muslims.[13]

But has all this death, destruction and constant fear mongering made the West safer? Pape answers yes and no. Although there have been no more attacks on the American homeland, extremism is on the rise and there are more incidents of suicide terrorism against American and NATO military targets overseas. Simply put: “the more occupation, the more suicide terrorism.” CPOST’s analysis is that foreign occupation actually increases the risk of another 9/11.[14]

What is the way forward? Are we locked in a permanent cycle of war, terrorism and death? Is the suicide rate of 6500 American soldiers a year[15]an inevitable by-product in this global blood feud? Fortunately, public opinion in the U.S. seems to be slowly changing. A Zogby poll in 2010 “found that 27% of Americans now believe that the `most important factor’ motivating terrorists to attack the United States is that they `resent Western power and influence,’” while 33% still believe the terrorists want Islam to dominate the world.[16] For the 33% it may be helpful to note that, according to CPOST, groups like Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah are not working and conspiring with one another like a fascist monolith  – “what stands out is that each is driven by essentially nationalist goals to compel target democracies to withdraw military forces from their particular homeland.”[17]

The solutions Pape offers may not endear him to either of America’s main political parties. To protect America’s oil interests, he argues for working with national armies and local militias to oppose terrorist groups and for keeping U.S. air and naval forces “over the horizon” in case they are needed. He also advocates for energy independence, tougher immigration controls and a 1,951 mile long “fence” along America’s border with Mexico.

Whatever the demerits of his recommendations, Pape’s data on three decades worth of suicide terrorism by people of various faiths and nationalities is impossible to dismiss. Occupation harms both the occupied and the occupier. In Cutting the Fuse he notes, “Since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack.” [18]The conclusion is inescapable. A just and lasting peace is the key to safety and security.

[1] Dying to Win The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism p. 245, published 2006 by Random House

[2] Cutting the Fuse the Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, page 329, published 2010, by University of Chicago Press

[3] Ibid p. 242

[5] Dying to Win The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism p. 242, published 2006 by Random House

[13] “Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America” http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/islamophobia.html

[14] Cutting the Fuse the Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, pages 329-331, published 2010, by University of Chicago Press

[16] Cutting the Fuse the Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, page 329, published 2010, by University of Chicago Press

[17] Dying to Win The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism p. 243, published 2006 by Random House

[18] Cutting the Fuse the Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, page 329, published 2010, by University of Chicago Press