Muslim terrorism has become part of our world today. That is not to say that all Muslims are terrorists. Very few Muslims even sympathize with terrorist attacks by other radical Muslims. But even if few Muslims are terrorists, it is also true that most terrorists are Muslims.
Terrorism can be defined as the use of fear and violence against innocent citizens in an attempt to strike terror and influence public opinion and public policy. The focus of terrorism is often on noncombatants in an effort to create fear. That is why many military strategists refer to terrorism as the “new warfare.” Terrorists, however, turn the notion of war on its head. Innocent non-combatants become the target of terrorist attacks. Terrorist warfare holds innocent people hostage and makes a soldier and civilian alike potential targets for their aggression.
History of Terrorism
In the past, various dictators and governments used terrorist tactics against their people or other enemies. For example, the Reign of Terror in eighteenth-century France led to the execution of 25,000 people. Also, Marxist leaders used terror against its citizens in order to bring about desired political and economic changes within their countries. But terrorism changed after World War II and began to be used by revolutionary groups. Today, nearly all the terrorist actions come from radical groups within Islam.
Whole books have been written about the history of terrorism, but a book that has a good summary of radical Muslim terrorism in our time is The ISIS Crisis, written by Charles Dyer and Mark Tobey. Back in the 1970s, Russia invaded Afghanistan. Those fighting Russia were the Mujahideen. In an unofficial way, the United States supported them. One of the leaders was Osama bin Laden. When Russia left, the Taliban filled the vacuum created when Soviet domination ended. The word Taliban means “students” in Pashto. This was a name given to it because many of the original members studied a radical form of Islam that was taught in Pakistani religious schools called madrassas.
When Mohammed Omar seized power, this allowed Osama bin Laden back into the country to build al Qaeda and set up terrorist training camps. The word al Queda means “the base.” This base of operations allowed them to carry out various attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Tanzania. One of those attacks came against the United States on September 11, 2001.
When the United States and other western powers sent troops first to Afghanistan and then Iraq, al Qaeda decentralized and became a franchise operation. The leader in Iraq was a man by the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When he was killed, ISIS (now often called the Islamic State) filled that power vacuum. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the head of the Islamic State of Iraq. This was happening during the so-called “Arab Spring.” Over time ISIS became the richest terrorist group in the world and controlled territory as large as an entire nation-state.
Terrorist Interpretation of the Qur’an
Radical Muslim terrorists interpret the Qur’an literally and believe that the various verses of the sword apply to them today. Here are just a few of the verses that can justify jihad against unbelievers and infidels that are found in one chapter of the Qur’an:
- Sura 9:5 – “Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleager them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem.”
- Sura 9:29 – “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Prophet, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
- Sura 9:73 – “Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, and evil refuge indeed.”
The word translated “strive hard” is the Arabic word jahidi, which is a verbal form of the noun jihad. The traditional interpretation was that this striving was to be on the battlefield.
Muslims often divide the Qur’an into two parts: the “Meccan” and “Medinan” suras. The Meccan suras come from Muhammad’s career as a prophet. In Medina, his positions hardened and are filled with matters of law and ritual. This includes exhortations to jihad.
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Many Muslims remind us that there are many verses in the Qur’an that talk about peace and tolerance. That is true, but they date from the Meccan period when Muhammad was a prophet. Radical Muslim terrorists instead point to the verses written when Muhammad was in Medina. They also use the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, which means that Allah can change or cancel what he tells Muslims (Sura 2:106). They argue that these later verses abrogate (or invalidate) the earlier verses and thus are normative today.
Western Denial of Terrorism
Radical Muslim terrorists cite the Qur’an as their justification. Nevertheless, many political and religious leaders in the west continue to argue that jihadists are not Muslims.
After the attack on Charlie Hedbo in Paris, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said, “I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They’re about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else’s life, that’s not what the Koran says. Europe has an enormous radical problem. I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it’s a cult.”
In a recent address on Muslim terrorism, the Pope argued that, “Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist, and Muslim terrorism does not exist.” If the pontiff’s observation was to say that not all Christians and not all Muslims are terrorists, that is obvious. It is a self-evident fact.
The problem with these and many other comments is that they attempt to distinguish radical Muslim terrorists from peace-loving Muslims by saying that the former aren’t Muslims while the latter are Muslims. But these jihadists actually point to the life of Muhammad to justify their terrorist actions and they cite verses in the Qur’an that they believe justify their terrorist actions.
