From the Dean: Islamic + Terrorists...A Dangerous (and Inaccurate) Pairing

April 28, 2016

Bricks and mortar, Adam and Eve, life or death, business or pleasure, pros and cons, pure and simple, cause and effect. These are all examples of common word pairings, a short hand in our communication that conjures complex images and emotions and portrays much more than just a literal meaning of the words. Such word pairings are important to our communication. But, because they carry layers and inferences and their use can sometimes have unintended consequences, it is important to look closely at some combinations of words. There is no more important example of this kind of essential reflection than the pairing of Islam and Terrorism.

After the brutal murders in Belgium, some media and political commentators insisted (once again) on identifying the perpetrators as “radicalized Islamic terrorists,” or “militant followers of Islam.” Every so often these pundits try to convince others that using this ancient religious tradition as the defining “motivation” for acts of unspeakable cruelty, hatred and irrationality provides a causal explanation for pathological organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as random acts of mass murder like the ones experienced in Paris, San Bernadino and Brussels.

Many of the most outspoken people convinced of the importance of pairing Islam and terrorism come from two different ends of the religious spectrum. Some are not big fans of religion. (https://propterhoc.wordpress.com/tag/terrorism/; https://scholarsandrogues.com/2015/02/21/obama-is-wrong-islamic-beliefs-are-incompatible-with-the-modern-world/ ). Ironically, another vocal segment of this position is comprised of prominent Christian leaders, who are convinced that Islam and Christianity are mutually exclusive religious heritages, with the former a violence-prone system of belief and practice, and the latter the quintessential force of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-making in the world.

Here’s the problem with all of this. As most people become educated on both Islam and the dynamics of the terrorist mind, the accuracy and legitimacy of linking the concepts of this religion and the aberrant behavior of terrorism becomes more questionable and less reasonable. For instance, one of the more passionate advocates linking Islam and terrorist thinking and acting is a fellow named Robert Spencer, who runs a blog site called, Jihad Watch https://www.jihadwatch.org/about-robert. Several years ago Spencer, who has written a number of books on Islam and terrorism, spoke at many universities and government organizations and seemed to hold a significant level of credibility for those seeking to understand terrorist motivations and its relationship to the Islamic tradition. More recently, however, organizations have started distancing themselves from Spencer, recognizing that his penchant for pairing the words of terrorism and Islam is not only inaccurate, but perhaps misleading or worse.

The thinking among some once outspoken Christian leaders has undergone changes, too. One of the more dramatic examples is documented in former Congressman Mark Siljander’s autobiography of his intellectual, emotional and spiritual change of heart and mind on the issue. His book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide, describes how Siljander came to realize that his traditional evangelical worldview about non-Christian religions, his perception of Islam and its connections to global terrorism was not just inaccurate, but actually made the world less safe.

The insistence of some Western politicians and media personalities on pairing Islam and terrorism has a complicated history dating back centuries. But, one of the more contemporary influences impacting this conversation has been a popular book that attracted the attention of many political decision-makers in the 1990s – Samuel Huntington’s, The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington hypothesized that there are eight distinctive civilizations in the world, all influenced by very different religious traditions with oppositional worldviews that are divided in fundamental and largely irreconcilable ways. The differences in worldview, argued Huntington, have resulted in a destabilized post-Cold War world that has little hope of significant, long-term cross-civilizational understanding and peace. The best we can hope to achieve in our diplomatic efforts is a kind of détente, a tense balance of power and modest, limited partnerships on selective issues of common concern. If you buy into Huntington’s thesis, pairing Islam with Terrorism makes sense. But, many scholars have come to question Huntington’s thesis, and without an assumption that the tension between cultures and religions is insurmountable, it becomes easier to see what Siljander did: the terrorist organizations actually want western cultures to make an association between Islam and terrorism, and they want people in the west to assume religious-based differences are too deep-seated to overcome. I think it is profoundly unwise to give them what they want.

From my perspective, leaders in terrorist organizations are good students of marketing and advertising strategies. Once a “sales hunch” and now with lots of evidence from learning theory and brain research, it is now known that persuasion occurs when the consuming public connects strong positive emotional reactions with a certain product or idea. Such research also shows that with the right influence and priming, words alone can excrete dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, releasing a flood of chemicals that disrupt our ability to think logically, warp our reasoning processes, distort our language processing, and inhibit our ability to communicate.

