Are Terrorists Motivated by Religion?

Shortly before murdering an Israeli policewoman, Ahmad Zakarneh sent a text message to his parents:

Mother, I’m going to heaven. If you see me sizzling in my old blood, rejoice. Don’t say, ‘He died’ and be saddened, for I’m living by candlelight, under the Lord’s throne of honor. Forgive me, father. I yearned for a saint’s death. My religion called upon me to uphold the ritual. I am a martyr, by Allah’s assistance. Rejoice.

Pope Francis and numerous other world leaders have repeatedly said that terrorists use religion as a “pretext” for committing violence. But does Ahmad Zakarneh sound like someone who is using religion as a pretext? The man plainly expects to die for his actions. Why would he lie to his parents about his true motives at such a crucial time?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The notion that jihadists use religion as a pretext to conceal other motives is widely accepted. People don’t like to associate religion with terror. Moreover, the “pretext” hypothesis provides a convenient way of absolving the religion of Islam from the crimes of Islamists. It’s just another way of saying “this has nothing to do with Islam.”

But the evidence that violence has something to do with Islam is now overwhelming. Zakarneh’s testimony to his parents is not an anomaly. On the whole, terrorists and would-be terrorists seem to hold genuine religious convictions. Indeed one of the common signs of radicalization is increased devotion. This was the case with the San Bernardino killers, the elder of the two Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood shooter, and numerous other jihadists.

While world leaders are still searching in Closeau-like fashion for a motive that would explain Islamic terrorism, to most people the motive is fairly obvious. It doesn’t take an Einstein to connect the dots between “Allahu akbar” and sudden jihad syndrome. After killing and nearly decapitating Drummer Lee Rigby in the streets of London, Mujaahid Abu Hamza (formerly Michael Adebolajo) explained on camera that “we are forced by…many ayah [verses] in the Qur’an, we must fight them as they fight us.” Prime Minister David Cameron, however, was having none of that. In response to the crime, the learned Islamic scholar said “there is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror.” Nothing? Terry Lee Loewen who planned a jihad attack on Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport in December 2013 begged to differ. In explaining his incendiary intentions he said:

I don’t understand how you can read the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet and not understand that jihad and the implementation of Sharia is absolutely demanded of all the Muslim Ummah. I feel so guilt-ridden sometimes for knowing what’s required of me but yet doing little or nothing to make it happen.

The lone wolf terrorists seem quite sincere in their religious beliefs. But how about the leaders of terrorists organizations—the Osama bin Laden’s and the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis? Surely they have ulterior motives? Well, they do have other complaints. In his “Letter to America” bin Laden does provide a political motive for fighting the U.S.: “because you attacked us and continue to attack us.” But more than half of the nine page letter is religious in nature. Here’s a small sample:

It is to this religion that we call you; the seal of all the previous religions. It is the religion of Unification of God, sincerity, the best manners, righteousness, mercy, honour, purity, and piety. It is the religion of showing kindness to others, establishing justice between them, granting them their rights, and defending the oppressed and the persecuted. It is the religion of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the hand, tongue and heart. It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme. And it is the religion of unity and agreement on the obedience to Allah, and total equality between all people, without regarding their colour, sex, or language.

That doesn’t sound like the words of someone who is faking his religious devotion. Moreover, he believes in Islam so strongly that he wants to share it with us:

We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.

We call you to all this that you may be freed from that which you have become caught up in.

So, bin Laden’s aim is not only to punish us for the First Gulf War, but also to free us from immorality. Like a puritan divine, he wants to put the fear of God in us, but he also seems to have a genuine concern with saving our souls. Whatever you may think of bin Laden, it’s difficult to conclude that religion was just a pretext for him.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, struck a similar tone in his inaugural speech as caliph:

Truly all praise belongs to Allah. We praise Him and seek His help and forgiveness. We seek refuge with Allah from the evils of our souls and from the consequences of our deeds. Whomever Allah guides can never be led astray, and whomever Allah leads astray can never be guided.

This is followed with several quotations from the Qur’an and an exhortation to “support the religion of Allah through jihad in the path of Allah.” But it’s not all about fighting. Like bin Laden, he seems concerned with the state of men’s souls. He tells the soldiers of the Islamic State that he does not fear for them in battle, but rather “I fear for you your own sins”:

Stay away from sins. Expel from your ranks those who openly commit sin. Be wary of pride, haughtiness, and arrogance. Do not become proud on account of gaining some victories. Humble yourself before Allah.

This, I submit, is not the language of someone who thinks of religion as merely a handy pretext to justify a land grab. If bin Laden and al-Baghdadi are just faking it, they deserve some sort of “best actor” award for their convincing performances.

So, instead of casting terrorists leaders as calculating deceivers, why not take what they say at face value? In short, why not acknowledge that they truly believe that this is what God wants them to do. That, after all, is the obvious explanation. And those who deny the obvious run the risk of discrediting themselves in the eyes of those who can see the obvious. On that score, the “pretext” argument cuts both ways. One could as easily say that world leaders who persist in maintaining that violence has nothing to do with Islam are themselves engaged in a pretext. One could argue that since there is so much evidence to the contrary, they must have some other, concealed purpose for saying so. Perhaps their real object is to avoid offending Muslims. Perhaps they really do understand that Islam inclines toward violence, and they fear that the wrong word will suddenly catapult the moderates into the radical camp.

But if violence really does have something to do with Islam, don’t the potential victims of Islamic violence have a right to know before they find themselves on the wrong end of a machete or an AK-47? I’m thinking in particular of the responsibility of Church leaders in this regard. A lot of Christians in Africa and the Middle East are now dead or enslaved because they were assured by their leaders that Islam is peaceful and that the only threat comes from a tiny minority. As that “tiny minority” expands by leaps and bounds, Christians deserve to hear the truth about Islam from their leaders. For many, it will be a saving truth.


Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...