Our world today does not have to deal with Christian terrorists or Jewish terrorists. Even if they existed, there are appropriate verses in the Bible (1 Samuel 24:4-13; Proverbs 25:21-22; Matthew 5:41-48; Luke 6:27-32, 10:29-37: Romans 12:14-21) that can be used to condemn terrorist acts.
In an article in The Atlantic Graeme Wood explains who ISIS and the Islamic State are. He says “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
He goes on to add that: “Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
David French in a recent commentary made this arresting statement: “A series of Muslim immigrants and “visitors” are responsible for killing more Americans on American soil than the combined militaries of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.”
He reminds us that although Muslims in America make up a small fraction of the population, a very few within this religion are responsible for more terror deaths than any other group. This is an important fact to keep in mind when someone in government proposes that additional scrutiny is given to Muslims who wish to immigrate to this country. We implemented such tests and scrutiny during the Cold War because of a national security threat.
Vast Majority Myth
When a discussion turns to Muslim terrorism, people remind us that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and reject violence. Since we hear this comment so often, it is worth examining in more detail.
First, it is not necessarily true that most Muslims in other countries are peaceful and reject violence. The Pew Research polls cited earlier illustrate that the vast majorities of Muslims want to implement sharia law in their countries. Significant percentages believe that suicide bombing can be justified.
A few years ago, atheist Bill Maher was on the Charlie Rose PBS show trying to make the point about how dangerous Islam is. Charlie Rose responded with the typical comment that all religions have their dangerous fanatics. Bill Maher would have none of it. He argued that Islam is different.
He said: “Vast numbers of Christians do not believe that if you leave the Christian religion, you should be killed for it. Vast numbers of Christians do not treat women as second-class citizens. Vast numbers of Christians do not believe if you draw a picture of Jesus Christ you should be killed for it.”
He went on to quote from a Pew Research poll in Egypt that found that 80 percent believe stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery. Nearly all of them (88%) thought death was an appropriate punishment for leaving the Muslim religion.
He also talked about the outrage when ISIS is beheading people. But he then pointed to the number of people who had been recently beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Very few politicians or commentators protested these beheadings, often for non-violent crimes.
In Mecca, non-Muslims are not even allowed in the holy parts of the city. You don’t have that in other religions, he explained, and they behead people there. Bill Maher asked, “If they were beheading people in Vatican City, which is the equivalent of Mecca, don’t you think there would be a bigger outcry about it?” He called it the soft bigotry of low expectations with Muslim people.
William Kirkpatrick writes about “The Vast Majority Myth.” He counters this idea with three propositions. The first proposition is that “the vast majority of people are peaceful, until they’re not.” It is easy to find examples of people who were peaceful for a long time and then quickly turned violent. The vast majority of Hutus were behaving peacefully before the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. By years end, the Hutu managed to kill about 800,000 Tutsi using clubs and machetes. The vast majority of Europeans were behaving peacefully prior to World War I. All of that changed in 1914 when the nations of the world went to war with each other.
The second proposition is the reality that the vast majority of people will go with the flow. The majority of the Hutu went with the flow. Many of the moderate Hutus who did not join in the killing were in turn killed by their fellow Hutus.
This proposition is especially true in Islam. Most Muslims (especially in this country) would just like to be left alone. They want to go about the business of earning a living and raising a family. But Kirkpatrick says that one of the built-in features of Islam is that you won’t be left alone. It forces you to be good. And the way to be good is to conform to sharia law. This is especially true in a country that not only has sharia law but has also established a caliphate. By then all of the arguments for a militant form of Islam have been institutionalized.
The third proposition is that a majority of people in any society are women and children. Although some Hutu women took part in the slaughter of Tutsi, it is true that the vast majority did not. That is little comfort to those who were slaughtered. Most jihadists and suicide bombers are men, but there are some women and children that participate. While it is true that the vast majority aren’t jihadists, that makes little difference in terms of the terrorist danger.
Terrorism against democratic governments has often been successful because these governments are accustomed to dealing within a legal structure. Thus, they often find it difficult to deal with terrorists who routinely operate outside of the law. Yet deterrence is just as much a part of justice as proper enforcement of the laws.
