Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 23, 2010

Terrorism: a religious dimension

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on July 23, 2010

This is the second of a two-part post.  Please read yesterday’s post before continuing. 


Most of the terrorists we have met in North America and Europe are not deeply religious.  Even among those terrorists  affiliated with groups expressing religious motivation, the personal linkages with religion are usually tenuous especially prior to joining the groups.

But wherever else the center of gravity,  there is often a religious dimension to terrorism.   Religion can play a supportive role to nationalist or ethnic or criminal or other aspirations. And whenever the religious dimension is effectively invoked it lends particular virulence to the pursuit of extra-religious goals. 

In his March Call to Jihad Anwar al-Awlaki, explained, “Victory is on our side because there is a difference between us and you. We are fighting for a noble cause. We are fighting for God and you are fighting for worldly gain. We are fighting for justice because we are defending ourselves and our families and you are fighting for imperialistic goals. We are fighting for truth and justice and you are fighting for oppression.”

According to US authorities these and similar arguments were effective in recruiting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Underwear Bomber), Nidal Hasan (Ft. Hood Shooter), and Faisal Shazad (fizzled Times Square  bomber).  Wednesday two new arrests were made of terror suspects claiming to be inspired by al-Awlaki.  Those we have already met share a largely secular, educated, and comparatively affluent background.  But they found religious — or at least pseudo-religious — purpose.   

In the Age of Sacred Terror Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon generalize regarding terrorists who assert a Muslim identity, “Whether the individual has a buried religious sensibility that is reasserting itself, or has no religious background and is searching for stability and identity in an unwelcoming universe… the perception of past corruption is real.  The remedy is to fight the Seducer and sacrifice his people to propitiate an affronted God.”

The sacrifice of others to propitiate God is heretical in Islam.  Allah is beyond such paltry needs, self-sufficient, and merciful.  But there is an ancient impulse that leads some of us — regardless of theology — to see in the sacrifice of an other atonement for our own failure.  Extending this logic,  to martyr ourselves should be even more pleasing to the old god buried in the collective unconscious.

For what is jihad — or for that matter, what is agape — but a self-sacrificing love by which we can become our best selves?

Last week a think-tank’s policy paper encouraged the United States to more fully engage the ideological struggle within Islam.

The competition is between a modern, predominantly pluralistic view of the world and an exclusionary, harsh, and equally modern ideology that appeals to a glorious past, places aspects of religious identity above all others, and relies on a distorted interpretation of Islam. Ironically, the ideology, as articulated by either Sunni or Shiite radicals, has little to do with traditional piety and is perceived as religiously unsound by the majority of Muslims, who have been its primary victims. The conflict between these two visions constitutes a struggle for the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims, who abhor violence, but who—out of sympathy, apathy, or fear—will not or cannot confront the extremists in their communities. Any strategy, therefore, that does not skillfully contest the claims and actions of radical extremism cannot succeed. (Fighting the Ideological Battle)

The claims being made are not just ideological, they are also religious.  If we fail to recognize the religious dimension — no matter how inaccurate, cynically manipulated, or heretical — we will mistake how we might effectively contest these claims, and — perhaps  more important — mis-judge the potential influence of the United States regarding the entire issue.

I am a religious person.   I am not, however, wholehearted.  In attempting to negotiate between secular expectations and my religious understanding I am often left unhappy, especially with myself.   For the devout Muslim, sincerity (ikhlas in Arabic) is a similar challenge.   It is a struggle to reconcile what we believe with what we do. 

For both religious and non-religious people  the uprooted character of modernity — and the anemic relationships that derive from this character — can cause profound dissatisfaction.  Percolating below the surface of banal daily activity the dissatisfaction feeds a growing sense of alienation.  If a person is inclined to carefully consider their situation the result can be an ontological crisis  and an existential panic. Reality is suspect and life meaningless.

Religion, worthy of the name, addresses these deficiencies by pointing the way to a ground of being which, in the words of Paul Tillich, answers the ontological threat of non-being.  Once an individual is invested in this alternative reality, there are issues which can only be addressed from this ground of being. 

As set out yesterday, my stance on immigration — for better or worse — has become for me a religious issue.   No reasoned consideration of policy and strategy trade-offs will move me.  If you seek to shift my judgment and behavior in regard to immigration you must also address fundamental issues of how I am in relationship with God and neighbor.   Anything short of this will allow me to dismiss your argument and — in my most prideful and sinful moments — dismiss you.  In choosing to dismiss you I take a first-step on the path of hubris that can lead to denying our shared humanity.  This is the self-serving sin of the terrorist.

