Does Islam permit terrorism? When faced with this momentous question, most analysts reply with either an emphatic “No!, terrorism violates Islamic principles,” or a resounding “Yes it does!,” pointing to the bloody deeds performed by groups like al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Boko Haram. In the brief analysis that follows I, however, will offer an alternative answer and along the way reveal some staggering differences between Muslims’ and Westerners’ basic assumptions about violence and killing.
Our discussion must begin with a concrete definition of terrorism. According to most Euro-American scholars working on the topic, it can be defined as violence in the service of a political objective, often arbitrary in nature, and always designed to instill blind fear among an entire population. In addition, terrorism is characterized by a deliberate intention of inflicting casualties upon noncombatants.
Having defined terrorism, we need to examine why it is considered vile and reprehensible. Quite simply, terrorist acts violate those portions of international law that insist upon strenuous efforts to protect “innocent civilians” during wartime, such as the 1977 Geneva Convention. This celebrated document insists that combat can only be deemed acceptable if “the civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations … unless and for such a time as they take a distinct part in hostilities.”
A casual observer might suppose that international law’s condemnation of attacks on noncombatants is just common sense, or the fruits of basic humanitarianism, something that no “decent person” could reject. In reality, however, these guidelines, upon which our disdain for terrorism is drawn, are distinctively Western, stemming from a unique aspect of its religious heritage, to which we now turn—Catholic “Just War” theory. Developed during the Middle Ages by the Church’s canon lawyers, it established the precise conditions under which a nation could declare war (Latin, jus ad bellum), along with the conduct that armies must follow during hostilities (Latin, jus in bello). On pain of excommunication, the latter theory barred soldiers from harming women, children, the elderly, priests, pilgrims, and so on. From this perspective, “terrorism,” as Graham Gordon explains, “could not be a tactic employed in a just war because far from observing the jus in bello distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and respecting the immunity of the latter, [it] precisely depends upon rendering this distinction irrelevant.”
Now, since the understanding of terrorism presumed in contemporary international discourse, particularly seminal twentieth-century documents like the Geneva and Hague Conventions, originates from within the West’s unique religious heritage, we should not presume that Muslims will subscribe to that point of view. And, indeed, once such ethnocentric blindness has been lain aside, and Muslim thinkers permitted to define and evaluate terrorism from within their own religious heritage, we can detect two distinctively Islamic schools of thought on the topic.
First, a few Muslim commentators insist that terrorism is a mandatory feature of their faith. As evidence, they cite Qur’ anic passages commanding the faithful to “cast terror into the hearts of the infidels,” and to “muster against them all the men and cavalry at your command, so that you may strike terror into the heart of the enemy of God” (8.12, 8.60). Advocates of this sacred violence treat it as a commendable activity. Thus, in 2005, reflecting on Quran 8.60, Umm Nidal Farhat, Hamas activist and mother of three sons killed while attacking Israeli civilians boasted, “ I am happy to implement this Koranic verse myself and proud to be a terrorist for the sake of Allah.”
The second and more common perspective among Islamic spokesmen is to insist that “Extremism, violence, and terror have no connection whatsoever with Islam,” as the Islamic Fiqh Council, an association of prominent Saudi clerics declared in 2002. Non-Muslims often misinterpret this claim, perceiving it as a blanket condemnation of the armed men who frequently kill civilians in the name of Islam. In fact, when Muslim clerics and politicians declare that terrorist acts are alien to Islam, they mean something quite different. In a nutshell: Muslim violence against unbelievers constitutes jihad. And since this sacred duty is “meant” for upholding right, ending injustice, ensuring peace and security, and establishing mercy,” in the Fiqh Council’s glowing words, it “could never be equated with terrorism.” In other words, Muslims cannot be terrorists because their violent acts against the unbelieving foe’s civilians are driven by the most noble of motives—spreading the “One True Faith.”
Let us re-examine the question that launched this brief analysis: Does Islam permit terrorism? By now, it should be obvious that multiple answers are possible, depending upon the questioner’s worldview and cultural baggage. From the Western perspective, which is predominant, Islam does permit terrorism, and a good deal of it. On the other hand, from a Muslim point of view, grounded in Sharia, members of their faith are either incapable of conducting terrorist actions or divinely-commanded to commit such deeds with pride. Either way, the cultural gulf on this topic is immense and probably unbridgeable.