Religious contexts of present-day terrorism

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by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 27 June 2019

Current day terrorism has many faces. Its objectives are multifaceted and operations multi-pronged. The entire world is its stage, which has made it a prime concern for governments and societies around the world. No community is safe from its impact. It ranges from individuals to groups to international networks and thus poses a challenge to internal intelligence system of nation-states around the world. In the opinion of some analysts, it is indeed a world war, not the third one, but the fourth and the true world war. The first two world wars were traditional wars were classical wars: the early ended European supremacy and the colonial era. The Second ended Nazism. The third, which did not happen, as a dissuasive cold war, ended communism. From one war to the other, one went further each time toward a unique world order. But the fourth world war is elsewhere. It is that which haunts every global order and every hegemonic domination. Terrorism, like a virus, is everywhere. Immersed globally, terrorism, like the shadow of any system of domination is ready everywhere to emerge as a double agent. There is no boundary to define it; it is in the very core of this culture that fights it.

Faces of religion

The root cause of the present, devastating terrorism is religious fundamentalism. Every religion comes into existence in a given society with its values, its ethos, customs, and traditions. Religion tries to reform society by providing certain ideals and values. But human behavior is never determined simply by the faith one follows. It is determined by several factors – personal or group interest and inspiration, social mores and traditions, and tribal or national expectation. Thus understanding religion varies according to tribal, national, and ethnic considerations, and one always finds a tension between the theological and the sociological. This tension could be creative or destructive, depending on the situation or approach of the people concerned. In fact, any religion, particularly those that have existed over long periods and continue to be practiced – speak to us in many voices. Their multivocality, which expresses the diversity of historical experience, allows for a degree of internal and external critique. Extremism in any religion propagates intolerance and hatred for other communities and that generally leads to violence that may take the form of terrorism. Religious extremism driven by political motives invariably leads to terrorism, as the extremist groups aim to capture or retain power. A fundamentalist sect or group may also want to isolate other sects or religious factions from national mainstream so that they are unable to compete with it politically or gain equal status.

The fundamentalists look upon scriptures as the word of God. Fundamentalist traits have uniformly appeared in all the major religions of the world in recent years. In the USA, there are Operation Rescue Protesters. In Israel, there is the Gush Emunium, who claim that God has given the Land of Israel, with precise boundaries, to his children. In Sri Lanka, there are militant Buddhists. However, it is Islamic fundamentalism which has the broadest global sweep, stretching from the Mediterranean through the Balkans, the Black Sea, across the Caucasus and Southern Russia, through Western China enveloping Pakistan and Bangladesh, affecting India moving on to Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines. It is, in fact, the best organized fundamentalist force with a worldwide network. It is, however, of an entirely different variety, it emanates from extreme rigidity of beliefs and disdain for other religions though it is against the true tenets of Islam.

Concepts and meaning

Initially, the term Islam means submission to God, and as such, designates a religion, preached by the Prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the seventh century A.D. It believes that in the obedience of God, lies peace, prosperity, happiness and the salvation of man. According to Islam, the other prophets who preceded Muhammad were all true prophets, and Islam is nothing but a confirmation of the true faith taught by previous religions and teachers. Religion is undoubtedly a vital force in every society and Muhammad made Islam a permanent force vitally by giving it a natural and rational basis. It spread from Arabia to different countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Thus, Islam could embrace diverse social and ethnic countries, and it emerged as a universal religion from the very beginning.
The Quran is the scripture of Islam and the authentic source of its teachings. Its emphasis on the need for tolerance of diversity and the sanctity of life is worth nothing. God in the Quran requires believers to show tolerance and respect to those who differ in their ways. It says: ‘to every people, we have appointed a form of worship, which they have followed. So let them not wrangle with you over the matter. It emphasized the universal concept of religion, such as the unity of God and the unity of the human race. As regards the sanctity of human life, the Quran says : ‘anyone who kills a human being if not in retaliation for a murder, nor for causing corruption in the land – must be accounted to have killed all mankind, and whoever saves a life it will be as if he had saved the life of all of humanity. Islam’s concept of the unity of man had profound and far-reaching effects on the social, political, economic, and moral way of life of the Muslims.