Consider the two strategies of an organization like ISIS: Despite the media’s perception that terrorist organizations flood the Internet with images of dramatic violence, research on ISIS propaganda suggests that 95% of the messaging is actually positive in nature. The terrorist organization recruits followers through the vision of a peaceful and meaningful world, trolling the internet for dispossessed and culturally marginalized Muslims, mostly in younger generational cohorts. A caliphate is held out as the promise of such a paradise on earth, a marketing promise of meaning and purpose. At the same time, terrorist organizations want large swaths of the people in western cultures to have negative reactions to Islam, in order to drive a wedge between western cultures and their Muslim citizens. This isolates Muslims so they are more attracted to terrorist propaganda, and paralyzes the general population through fear and simple thinking about the Islamic tradition.

The terrorists’ strategies, oddly, are so transparent that it is hard to believe that so many otherwise intelligent humans fall into the trap.

Indeed, the constant association between Islam and terrorist activity has already created automatic stress reactions for many people in the West with the word Islam itself, and familiar Muslim phrases like Allahu Akbar and jihad, as well as with certain kinds of dress, images, ethnic and racial coloring and features. This orchestrated effort to create negative associations elicits negative emotions like fear, distrust, and even hatred, in many people. The recent detaining of a man speaking Arabic on a Southwest flight is just one example.  According to a Pew Research Center study in the summer of 2015, over a four-year period fear of terrorist attacks jumped 38% in France, 21% in the United Kingdom, and 17% in the U.S.  These studies did not include the Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels attacks, so we can all guess where the percentages sit today.

Pairing Islam and terrorism reduces the complicated motivations of terrorist action to a singular or privileged source, cultivating simple causal thinking, which is, of course, another chief strategy of terrorist leaders. A February 2015 magazine produced by ISIS, called Dabiq, revealed this tact with surprisingly clear disclosure. “The Extinction of the Grayzone,” is an editorial that states clearly that a chief goal of ISIS is to create the perception that the Muslim and non-Muslim world is divided along clean lines of difference. As the editorial said: “The grayzone is critically endangered. Its endangerment began with the blessed operation of September 11th, as these operations manifested two camps before the world for mankind to choose between, a camp of Islam and a camp of kufr – the crusader coalition.” George W. Bush’s “crusade” comment, and his suggestion that “either you are with us or with the terrorists,” must have made a lot of terrorist leaders happy.

The magazine Scientific American Mind devoted its May/June issue to summarize a great deal of the social psychological research on the creation of a terrorist mind, providing a thumbnail sketch of research approaches that are developed more deeply by Jerrold Post in his 2008 book, the Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda. The evidence-based books and articles on this subject are mostly clear that the primary sources of building a terrorist mind has little to do with religious dogma or promises or formation. It has much more to do with broader issues of the formation or malformation of personal identity; the in-group and out-group dynamics in many cultures; inter-group behavior across cultural lines, particularly in western nations; societal habits of thought and action in identifying and categorizing groups that are different from dominant populations; and the isolation or inclusion of quality information about others that is available in our communities. The best social-psychological research does not consider a religious tradition’s perceived teachings on the issue of violence as a significant formative factor.

For me, the most disappointing aspect of repeated links between Islam and Terrorism is that much of it comes from my own Christian community. This is a glass house in which Christians should not throw stones. While it is true that the Koran has certain passages that support violent behavior, this is not atypical for religious traditions that began during more primitive, agrarian cultures of human history, where warrior cultures played an important role in survival.  Karen Armstrong’s recent book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, does a remarkable job connecting the dots in this evolution of religious thought and practice. Religion and culture are so intertwined that where one starts and another ends is not obvious or easy to discern.

As a Christian, I am proud of my tradition’s peace-making strains of thought and action. I have tried to allow those influences to shape my values and my vision for my personal life, my life in community, and my professional work in the world. I am also convinced that these peace-oriented dimensions of my faith tradition are the core attributes of Christianity, the most fundamental structures of the religious meaning system that gives form to the life of any true disciple of Jesus Christ. I also know from my study of history and theology that the motivational force of these life-affirming aspects of my tradition in the west helped to birth some of the greatest moral accomplishments of the human race – hospitals, humane treatment of the poor and mentally or physically challenged, the abolition of slavery and child labor laws, the creation of social service structures, the more demanding ways of thinking through problems that have been promoted by higher education … and so much more.

