Global Policy Forum

The Islamization of Terrorism


By Baha Abushaqra*

Yellow Times
September 27, 2004

In a recent article published in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, charged that: "almost all terrorists are Muslims." In his piece, he cited various examples -- such as the Chechen hostage takers in Beslan, Osama bin Laden, and suicide bombers -- but failed to place his observation in a geopolitical context. Thus, he heeded the advice of America's influential neoconservative Richard Perle to "decontextualize terrorism." Not surprisingly, al-Rashed's words were music to the ears of "Islamic experts" with an ax to grind: here is corroboration -- from the general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, no less -- for what they have been saying all along -- the existence of "Muslim terrorism."

The Islamization of terrorism -- i.e. giving terrorism an Islamic connotation -- has far-reaching, detrimental repercussions. Many people have now been conditioned into believing that Islam and terrorism are interrelated, that there is a violent dimension to the religion of Islam, that Muslims must be kept in check, by interventionism if need be. This narrative necessarily conjures hostility towards Muslims. While most people would agree that the selective targeting of unarmed civilians is an abomination worthy of the denotation "terrorism," as a matter of fact, adversaries selectively bestow this demonizing label upon their enemies. This malicious charge serves to delegitimize the cause of their opponents. The US, Israel, and Russia, as pertinent examples, are quite comfortable characterizing all attacks against their combatant military units as terrorism.

So, is terrorism just a narrative part of warfare? Is there a moral fine line between terrorism and legitimate armed struggle? And, who draws this fine line? Is not colonialism -- the expansion of hegemony and territorial dominion by military coercion -- state terrorism? In an interview published in The Guardian (26 January 2001), Leila Khaled, a fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who became the 1970s favorite "girl terrorist" after hijacking a plane in 1969, said when asked about terrorism: "Whenever I hear this word, I ask another question: who planted terrorism in our area? Some came and took our land, forced us to leave, forced us to live in camps. I think this is terrorism." The geopolitical context that fomented Ms. Khaled's PFLP, which was founded by the notorious George Habash, also nurtured the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was founded by another Palestinian Christian, Naif Hawatmeh. It also created Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all for the purpose of liberating Palestine by means of armed struggle.

If the calculated targeting of civilians is terrorism, are not the calculated military activities that kill and maim civilians also terrorism? In an armed struggle, who decides what level of "collateral damage" is acceptable? To ponder these complexities is to contextualize terrorism. Islamization of terrorism diverts attention from the underlying geopolitical context. Framing the conflict in an age-old menace, Islam, harnesses domestic support. The simple truth is that "Islamic terrorism" is the manifestation of a politicized and militarized ideology -- Islam in this case -- that emerged in the context of contemporary military realities.

Thus, as military historians concur, suicide bombings are tactics of asymmetric warfare. As the "poor man's military tactic," they are by no means peculiar to any one group. The Tamil Tigers separatists in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group opposed to organized religion, committed 75 suicide bombings between 1980-2001 (about 40% of the global total). In World War II, Japanese Kamikaze pilots acted as "human missiles" by flying their planes directly into enemy warships. After World War II, Vietnamese Viet Minh "death volunteers" were used against the French colonial army. Middle Eastern and Caucasian terrorists profess clear geopolitical goals (the liberation of Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, etc.), but their nationalistic struggles are commonly misconstrued and misrepresented by media pundits as "Islamic," as if emanating from the religion Islam per se, and Mr. al-Rashed is complicit in this Islamization of terrorism.

About the Author: Baha Abushaqra is a regular contributor to

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