Looking Beyond Terror

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles

-Sun Tzu, Art of War

This letter on the TODAY newspaper forum reflects an understandable, but naive, sentiment about terrorism. The writer argues that terrorism has no religion, and that all terrorists should simply be called terrorists without ascribing them a religion. To modern sensibilities and paradigms, terrorism must clearly fall outside the peaceful practices of conventional religion. But it is a mistake to say religiously-motivated terrorists are not religious.

If a terrorist keeps a long beard, prays five times a day, demands his friends and family live by the strictures of the Koran, enters battle chanting “Allahu Akhbar!”, fights to establish a Caliphate governed by shariah law as codified in the Koran, judges himself and others by principles laid down in the Koran, beheads innocents in the name of God, and dies believing that he will be served by 72 virgins, what motivates him? If a group of terrorists act in a similar way, what unites them and motivates them, and what do they use to recruit others to their cause?

The answer is religion. In their case, their version of Islam. If one does not, or will not, understand an enemy’s motivation, it is impossible to defeat him. The purpose of war is to break the enemy’s resistance and to force him to submit to your will; if one refuses to attack the source of the enemy’s motivation, the enemy will continue to resist, and there will be no way to end the war without shedding oceans of blood.

The author of the letter claimed that “Like all other extremists, they do not care who they kill as long as they continue to instil fear in people.”

This is a shallow interpretation of extremism. Groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram do in fact care about whom they kill. They perpetuate genocides, target minorities, and launch attacks on soft targets to instil terror and inspire fellow travellers. They target government forces wherever they can to undermine the state, utilising unconventional warfare strategems to undermine the power of the state to resist them.

Terror is not merely a goal. Terror is a tool, and to understand it you need to look beyond terror, to its effects. Terror frightens enemies into fleeing, intimidates fence-sitters and civilians into submission, and inspires fellow believers to greater violence. By carefully picking soft targets, terrorists ensure maximum shock value for minimum cost in lives and munitions. While it is a blunt instrument, terror is a very effective tool so long as no other party is willing to perpetuate ever-greater terrors on the original actors. Witness IS’ rapid gains, or Boko Haram’s ability to command global media attention through a relatively small cost in time and effort

Terror is a tool, but it is not necessarily a motivation. While I believe there will be no end of wolves in human skin, whose greatest pleasure in life is to prey on others as sadistically as possible, such psychopaths are historically a minority of the human race. Most people require a great deal of motivation before they can inflict violence on others, even more so when talking about lethal violence against non-resisting targets.

As described in On Killing by David Grossman, this usually requires a combination of factors: a higher cause, a respected superior giving the order to kill, peer pressure, and a dehumanisation of the target. Religion offers a quick and easy means to fulfil these requirements: Islam, a mullah, the presence of fellow believers, and by viewing the victim as non-Muslim and therefore a worthy target. Participation in such an atrocity, combined with religious indoctrination, provides a heady psychological cocktail that encourages unit bonding, making it harder to sway terrorists from the cause and encouraging them to fight harder for the organisation. In this case, religion is as much a weapon as it is a motivation.

The author is afraid that ascribing terrorist violence to religion “may create wrong impressions of certain religious groups, which may then lead to rifts in our multicultural, pluralist society.”

This may be so, but the creation of rifts is exactly the kind of strategy needed to defeat religiously-motivated terrorism. The key is to be targeted, separating the terrorists from civilisation while still giving individual members a means and motivation to rejoin society.

The Islamic State calls itself that to appeal to the Muslim diaspora. Especially the disillusioned Muslims living in secular states, seeking a higher calling or spirituality in their life. By portraying themselves as part of a religion, terrorists are preying upon believers to sway them to their cause, arguing that their deeds are in line with religion and that it is the duty of fellow believers to fight for their religion — and what better way than to sign up with the group?

It is easy to say that terrorist groups like these are not religious. But this approach only works if one’s target audience is the rest of civilisation, who are already inclined to believe that or else view terrorism as beyond the pale. If the goal is to end terrorism, to neutralise their propaganda and defang their doctrine, it is nowhere near enough. It will not reach to the people who need this message the most. If anything, this approach is self-defeating.

Should the civilised world claim that groups like the Islamic State are not religious and leave it at that, terrorist propagandists will seize upon it as proof of oppression. They will cherry pick their personal practices and claim that they are in line with religious practice, and use it to circle the wagons and draw their members even tighter. People like these have decades of experience in the dark arts of propaganda, and can justify almost anything they do by referring to the holy book of choice. The rank-and-file, those who feel they are fighting for a religion, would likely feel abandoned by the civilised world, and cling ever tighter to their parent organisation. Or defect to another terrorist group that promises a truer practice of faith. Or self-radicalise and work out their frustrations in a final act of martyrdom.

This is, needless to say, counterproductive.

The better approach is to engage terrorist propaganda head-on. It is no longer enough to say ‘these are not religious people’, not if the goal is to defeat terrorism. What is necessary is to draw a distinction between civilisation and barbarism. To whit, people must be able to say, “this is what a good believer does, and this is why these terrorists are not good believers” — and they have to be convincing. This requires a propaganda campaign for the cause of civilisation, with theologians and academics able to make religious arguments based on actual studies of the holy book(s) terrorists are perverting. Since the majority of high-profile terrorist groups in the world today claim to be Muslims, it is imperative for the Muslim community to step up and police themselves, to drive a schism between civilisation and the barbarians who would pervert their faith. Nobody else has the moral ability to do this.

The ultimate question here is, what makes a religion? It is not merely a holy book or the teachings within it. A religion is not merely the name of a god or gods and their properties. A religion is a human phenomenon, and as such it is defined by how humans interpret and practice religion, not just in worship but in everyday life. There are as many ways to interpret and practice religion as there are people on Earth.

The barbarians wish to use religion to justify wanton cruelty and terror, paving the road to Hell with promises of Heaven. To defeat them, believers of the civilised world must be able to show why the barbarians’ interpretation and practice are not merely mistaken or irreligious, but goes against the spirit of their faith, and to show people a better way to live. This is the harder way, much harder than simply claiming the opposition is not religious and be done with it.

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