Islam started as a great revolutionary movement based on equality, human dignity, and justice. These ideals were partly acceptable to the tribal society of Mecca. Equality and human dignity were acceptable in a limited way within tribal social boundaries. Members of a tribe could be accepted as equals, but not those of other tribes. Members of other tribes could be accepted only as a client, not as equals. Radical Islam is what Prophet Muhammad is believed to have given to the citizens of Medina after his flight from Mecca. He outlined an ideology, couched in religious terms, from which an escape was next to impossible. The doctrine offered no accommodation except on its terms, ruled out all compromises, and demanded an allegiance any violation of which was declared blasphemous, inviting instantaneous annihilation. As radical Islam spread far and wide beyond Mecca and Medina, often in the shadow of the sword, it did encounter powerful ideas which sometimes mellowed it and some times led to the emergence of new sprouts. In the circumstances, the concept of universal brotherhood and inter-tribal equality created social tension throughout Islamic history. Even within Arab society, these became explosive after the death of the prophet. By the time the prophet died, different tribes of Arabia had embraced Islam.

Thus the ideas of radical Islam are in contrast to the message of the Quran that the mystery of divine mercy is also being experienced in other traditions. Prophet Muhammad accorded the world – view and encouraged the Muslims to approach non – Muslims with respect and know how the mystery of God found expression in older traditions. With their internationalist attitude and traveling to foreign countries either in connection with their overseas and overland trade or in search of knowledge, the Muslims became the pioneers in starting interreligious dialogue. The desire on their part to understand what other cultures might have to offer enriched their cultural heritage. However, the lofty ideals of Islam received a setback when the tribe of Quraysh claimed the Caliphate quoting a ‘hadith and superiority over other tribes.’

Effects of religion on society

Islamic society soon transformed into a feudal society. The reasons for embracing a religion could be quite varied. Some embrace it collectively along with other members of the caste or tribe or nation; some embrace it for political or economic advantages, and some after studying the religion. In its historical march to its present expanse, Islam has destroyed empires, countries, religions, cultures, and people. In the process, it even opposed the Sufi Islam which toned down the hard features of the original and introduced new concepts. Sufi Islam conditioned the Islamic mindset to acceptance of co-existence with other cultures and religions. Islamic extremism is invariably politically driven and seldom a purely religious movement. It has no sanction either in the Quran or in the practices of the Holy Prophet of Islam. The distorted interpretation of various historical events by some Islamic clerics led to violence against non–Muslims in the past. The creed of tolerance compassion, charity, and civilized behavior preached and practiced by Prophet Muhammad were forgotten soon after his departure from the scene. The stern commands in the Holy Quran pertained to particular situations such as murderous attacks on Muhammad and his followers by the pagan tribesman. These were later misinterpreted or used by vested interests to wage wars against political opponents. The terrible massacre of Karbala, in a battle for political supremacy and power illustrated for the ruthlessness of the tribal customs to achieve political ends.

In the course of its spread far and wide Islam came to India with Arab invasions, Sultan Mahmud, of Ghazni, in particular. Initially, the Islam that settled down in India was not so radical. Its core got impacted by Hindu philosophy, bhakti movements which provided Islam a broad-based co-existence with all religions of India. For over 300 years, Islam remained peacefully as a religion and taken its place among the many religions of India without trouble or conflict. Before Islam, Jainism and Buddhism had been absorbed by Hinduism. Also, there were Christianity and the Hebrew religion which had reached India probably during the first century after Christ had found a place in the country. Historically, Hindu society had shown a peculiar ability to absorb and culturally assimilate groups which entered its fold from outside, even with military power. But Islam was the first exception. Islamic groups had much higher cultural self – confidence, and clearer self-recognition in terms of doctrines and observances. This prevented an absorption into Hindu society in the treacherously insidious way that had been the common fate of earlier intruders. The new approach produced powerful psychological reactions among the people and filled them with bitterness. There was no objection to a new religion, but there was a strong objection to anything which forcibly interfered with and upset their way of life.