Democratic governments that do not deter criminals inevitably spawn vigilantism as normally law-abiding citizens, who have lost confidence in the criminal justice system, take the law into their own hands. A similar backlash is beginning to emerge as a result of the inability of Western democracies to defend themselves against terrorists. Activists want to “bomb terrorists and terrorist nations back to the stone age.” Pacifists want to retreat from a war on terror and find ways to appease those who threaten Western society.
Terrorists have also been successful due to media exposure. Terrorists thrive on media exposure, and news organizations (as well as website and blogs on the Internet) have been all too willing to give terrorists the publicity they desire. When kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings are given prominent media attention, governments start feeling pressure from their citizens to resolve the crisis. Often, they capitulate to the demands of terrorists and terrorist organizations. Encouraged by their latest success, terrorists usually try again. Appeasement, Churchill wisely noted, always whets the appetite, and recent successes have made terrorists hungry for more attacks.
Some news commentators have been unwilling to call terrorism what it is: wanton, criminal violence. Some news organizations refuse even to use the word “terrorist” in their broadcast. Others argue that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But this simply is not true. Terrorists are not concerned about human rights and human dignity. In fact, they end up destroying human rights in their alleged fight for human rights.
We should be asking the question, what is a terrorist? Is a terrorist a common criminal? If terrorists are only common criminals, then they are a problem for the host government. However, if terrorists are more like a foreign enemy of the government, then they should be treated as enemy combatants.
The answer to this question is no small issue. In recent decades, governments have oscillated in their answers to this question. How you answer the question will determine whether you bring terrorists to justice (treat them like criminals) or bring justice to terrorists (treat them like combatants). The Bible provides some guidance in Romans 13:2-4 where the Apostle Paul says:
He who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.
This passage of Scripture helps us make an important distinction in our analysis of terrorism. It shows that criminals are those who do evil and threaten the civil peace. Any outside threat to the existence of the state is not a criminal threat but an act of war, which is also to be dealt with by the government.
In other words, criminals threaten the state from within. Foreign armies threaten the state from outside. In the case of seeking domestic peace, Romans 13 outlines how governments will approve of good works, but that governments should bring fear to those that are wrongdoers.
Evildoers should live in fear of government. Terrorists do not live in fear of the governing authorities in the countries where they live. Some terrorist organizations live outside of the laws of their host government while others engage in terrorist activities with the approval of the host government.
Many Muslim terrorists do not even fear the “sword” of the governing authorities. Instead are often given sanctuary by such governments. Governments who give sanctuary and even give approval have often adopted the attitude that terrorists do them no harm so why should they move against the terrorist organizations? In fact, they are not seen as a threat because terrorist groups are acting out the host government’s policies.
By definition, terrorist groups and their host nations are enemies of the government when they capture and kill innocent civilians for military and foreign policy purposes. When terrorists attack, the government should not view them as criminals but as foreign soldiers who attempt to threaten the very existence of that government.
The strategy and tactics of governments fighting terrorism have to change. In the same way that it took traditional armies some time to learn how to combat guerilla warfare, so it is taking time for Western governments to realize that the rules of warfare have also been revised in the case of terrorism.
Declare War on Terrorists?
If Western governments say they are fighting a war on terrorism, shouldn’t they formally declare war? This is a good question. Many have indeed called for a formal declaration of war rather than a more limited authorization for the use of power. A declaration of war would be an opportunity to thoroughly debate the issue as well as clearly define who the enemy in this struggle is.
The U.S. Constitution grants the following powers to Congress: “To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations; To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.” Terrorist acts fall into at least two of the congressional provisions for dealing with attacks on the nation. They are (1) to punish offenses against the law of nations, and (2) to declare war.
In either case, there are strong Constitutional grounds for taking action against terrorists. The difficulty comes in clearly identifying the enemy and being willing to risk offending many nations in the Middle East whom we consider allies. Congress should identify the enemy and thus define that group as a military target. Once Congress does this, many other steps fall into place.
Military strategy should be deployed to hunt down small groups of well-armed and well-funded men who hide within the territory of a host country. Political strategy should be developed that will allow us to work within a host country. The government must make it clear how serious it takes a terrorist threat.
Diplomacy also can play a part. Using diplomatic channels, we should make two things very clear to the host country. First, they should catch and punish the terrorist groups themselves as civilian criminals. Or, second, they should extradite the enemy soldiers and give them up to an international court for trial.
