Is there a link between Islam and Terrorism?


By Dr. Mir Faizal, Adjunct Professor University of Lethbridge, and Visiting Professor University of British Columbia – Okanagan. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How do you look at global terrorism?

Professor Mir Faizal: I think before answering any problem, we need to fix our definitions. If we do not do that, we can create a more complicated situation than necessary, when one person talks of something and then the interlocutor understands something else. Let us start from the simplest definition of terrorism, a terrorist organization as an organization that deliberately kills civilians to achieve an ideological purpose. To be more precise, let us add that, an origination can be called a terrorist organization only if at least two democratic countries (on two different continents, e.g., North America, Africa, and so on, or in two different recognized regions, e.g., Middle East-North Africa, and so on) recognize it as such. This other restriction limits the abuse of this word, as, otherwise, this word has been thoroughly abused (for example, Saudi Arabia defines atheism as terrorism). This definition of terrorism is also important, as it helps us identify the real practical problem when dealing with real issues rather than, possibly, invented legalisms. This is the terrorism that governments have to be careful about when they are considering a visa application, or when they are checking someone for security reasons.

Jacobsen: Is terrorism related to Islam?

Faizal: Anyone who knows some statistics can see that there seems to be a positive correlation between some sects of Islam and terrorism. To say all Muslims are terrorists is clearly unreasonable and incorrect, and to say all terrorists are Muslims is also wrong (as there are many non-Muslim terrorists too); on the other hand, to say that Muslims are like any other religious group is also not correct, the number of violent events from Muslims seems to be far more than non-Muslims (if we again neglect the wars between nation states for the moment, as that is beyond the present definition of terrorism). I tried to search the number of terrorist attacks in December of 2018, as an example. I found there were approximately one hundred seventy terrorist attacks around the world. Out of these the terrorist attacks, only around twenty terrorist attacks were done by groups without an explicit Islamic ideology. Therefore, there seems to be a positive correlation between being a Muslim and being a terrorist. We need to first accept this problem, scientifically analyze its causes, and finally come to a proper, rational solution. It could be interesting to carry out this analysis further and observe the variation of this probability with different sects of Islam.

Jacobsen: What is the first observation that can be made on the relation between Islam and global terrorism?

Faizal: The first observation is that some sects of Islam are more violent than others. In fact, there are sects of Islam, which have almost zero histories of violence. This means the if someone belongs to those sects of Islam, then there is almost a certainty he/she will not commit any act of terrorism. For example, Ahmadi Muslims (both Qadiani and Lahori Ahmadis) or Quranist Muslims (Muslims who follow only Quran) have a zero history of violence. In fact, they have been the targets of violent attacks and have never responded violently. On the other hand, most of the global terrorist moments come from Sunni Islam. Some sects of Shia Islam have been involved with many forms of violence at the state level, but using our definition consistently, we cannot classify it as terrorism. As an example, I could not find any act of terror done by Shia Muslims in December of 2018. The Shias are also focused on Israel and the Middle East, and do not commit violent acts against other countries. On the other hand, it is Sunni Islam, which seems to have a monopoly on global terrorism. 

Jacobsen: Are some sects of Sunni Islam more prone to terrorism?

Faizal: I think there are only three sects in Sunni Islam, which are associated with terrorism. They are the Salafi, Deobandi, and Barelvi. The Barelvi and Deobandi are Sufis, and so, it incorrect to say all Sufis are non-violent. Barelvis are only obsessed with blasphemy and tend to limit the violence to those, who they think have insulted Muhammad. The person who killed the Salman Taseer (governor in Pakistan) was a Barelvi. The Taliban are Deobandi. However, both Barelvi and Deobandi have almost no influence beyond the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan), and are only concerned with local issues. So, the only group which has international global influence are the Salafis. It may be noted Salafis are called Wahhabis (named after their founder, who is closely related to the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). I could not again find any act of terrorism done by Barelvis in December 2018, and around forty terrorist attacks done by Deobandis. However, most of these attacks done by Deobandis were limited to the Indian subcontinent. This leaves more than one hundred international terrorist attacks, which were done by Salafis. However, Salafis make up less than one percent of the total Muslim population, and even in Saudi Arabia, they are a minority, and only form twenty-three percentage population. Furthermore, not all Salafis are violent. In fact, the official sect of Saudi Arabia is a Salafi sect, and it even bans peaceful protests against the government. These kinds of Salafi, who believe in blindly  following  the government, are called Madkhalis. There are other non-violent non-Madkhali Salafis. So, it is a specific kind of Salafis that are related to terrorism. As they form a small population of the total Muslim population, this correction becomes a more direct one. It may be noted that like the Shias, the violence promoted by Barelvi and Deobandi is circumstantial, and not intrinsic. However, the violence by certain Salafi sects (such as the ISIS) is intrinsic, and not circumstantial. Even with this difference, it may be noted that there are some deep common features between Salafi, Deobandi, and Barelvi. In fact, as the main concern of different governments is that they want to reduce the probability of someone blowing himself/herself up. Now there is no way to make this probability go to zero, but it would be possible to reduce to such a small amount, that we may just neglect it. This can be done by first understanding the source of the problem. For example, if a country is in global news about remakes on blasphemy they need to be careful of Salafis and Barelvi, and if a country is involved in Afghanistan, they need to be careful about Salafis and Deobandi. However, as both Barelvi and Deobandi are not concerned with international news, they need to only warn their citizens visiting Indian subcontinent. So, internationally, they only need to worry about the Salafis. As Salafis form a very small portion of the Muslim population, and Salafis can also be from peaceful  sects (like Madkhalis), it is only a specific kind of Salafis that any government has to be worried about when it comes to terrorism. 