Osama bin-Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and others are peddling a pseudo-religion that has mischaracterized the ground of being and the sources of reconciliation to be found in our relationship with that ground of being.  They are especially adept at deploying pride to twist and warp their followers experience of the ground of being.

We will not reclaim those who have been mis-led unless we are able to engage the ontological and existential issues that have been manipulated for evil purpose.  This is a particular challenge for children of the Enlightenment.   Profound progress has emerged from three centuries of dividing reality into smaller and smaller bits: separating church from state, separation of powers within the state, distinguishing each chemical element from another, imposing taxonomies that differentiate each from all, increasing specialization in education and in most aspects of living.   But many of us — perhaps most of us — seek to be more than the sum of such sundry parts.

If the only modern answer is to separate good from bad and eliminate the bad — if  being imprisoned or invaded or  assassinated by a drone are our only therapies for mis-directed ontological crisis — we will find ourselves trapped in tragic absurdity and mutual murder. 

I am reminded of Zeno’s paradox.  The allegories and dialectics of Zeno aimed to demonstrate we all share the same ontological ground of being.  There is a desperate need to find new ways to advance Zeno’s insight.  In my own case, the most potent restraint on my proto-terrorist tendency is the paradoxical teaching of my faith: In the face of my enemy (selected by me or self-proclaimed by them) I am to see the face of Christ.

For further consideration:

The roots of violent Islamic extremism and efforts to counter it (Quilliam Foundation)

Fatwa on Suicide Bombings and Terrorism (Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadr)

Mind over Martyr: How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists (Jessica Stern)

Deradicalization: A Review of the Literaure (Institute for Homeland Security Solutions)

The Cordoba Initiative

The Faith Club

A Common Word

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 23, 2010 @ 7:10 am

Interesting post! And of course I could argue Psychology–the dominant religion of the 20th Century–might lend a great deal of understanding to these issues. See my web blog post by an unknown PhD in that discipline. And of course the desert religions which promise a better “life” “World” after the present lifetime seem to be motivators to destruction and ignorance and conversion of the “other”! Still St. Thomas Acquinas did a wonderful job of propelling the then largely unified Roman Church towards titrating “faith” and “reason”!
Well my bottom line is a simple one! Whatever the merits of any religion if it refuses to denounce violence against innocents and actively campaigns to see that world view is its face to the world then it is NOT a religion but a set of political beliefs that represent a clear and present danger to the innocents of the world. I don’t believe in collective guilt or collective innocence either but clearly there are many in modern societies or even primitive societies that are subjected to many different kinds of abuse by their political or religious leadership. After all human sacrifice is not unknown in the history of the world’s cultures and religions. So-be-it! A complicated world and we need complicated and competent leaders to steer away through it. Were the “isms” of the 20th century poltical systems or religions? I don’t view democracy as a religion but probably some do so.

Keep on thinking thinking thinking Phil because despite this blog some evidence few others out there that don’t benefit financially from their adoption of certain belief systems. For example with well in excess of 1500 mega-churches in America are they serving GOD or MAMMON?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

July 23, 2010 @ 11:14 am

Thanks for sharing Phil. Having read this piece several times there is, in my very humble opinion, a sense of struggle, potentially regret, and a resignation that has become a spiritual and epistemic challenge to you. You Sir, are not alone!

Is this than the quintessential struggle between our spiritual, faith based world and the real world? And if so, is our earthen body, that clay vessel, showing its finite limitations as humans?

And is it our limitations as imperfect human beings that create both the need to socialize into groups of like minds to repel and attack unlike minds? And do we than reorganize to meet the latest need, trend, or desire? Have we, to Bill’s general point, been psychologically prepared to follow the man made interpretations of the Koran, New Testament, and Old Testament?

From the theological perspective; the closer one comes to thinking they understand faith and the presence of God on or in their lives, the further they are from realizing that relationship.

Organized religion has a cross to bear (pun intended) in our situation. Many churches and denominations for Millennia have been more concerned with “cheeks in the seats” than delivering… taking it one step further; is it a means of liturgical hegemony? And further still; simply a means of exerting influence and power over the masses? Can one make the case that the rapidity in the growth of Islam is a Christian church failing? Are Christianity and its ties to Western European “progressivism” the most unlikely victim? All interesting questions and points of view that create great contrast between the defining of neighbors and the worship of Mammon.