If the host country fails to act on these two requests, we should make it clear that we see them in complicity with the terrorist groups. But failing to exercise their civil responsibility, they leave themselves open to the consequences of allowing hostile military forces within their borders.
Terrorism and Just War
The Christian response to war has ranged from pacifism to activism. But most Christians hold to what has come to be known as the “just war tradition.” This view developed over many centuries and drew from Greek and Roman sources until it was formalized into a structure by Augustine.
There are seven key principles in a just war. The first five apply to a nation “on the way to war” (just ad bellum) while the final two apply “in the midst of war” (just in bello). These are the seven principles in a just war:
- Just cause. All aggression is condemned, only defensive war is legitimate.
- Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain not ideological supremacy are justified.
- Last resort. War may only be entered upon when all negotiations and compromise have been tried and failed.
- Formal declaration. Since the use of military force is the prerogative of governments, not of private individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the highest authorities.
- Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then unconditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s economic or political institutions is an unwarranted objective.
- Proportionate means. The weaponry and the force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks (in order to secure a just peace).
- Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of a government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict should be immune from attack.
Although Christians may disagree about how to apply these principles in our current war on terrorism, they nevertheless provide a helpful framework for discussing this issue. For example, the principle of “proportionate means” leads to two conclusions:
- The military should not apply too severe a punishment. Calls for bombing cities of host countries in retaliation for terrorist actions should be rejected as inappropriate and unjust.
- The military should not apply too light a punishment. Host nations who harbor terrorists and refuse to punish or extradite terrorists should be pressured to do the right thing. Punishment could come in the form of economic embargoes, severing diplomatic relations, or even military actions. But the punishment should be proportional to the terrorist act.
Two types of objections often surface against the idea of a just war. First, there is a moral objection. Pacifists argue that it is never right to go to war and often cite biblical passages to bolster their argument. For example, Jesus said believers should turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). He also warned that “those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
The context of the statements is important. In the first instance, Jesus is speaking to individual believers in his Sermon on the Mount, admonishing believers not to engage in personal retaliation. In the second instance, He tells Peter to put down his sword because the gospel should not be advanced by the sword. But at the same time, Jesus actually encouraged his disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36) in order to protect themselves.
There is also a political objection. Critics say that the just war tradition applies to only to nations and not to terrorists. Even so, that would not invalidate military actions in Muslim countries that harbor terrorists.
But the criticism is incorrect. Christian thought about just war predates the concept of modern nation-states. So, the application of these principles can apply to governments or terrorist organizations. Moreover, the very first use of American military force in this country was against Barbary Pirates. President Thomas Jefferson actually declared war on the Muslim pirates who were from the Barbary Coast of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers.
Before the Revolutionary War, American ships had been under the protection of England. Then the United States had to provide protection, but the Barbary pirates began to capture many of the ships. The United States (along with many European governments) began paying bribes to the Barbary States.
When Thomas Jefferson became president, the Pasha of Tripoli sent a note demanding the immediate payment of $225,000 a year plus additional amounts in future years. That was enough. Jefferson told the Pasha what he could do with the demand. The Pasha cut down the flagpole in Algiers and declared war on America. The other Barbarian States also declared war.
Congress and the president then responded by empowering American ships to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli. Once the U.S. took action some of the other Barbary States backed down. The war with Tripoli lasted four more years. This included a battle in 1805 when the Marines raised the American flag not far from the shores of Tripoli. That became the famous line in the anthem of the Marine Corps.
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 Charles Dyer and Mark Tobey, The ISIS Crisis (Chicago, Moody, 2015), 31-44.
 Howard Dean on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” 7 January 2015, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/01/07/howard_dean_on_paris_attack_i_stopped_calling_these_people_muslim_terrorists.html.
 Thomas Williams, “Pope Francis: Muslim Terrorism Does Not Exist, Breitbart, 17 February 2017,
 Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015,
 David French, “It’s Time We Faced the Facts about the Muslim World,” National Review, 19 September 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/440175/chelsea-bombing-minnesota-stabbing-jihadist-threat-america-grows.
 William Kirkpatrick, “The Vast Majority Myth,” Crisis Magazine, 15 December 2015, http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/the-vast-majority-myth.