Jacobsen: Do Islamic scriptures support terrorism? 

Faizal: We can deal with this question theologically. That can be a separate issue, and will require a separate discussion. However, that would also not be important from a real practical point of view. So, let us deal with it mathematically and statistically. We first observe that there are fundamentally two distinct groups of people in Muslims. One group is totally peaceful (such as the Ahmadis and Quranists), and others are totally violent (such as Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelvis). Most Muslims are somewhere in between these two extremes. So, instead of getting involved in an academic theologically discussion, we can analyze this problem mathematically, by simply identifying the common features of peaceful Muslims and violent Muslims. This way we can get a better more accurate practical understanding of the problem. It may be noted here that even thought not all Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelvis are violent, but all acts of violence, with an Sunni Islamic justification, comes from these groups. On the other hand, no act of violence with an Islamic justification has ever been conducted by the people in the first group, such as Ahmadis and Quranists.

Jacobsen: What are the features of peaceful Muslims and violent Muslims?

Faizal: There is an interesting correlation between what peaceful and violent Muslims sects believe, and this holds for most sects in the two groups. To understand that we need to first understand that apart from Quran and Mutawatir practices (collective practices which most Muslims perform, like prayers), theirs is a huge body of ahad Hadith literature, which describes what Muhammad did, and it was written some two hundred years after Muhammad. The idea of Muhammad marries a six-year-old girl comes from this literature, the idea that apostates should be killed also come from them, the idea that homosexuals (as well as people who commit adultery) should be killed also come from them. In fact, these ahad Hadith are filled with both extremely peaceful and extremely violent narrations (as they were written some two hundred years after Muhammad). A common belief in almost all terrorist organizations is that some verses of Quran have been abrogated based on these ahad narrations, and so they base their practices more on ahad Hadith narrations than on the Quran. In their theory, all the peaceful verses of the Quran were abrogated by verses, which may seem violent. On the other hand, all those sects of Islam who do not hold to this theory of abrogation of Quran are totally non-violent (for example, Ahmadi Muslims and Quranist Muslims do not hold to this theory of abrogation). Even Sunni Muslim scholars, such as Adnan Ibrahim and Javed Ghamidi, who actively preach against violence, do not hold to this theory of abrogation, and base their belief on the Quran rather than ahad Hadith. In their theory, the violence in any verse is contextual (and those verses only refer to war), and has to be read in the light of general more peaceful verses of the Quran. So, we can again establish a mathematical relation between Muslims who not hold to a textual discontinuity in Quran (the discontinuity between a Meccan and Medinan verses), and peacefulness. In fact, there is a direct statistical correction between those Muslims who base their belief on the Quran (rejecting the theory of abrogation) and peacefulness. Furthermore, there is also a direct statistical correction between those Muslims who base their beliefs on ahad Hadith (accepting the theory of abrogation) and violence. It is important to realize that not all Muslims, who hold to textual discontinuity in Quran are violent, but all Islamic terrorists, believe in the existence of a textual discontinuity in the Quran. In fact, there has never been a terrorist, who holds to the textual continuity in Quran. So, the probability of anyone who believes in textual continuity of Quran, and basis his beliefs on it, to commit acts of terrorism is zero. In other words, it is almost certain that any Muslim who bases his beliefs on the Quran, rejecting the theory of abrogation cannot be a terrorist. 

Jacobsen: How can this information be used by the government to stop acts of terrorism? 

Faizal: The government needs to act scientifically in identifying the problems of terrorism, and dealing with it. It is a real problem, and should not be influenced by either right or left winged politics, but it should rather be dealt with scientifically. For example, they can identify the right kind of questions that are being asked during a visa application, or other application. If you ask a person about his sect, and come to know he is an Ahmadi or a Quranist, then you can be certain he will not commit any act of violence. Furthermore, any person who is a potential terrorist will never identify himself/herself as such. In fact, for a Sunni Muslim, a good test could be a question (hidden in lots of other questions), where he/she is asked if they think that Ahmadis should be allowed to pray like other Muslims, and consider themselves as Muslim. If he/she answers in affirmation, then again we can be certain that he/she is not a potential terrorist. The government can, first of all, prepare a database of all the terrorist attacks that have occurred, and mathematically identify few common features of all the people (which might be education, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sect, etc). They can weight each aspect of a person, give them a statistical weight, and then subject them to different levels of security checks.As this will be done scientifically, no one will feel discriminated by scientific data (discrimination is a human attribute, and mathematics cannot discriminate). It is also important to realize that whether Islam is a peaceful or violent religion, is an academic question, and it is not important for dealing with terrorism. The only thing that is important is the perception that Islam preaches violence, and this can lead to real acts of violence by people who follow Islam. Interestingly, this belief is only present in those Muslims (and even non-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali), who hold to the textual discontinuity in the Quran, and base their beliefs on ahad Hadith. In fact, we can easily state one statistical fact, that it is this belief in textual discontinuity in Quran that is directly proportional to the intrinsic (not circumstantial) acts of violence by violent terrorists (like the ISIS), and everything that can be done to counter it (with the constraint that it does not violate the freedom of speech), should be done, to minimize the probability of terrorist attacks. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Mir Faizal.

Photo by Jaanus Jagomägi on Unsplash

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