“This is a particular challenge for children of the Enlightenment. Profound progress has emerged from three centuries of dividing reality into smaller and smaller bits: separating church from state, separation of powers within the state, distinguishing each chemical element from another, imposing taxonomies that differentiate each from all, increasing specialization in education and in most aspects of living. But many of us — perhaps most of us — seek to be more than the sum of such sundry parts.”.

Is it because by separating they isolate and it’s in that isolation fear takes hold and grows? And in that metastasizing angst, our frailty and imperfections are exposed?

So what to say of progress? Has progress moved us so far from God that we are unable to even fathom loving our neighbor and loving our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Are those who live in the Middle East and other third world outposts or our enemies more likely to search out and seek spiritual fulfillment because they’ve simply gotten used to being deprived and adapted? And is it in that great abundance contrast that the “have’s” have exploited the “have nots” for material wealth, comfort, and gain? Once again, measuring spiritual success with secular progressive success creates angst and a burdensome dichotomy. Is this the human condition?

“I am a religious person. I am not, however, wholehearted. In attempting to negotiate between secular expectations and my religious understanding I am often left unhappy, especially with myself.”

Is it because you define your spiritual shortcomings against your idea of infinite perfection or the guilt in hindsight that you should have been a better person? (rhetorical question)

And in parallel, do we as Americans do that as well, but fail to grasp the complexities, and consequence of living in a degree of hypocrisy? And in that hypocrisy, that hubris if you will, neglect our spiritual requirements in order to fulfill our material gains? These questions you pose are at the heart of the “us vs. them” debate; the good vs. evil; the Muslim World against the Christian world, etc. Do our human tendencies to have these relational interactions thwart our spiritual responsibilities?

So is it therefore a spiritual responsibility to feed the world? Is it our pragmatic responsibility to clothe, educate, and maintain the globe so they no longer see us as the enemy? Is it to care and love the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses that yearn to breathe free? And if so, how do we propose to do that and still maintain the tribe that’s capable of sustaining that? The complexity of spiritual responsibility and real world pragmatism can be staggering. And what about mans laws and Gods laws? “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. (Matthew 22:21). Contradiction, complexity, and morality… very difficult roads to traverse!

And finally to the overarching point; how does this all fit into the nebulous and ill defined term homeland security? Depending on ones perspective either it’s completely relevant and important or not at all.

Thank you very much for sharing.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 23, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

Well as Carl Sagan stated “WE are all stardust”! The collapse of Newtonian physics did not however seem to make those deepest into the exploration of science, because there wonder at the chaos and infinite questions raised by their explorations in many cases intensified their faith. CP SNOW was always one of my favorites and his analysis of the “two Cultures” of science and politics. So be it! The world of science will necessarily in some cases be a two edged sword both threatening and protecting human kind. It seems to teeter in the balance and perhaps faith can tip it towards survival of humanity. Perhaps not.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 23, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

Dan, You suggest I might feel “a sense of struggle, potentially regret, and a resignation that has become a spiritual and epistemic challenge to you.”

Engaging seriously with reality is a struggle. I err regularly and often hurt others in the process, so regret goes beyond potentiality. I don’t think, however, that I have resigned myself to much of anything.

You may have been sensing the uncertainty and nervousness I felt offering the topic. You know the warning about politics and religion in polite company. And HLSWatch is usually policy-oriented in a wonkish way, we have not aspired to political or cultural influence.

I very much appreciate the comments you and Bill have made here, and the comments made to yesterday’s related immigration post. But readership was down 10 to 20 percent yesterday and looks to be down over 50 percent today. This was one of the reactions (non-reactions) I was dreading.

I could certainly be wrong, but I perceive that a willingness and competence to take on these very difficult issues of religion, religion’s connection with public policy, and other issues of meaning are at the heart of a long-term solution to violent extremism. The drop-off in readership is a possible indication of how far we are from even being interested in the possibility. Or maybe it is a just a very hot Friday in late July.

This disappoints me, but I am not resigned to this being the only possible outcome.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 23, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

Hot, Hot, Hot! That is definitely the reason. Can you imagine DC without AC?

That must have been an existential experience.

Comment by A Noble Cause? We the "Little People" V Goldman Sachs et al

July 24, 2010 @ 7:04 am

As referenced herein –

In reply to anyone calling Jihad a noble cause – oh, com’on, your outright killing in cold blood of innocent human beings, each of us God’s creation with only he to make any judgement and certainly not you or any other individual, harming even your own as you cause disharmony even among you.

