Citizens worldwide are becoming all too familiar with the accelerated frequency of terrorist attacks in the 21st century, particularly with those involving a religious underpinning. Why, though, have religiously-affiliated acts of terrorism become such a common occurrence? By examining how religious fundamentalism has accelerated and intensified terrorism within the modern world, scholars can focus on determining the “why”. By historically defining terrorism and fundamentalism and then placing them within the context of current religio-political and socio-political discourse, one can observe the shift from nationalism into terrorism and therefore understanding the innate interconnectedness of as a whole.
Throughout the beginning of the 21st century, it is no surprise that terrorism has come to be a major concern worldwide. Due to the frequency and magnitude of violence, many scholars have and are trying to determine the sudden surge in activity. Since the Cold War has ended, there seems to be one driving factor behind the atrocities, and focus has shifted from nationalism to religious fundamentalism as the cause of terrorist acts. From the World Trade Center bombings in 1993 and their eventual destruction on September 11th, 2001, suicide attacks in Israel in Palestine, nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, and assassinations in India, Israel, and Algeria, religion has come to the forefront as motivation for the largest terrorist organizations in the modern world
In order to examine this phenomenon, one main question must be answered: How has religious fundamentalism accelerated terrorism in the modern world? To establish a framework to respond, one must first examine the definitions of , as well as their historical ties. In addition, understanding the dynamics between religion, politics, and society become important to place the nature of the violence into the correct context. Finally, one must determine the shift from nationalistic violence to fundamentalism, and use this to explain how fundamentalism has become the root of modern terroristic acts.
To define terrorism is akin to attempting to define any human experience, if only in the fact that terrorism defines itself to each person differently. Socio-political realities, religious affiliation, and cultural identification play into an individual’s definition, creating difficulties in expression within universally understood terms. In each instance of terrorism (regardless of definition) one might view an act as “terroristic” while another may not. If a hard and fast definition must be constructed, it should be simple and open to interpretation. We know the following: terrorist acts are violent (or at least inherently dangerous), typically involve more than one target, and are perpetrated to initiate change (whether societal, political, religious, or ideological). Therefore, one may choose to define an incident as an act of terrorism if the violence or the threat of violence was used against more than one person in order to instigate change on a societal, political, religious, or ideological level.
Fundamentalism is an unwavering faith to a religious belief system, though some assert that the term ‘fundamentalism’ is another way of excusing ‘normal’ religion and isolating problems into a deviant form of the doctrine. Though originally used to describe certain sects of Christianity, this strict adherence to theoretical doctrine has stretched to include all major world religions. Multiple terrorist acts have been committed by “followers” of other religions; specifically, due to current developments and acts committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), this examination will focus on Islamic fundamentalism. Whether through the original political split inside of Islam or the eventual Shiite-Sunni split that has led to numerous conflicts, Islam has been in almost constant turmoil since its appearance, with fundamentalism and radicalization inside of its doctrine becoming a mitigating factor in most of the terrorist acts completed within the 21st century. With these definitions in mind, examining the historical background of both terrorism and fundamentalism will provide a context in which to place the influence of religious terrorism on politics and society.
The word ‘terrorism’ first originated during the French Revolution (1789-1799) and was used to describe the government; by 1848, it was used to describe violent revolutionaries. By the end of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the meaning had again changed to describe the violent acts of several organized groups, such as labor organizations, anarchists, nationalistic groups, and ultra-nationalistic political organizations. Eventually, nationalism became the main motivation behind acts of terrorism; however, a clear shift had already begun as religion came to the forefront of terroristic reasoning.
According to Hirschmann (2000), five types of terrorism now exist: ideological, involving the desire for revolutionary changes within political or social structures; ethno-political, in which ethnic minorities long for their own state within an existing state or some degree of political and cultural autonomy; religious, where a desire to impose religion-based norms of conduct appears and can evolve into apocalyptic fanaticism; single issue, involving the extremist militancy of groups/individuals protesting a perceived grievance; and “chosen ones”, who are mentally disturbed/deranged individuals with a certain mission or social philosophy who are not connected to a network . All things considered, one could make a justifiable argument that while all “types” of terrorism are equally valid in their need for examination, in light of recent events religious motivations stand in the forefront and require immediate consideration.
This shift has been attributed to increasing amounts of acts involving religious terrorism to political Islam, Christian fundamentalism, and Messianic Zionism. As terrorist ideologies have become more religious, terroristic violence has become more indiscriminate and targets appear to be more geographically dispersed. In regards to fundamentalism, groups wishing to have their religion practiced purely are called fundamentalist, as are groups pushing for an overhaul of the national or global political system with a cultural connection to a religion. While first used to describe a conservative strain of Protestantism developed in the United States, the fundamentalist ‘battle’ was not so much with the secular state as it was between other Protestant people and organizations; however, other organizations and sects were attempting to modernize, with fundamentalists becoming militantly opposed.
While this conflict eventually died out, and fundamentalism relatively disappeared until the 1970’s, some have stated that without modernization and secularization there would be no fundamentalism; when resurgence did occur in the 1970’s, it appeared more politically active than before, and was beginning to be observed as part of most of the world’s religions. Considering the shift that occurred, religious fundamentalism then came to been seen as an aggressive politicization of religion for the pursuit of nonreligious ends, being only a superficial form of terrorism or extremism; this definition fits more clearly with what fundamentalism has become in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
When examining historical ties between terrorism and fundamentalism, one can look at the developed ideological and organizational requirements of modern fundamentalism from Emerson and Hartman, which closely resemble the process of radicalization and indoctrination of an individual into a terrorist organization described by White. Ideological requirements for modern fundamentalism include defense of tradition, selective choice in doctrine, dualistic morality, absolutism, and messianism . This clearly connects with the organizational requirements, including an elect/chosen membership, set boundaries for inclusion, “chosen” leaders, and behavioral requirements. White describes the process of radicalization as involving an alienated young man, who upon meeting other alienated young men forms a group. From there, the group gravitates towards religion, and attempt to outdo each other in their zeal for the cause. The religion then begins to be interpreted in militant terms- while most groups stop at this point, some continue development leading to a militant group that encounters a terrorist contact, and join the terrorists through a group decision. Keeping in mind these ties of organization, the religio-political and socio-political discourses regarding can now be examined.
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