But, at the same time I am painfully aware that my tradition has been used to incite violence and reprehensible behaviors.  These have been supported by the creation of entire theologies around the life-denying passages contained in the same sacred texts of the Hebrew (Old) and Christian (New) Testaments that fueled many of humanity’s positive accomplishments. Philip Jenkins, one of the world’s most popular religious historians, has written two books on the subject of the dark side of my religious tradition – Jesus Wars and Dark Passages. He wrote the books in an attempt to compare the “brutality quotient” of the Quran and the Bible. To his surprise, he found the Quran far less bloody and violent than the Bible, in part because the sanctioned violence in the Islamic text seemed to be justified mostly as acceptable responses to attack and personal threat. In the Bible, however, Jenkins identified far more troublesome passages, including the apparent “divine sanction” of genocide. In 1 Samuel, for instance, God tells Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, including infants, nursing children and even animals. I had a friend in seminary who wrestled with the pain and destruction of life, struggling particularly with this kind of violent imagery that appears so often in the Bible. During morning prayer, Ps. 137 would appear regularly in the prayer cycle. I remember frequently watching Joe slump in his monastic stall, his broad Irish face darkening as the 8th verse was recited: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:8).  

Religious traditions have been interpreting problematic texts like this for centuries, and sometimes the words from theological interpretations can prove as destructive as the proof-texting of fundamentalists. In Philippe Buc’s, Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence, and the West, ca. 70 C.E. to the Iraq War, the French historian identifies the theological word pairings of centuries that shaped the contours of not only religious discussions, but post-Enlightenment secular thought, and set the table for some of the violence that is often wrongly attributed to religious motivations. The concepts of Old vs. New covenants, the “letter” vs. the “spirit” of the law, war vs. peace, and election vs. universalism, Buc claims, created a “symbolic matrix” that could be manipulated to promote war, terrorism, and the glorification of the “martyr” for a higher cause when cultural “tensions” occurred due to the pressures of poverty, oppression, ignorance and other deficits in human flourishing. This underlying symbolic matrix of paired concepts, Buc maintains, is precisely the reason terrorist acts can seem to mimic religious ritual.  It is also, I think, one of the reasons that some people erroneously think that linking religion and terrorism is an accurate causal word pairing. However, it’s not, and this link creates far more problems than it solves.

Religion grows from the soil of historical and cultural particularity, and it takes centuries for a tradition to learn how to frame its beliefs in ways that are not easily twisted in response to social and political crises and agendas. This is why religions continue to develop their doctrine, as my own Catholic tradition attempted to do recently at the Vatican with a significant revisiting of the Catholic Church’s understanding and articulation of its just-war ethic. There are people in Islam who are attempting to do the same thing, such as Tariq Ramadan, Reza Aslan, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Caner Dagli’s new translation and commentary on the Quran. Their perspective, methodologies, and religious history, of course, are much different than Catholicism and Christianity. But, the intent of the process is the same.

People who do horrendous things, whether terrorism or random acts of violence, are motivated by complicated reasons and it serves no good purpose to look for simple causal links. Karen Armstrong’s ultimate conclusion after studying religion and its association with violence is that religions have not played a significant role in fomenting violence, rather the source of this violent thinking and acting is better associated with human nature. This will require looking more closely at all of the factors creating the terrorist mind – the enduring impact of colonialism with its stories of oppression running through family systems, the accumulation of generations with little economic opportunity, deficient educational systems, problems in psychosexual development and its effect on gender identity, disorientation due to massive cultural changes that show no sign of abating, and a raft of issues best studied under the rubric of social psychology …  Welcome to the complex factors creating the terrorist mind.  


It is disturbing that our fragmenting, isolating world is creating more personalities susceptible to manipulation by terrorists. But, this is just another reason to get our heads around the multiple factors causing terrorism and to figure out ways to respond effectively to each of those factors.  We might also interrupt conversations that suggest this problem has a relatively easy causal link to religion, for such facile descriptions make it more difficult for religious traditions to develop and champion the parts of their spiritual heritages that promote peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.   

~Dr. Mark Markuly