You shamefully use the Koran as a way to manipulate its context to affect others to harm others – how dare you and no matter who whether in the west (Goldman Sachs et al) or the Middle East, all is witnessed by the Lord. The Vatican in its renewed Crusade agenda is the same, let no one underestimate the vatican or its objectives in parallel with the german led EU and its intentions.

Look at the marble cities of the Middle East built from the sands with billions of dollars invested, while turning cheek and allowing the good Palestinian to have little, to continue to use the “little people” as pawns to continue this Middle East charade to one’s advantage. What a pity as very little compassion has been extended to help the “little people” as Arab children and the next generations have no jobs, little hope, the contined same ‘ol, same ‘ol…all about the have’s and the have not’s – much like the present degradation in America where unemployment is high, false promises of job creation becomes reality and the bankers continue to rape the little people of whatever remains –

It is not America that any such hatred should be directed and one would be surprised at the lack of hatred among the good people of the Middle East towards Americans, enlightened enough to know and witness the power mongers in the Middle East who use their position for personal gain and seek to incite the people to divert attention away from the theivery of the palace riches – whether it be in the west or the east, while the “little people” may not have much money,if any, they have eyes and ears and they see and hear the deceit, the arrogance of those who seek to undermine the hope of generations, to subject them to taxes and ill intent….

History is only repeating itself and again as always it is the “elitists” that think that we can be duped in their ways by having us sitting down with a beer which will work this all out – We – as BP’s CEO referenced us all, how did he say it, oh, yes, the “little people” understand more about the world and the clerics who benefit, priests who benefit and politicians who benefit, however unfortunately, the “elitists” whether the Muslim and Arab leadership with coffers spilling over with gold or the western bankers with the same, much unrest prevails and as the divide between rich and less fortunate widens, so too will real War soon to entangle the masses and unfortunately this time in history, to the dismay of the “Brutes of Tehran” – the “KGB Putinites” and the elitists, they will not surive as well.

In fact, while few will survive the next holocaust, it will be the “little people” for God’s eye beholds, their spirituality in heart, their goodness and the Creator – God – will turn away the evil doers who whether in the west or east sought gain versus helping those less fortunate –

Since Babylon, every man-made government, no matter its form has failed and again, greed and corruption will be man’s failing as we see today from nation to nation….

Every man and woman, child deserves, no matter where deserves respect, dignity and Life as scripture has been written so….

God Bless us all!

Joe Citizen
aka Christopher Tingus

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 24, 2010 @ 9:13 am

Mr. Tingus:

In my Thursday and Friday posts I am suggesting that precisely because the Qur’an is, as you suggest, being misappropriated and inappropriately applied, that we — Muslims and non-Muslims, religious and non-religious — would be wise to give more consideration to the “call to meaning” that is being manipulated for evil purpose.

In your comments to this blog you often quote from the Christian scriptures. Like you, these scriptures have deep meaning for me. Over the years, in dialogue with others and through participation in a community of faith, the meaning I have drawn from scripture has changed. I wonder if you have also found that seriously engaging scripture almost always engenders humility?

While I am a Christian, I also honor the Qur’an as sacred text. Your comments above seem to suggest you do as well. In dialogue with devout Muslims I have learned a great deal that has enriched my religious sensibility and, I perceive, made me a better Christian. I have always found my Muslim colleagues to receive me with respect.

How can we extend this dialogue to those who are clearly attracted to religious motifs, but have fallen in with and are being exploited by those who preach and teach a perversion of the truth? How do we listen carefully enough and speak honestly enough to engage them with the “respect, dignity, and Life..” they deserve?

I do not pretend this is easy. I am not suggesting it will resolve every threat. But it does strike me as deserving at least the attention we give warfighting, diplomacy, intelligence operations and such.

This dialogue is probably not something appropriate for official channels. I expect official channels would muck it up badly. If this dialogue is to be undertaken it almost certainly has to be engaged across faith communities and between individuals of faith. There are several efforts underway, some of which I have linked to the Friday post. Can each of us contribute to this process? Is there a rhetoric of peacemaking? Is there a language and logic especially appropriate for discussion of religious issues? Can we learn it?

In this blog I have often argued there is a difference between non-official homeland security and official Homeland Security. If there is any place for inter-religious (and intra-religious) dialogue it is primarily in the domain of homeland security. But it seems to me that here, and as is usually the case in matters religious, we have to start with self-criticsm.


Comment by William R. Cumming

July 24, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

Of course as we all know there is NO “HOMELAND”! As the Native Americans believe we are all temporary custodians at best of what Manitou has allowed US to use wisely and only temporarily. Ashes to ashes and stardust to stardust.

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