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Friday, February 1, 2008

Why 'Islamic Terrorists' And Not 'Christian Terrorists'?

Juan Cole rings in on the "Islamophobia" debate today in Salon. While his piece is bound to provoke a lot of debate on many fronts, I want to focus on one particular inaccuracy which has been continually invoked over the last 12 years. Cole writes:

But people are not "Islamic," they are Muslim. And one most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called "Christian terrorists" even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement.
Cole chooses his words much more carefully here than other people who raise the question of why we don't call McVeigh and Nichols "Christian terrorists," but the fallacy remains. The primary reason we don't call them Christian terrorists is that there is absolutely no evidence that McVeigh and Nichols were religiously motivated.

Nichols found God in prison, but when you look at the record of how the Oklahoma City bombing came about, it's clear that religion was not a significant factor. Neither McVeigh nor Nichols ever showed the slightest interest in religion prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. Neither man was devout. Neither man proselytized, and neither was associated with any religious congregation or visibly a member of any religious sect.

It's true that the conspirators had allies in the Christian Identity movement. But every indication that can be gleaned from the record -- including the trial transcripts, interviews and other research -- strongly argues that McVeigh and Nichols acted primarily out of anti-government sentiment.

Racial views influenced their actions and associations, of course. But the literature found by investigators pointed squarely at anti-federalism as the overriding motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing. Virtually no material with any substantial religious content was found among the conspirators' possessions. McVeigh, in his final days, made numerous statements about his political and anti-government views, but never delivered a religious manifesto or invoked God in anything but the most casual manner.

There's another important distinction to be made here when discussing Islamic terrorism (or Muslim terrorism, as Cole would have it). Even if McVeigh and Nichols had been zealous Christian Identity adherents acting in the name of the Christian Identity movement, there a vast difference in how Identity relates to Christianity vs. how al Qaeda-style jihadism relates to Islam.

Identity has never been more than a fringe movement with low membership and an extremely low active membership, around 25,000 believers of which only a fraction are politically or militantly active. Identity is defined primarily by fringe racial beliefs that have no real parallel or support in mainstream Christianity. That's not to say that mainstream Christianity has never supported or justified racism, simply that the theological underpinning of Identity (white supremacy, see link for more information) is pretty much unrelated to the formal theological arguments historically used by mainstream Christian movements used to support racism and anti-Semitism.

The Identity movement is socially stigmatized everywhere -- it has no defenders, supporters or sympathizers in the world of mainstream Christianity. Institutional Christianity -- whether Catholic or Protestant -- has never given Identity an iota of support or provided it with any ideological cover.

Contrast that to the al Qaeda movement. Whether one likes to admit it or not, Al Qaeda's theological beliefs are not nearly as far removed from mainstream Islam (on a worldwide basis) as Identity beliefs are from mainstream Christianity. For instance, a 2005 Pew survey of Muslim attitudes found that 60 percent of Muslims in the relatively liberal nation of Jordan had "a lot or some confidence" in Osama bin Laden to do the right thing regarding world affairs.

You would be hard pressed to show that half of all Christians can even accurately describe the Identity movement, let alone identify any of its leaders or sympathize with its views. Around the world, bin Laden -- and the ideology he represents -- has a significant following among Muslims worldwide (link to Pew study). That doesn't mean all Muslims are terrorists, nor does it justify bigotry or wild assumptions, nor does it justify a world war against Islam.

But it does mean that al Qaeda is a much, much larger problem for Muslims than Identity is for Christians. In part, this is because the theological authority and hierarchy in Islam is much more diffuse than it is in Christianity, allowing for substantial regional variations and a wide array of competing views on what, exactly, constitutes valid Islamic opinions.

But it's also because al Qaeda uses mainstream Islamic concepts to build its theology (or rather, the parts of its theology offered for public consumption). Identity is built on beliefs that are not shared by any mainstream Christian movements, such as its teaching that non-whites are "mud people" created by God prior to the creation of Adam and Eve. There are no credible intellectuals in the Identity movement, and members expend little effort trying to justify their theology to outsiders.

In contrast once again, we've seen that Al Qaeda spends a tremendous amount of time and energy crafting Islamic legal arguments with the intention of persuading mainstream Muslims that its actions are just (see story for an example).

Al Qaeda uses concepts that are more firmly rooted in Islam, with the most obvious of these being its interpretation of jihad as justifiable military action in defense of what al Qaeda defines as appropriate targets (including the reclaiming of lands which were once Muslim or the oppression of Muslim people).

To broaden the problem even further, many Muslims who are not supporters of al Qaeda are nevertheless swayed by extremely similar legal opinions and interpretations when it comes to terrorist acts committed in support of the Palestinian cause, including those carried out by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Al Qaeda uses a lot of the same terminology and invokes much of the same religious precedent, the main difference is that al Qaeda has globalized the context to allow combat in more places and against a wider array of enemies.

While I agree with Cole that there are looming and current problems that stem from the semantics of how we talk about terrorism, the issue here is the extent to which terrorists successfully justify their actions to the mainstream Muslim community and the extent to which they employ language and arguments which are reasonably grounded in popular Muslim thought.

Ultimately, the definition of "Islamic terrorism" derives from the actions and beliefs of the terrorists, but it carries weight (and provokes controversy) because of the success of jihadist movements in justifying themselves to the wider Muslim population and situating their actions within the context of Islamic law.

The phrase "Islamic terrorism" is not so much an indictment of Islam as it is an important and necessary description of the demographic group from which the terrorists seek to win support (with some degree of success).

Timothy McVeigh and other oft-named "Christian terrorists" like the IRA do not overtly seek to mobilize the whole of Christianity in their support, and they do not spend intellectual capital justifying their actions to the wider Christian audience. That's a critical difference, and it's the primary reason we don't talk about "Christian terrorists" all that much.

I should note that Al Qaeda does also have strong components within its theology that are much further outside the mainstream and much shakier in terms of its claim on legitimacy, but those elements are not its defining characteristics in the wider discussion. They tend to bear more on al Qaeda's internal thinking and conduct, and I do plan to discuss elements of that issue in the future.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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