Is Islam at Fault?

by Warren Ross

There is a lot of confusion about the nature of Islam, and the extent to which it is the religion itself, as opposed to an “extremist” wing of it, that breeds terrorism. In my analysis of President Bush’s terrorism speech, I argued that Islam deserves its share of the blame. Here I expand on that theme.

There is no question that all religions have different interpretations of their basic texts. The very fact that a religion is something accepted not by reason but by faith implies that there would be a dearth of clearly defined concepts and logical argument in the religion’s texts. The mysterious, analogy-dominated style of religious texts is destined (if not designed) to be open to interpretation.

There is also no question that Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism have all had their share of terrorists. The abortion-clinic bombers in the United States are just one example.

Similarity of All Religions

By studying various religions and looking at history, one is led to the conclusion that any number of religions could lead to terrorism. The tenets of religion that promote terrorism are:

  • <otherworldliness – The focus on an afterlife, and on the importance of another world over this one, denigrates this life, and life itself. On this view, this material world, the earth we live on, is viewed as a) temporary, b) unimportant, c) a passageway to another, better world, and d) even evil (due to its inferiority compared with the other world). On the premise of otherworldliness, it is of no importance to avoid killing – oneself or others. If there were any last compunction about being a terrorist or a suicide bomber, say at the point just before the horrible act is to be committed, the belief in this view would undercut that compunction.The suicide instruction manual, recently published by the FBI, has any number of references to the other world. Number 7 in the itemized list published by the New York Times, urges the terrorist to “Purify your soul from all unclean things. Completely forget something called ‘this world’ [or ‘this life’]. The time for play is over and the serious time is upon us.” Number 8 says: “You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage [in heaven] is very short. Afterwards begins the happy life, where God is satisfied with you, and eternal bliss ‘in the company of the prophets, the companions, the martyrs and the good people, who are all good company.’ “

Similar quotes can be found in the religious texts of all of the world’s major religions. Islam is not distinctive in this sense.

  • determinism, or fatalism – The focus on the complete lack of choice of the individual actor. This goes hand-in-hand with the omnipotent power of God. God is viewed as having a complete plan for the world, and He has the power to implement this plan. Therefore, the individual has no power to alter the course of things. His sole purpose is to identify and carry out God’s plan. Some religions emphasize complete passivity and resignation to God’s plan. Others emphasize getting in sync with God’s plan and trying to take actions consistent with it. Whichever emphasis a particular religion has (and all religions have an ambiguous emphasis, switching back and forth between resignation and synchronous action), the belief in this tenet would completely thwart any last line of moral squeamishness on the part of a terrorist.The recently published suicide instruction manual is imbued with determinism. Number 9 on the list of instructions says in part: “…remember that you will return to God and remember that anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you.” Number 14 says: “[…God decrees what will work and what won’t] and the rest is left to God, the best One to depend on.”

Again, similar quotes can be found in the religious texts of all of the world’s major religions. Islam is not distinctive in this sense.

  • faith – The view that all knowledge comes from a non-rational means, whether a basic commitment of belief in the absence of reason (or contrary to it), or by feeling, is the only way a terrorist could be induced to commit such horrible acts and kill himself. One thing is very clear: suicide bombers are not scholarly logicians who think for themselves. They take their orders from those who interpret God’s word, whether they are listening to the Imam’s in the Arab world or the preacher in the local Baptist Church. Thoroughly steeped in the idea that truth has already been interpreted for him, that he has been told by the “authorities” what God’s plan is, the terrorist doesn’t question his orders or the authority’s interpretation of God’s plan. He just does what he is told to do.Number 4 in the instruction manual begins: “Remind your soul to listen and obey [all divine orders].” This section goes on to say “God said: “Obey God and His Messenger, and do not fight amongst yourselves or else you will fail. And be patient, for God is with the patient.” ” Toward the end of the manual, in the “third phase” of the plan, the terrorists are instructed: “If God decrees that any of you are to slaughter, you should dedicate the slaughter to your fathers and [unclear], because you have obligations toward them. Do not disagree, and obey.” The emphasis on obedience to God’s word is not only explicit in those passages, but implicit in the entire manual, since it is written as a spiritual document, almost as a religious tract, in which the writer (supposed to be the terrorist ringleader, Mohamed Atta) tells all the other pious men what to do.

As with the two previous premises of religion, exhortations to have faith in “God and His Messenger” are to be found everywhere in the religious texts of other religions, even if the explicit urging to slaughter is absent.

  • sacrifice – The focus on giving up, on self-denial, on living ascetically, would bolster a terrorist in his determination to carry out his deed. He is giving up his life, which to most is a precious value. But if he has spent his life believing that he should deny himself his highest value, and that it is important to give it up for God’s plan and to have everlasting joy in heaven, he won’t hesitate at the last moment. Nor will he hesitate to sacrifice others – if sacrifice is good it is good universally, not just for him. Also, his devotion to sacrifice and asceticism will cause him to despise anyone who loves this life and lives for happiness, enjoyment and the material pleasures in this world.Sacrifice and otherworldliness are intimately related – one is sacrificing this life, but getting more in return in the other life.

Here the instruction manual can’t be too explicit about the sacrifice part – it emphasizes the other world. It has to sway the terrorist by convincing him that his hardship will be rewarded by joy in heaven. Pure sacrifice, with no possibility of joy, it seems, might present difficulty for the terrorist in maintaining his resolve. The instruction manual quotes a poem that says: “Smile in the face of hardship young man/For you are heading toward eternal paradise.” Many other times in the manual, there are references to being happy about the sacrifice: “Be happy, optimistic calm because you are heading for a deed that God loves and will accept [as a good deed]. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.” (This reference is to sexual pleasure that martyrs enjoy in heaven.)

Sacrifice for a better life in heaven is, of course, a common thread among religions.

We see then, that all four of these fundamental views – otherworldliness, determinism, faith and sacrifice – are integral not only to Islam but to all the major religions. An understanding of these views can help one to explain how a person would kill 7000 people, himself included. Such views, seriously held and practiced as principles, without the pragmatic softening that has occurred by the influence of Western ideas, explain all the terrorism in all the religions, as well as all the examples of pure suicide of the Jim Jones type.

However, despite their similarities on these fundamentals, not all religions have the same emphasis, mythology or other specifics. What if a religion had all of the above tenets, and in addition had a series of subordinate views/traditions all leading toward a glorification of war and a fundamental hatred of any shred of rational values? Let us look now at some of the views of Islam that distinguish it from the other religions.

Distinctiveness of Islam

As opposed to at least Christianity and Judaism in the Western world, Islam is distinguished by the following six traits:

  • thorough religiousness – Islam takes all the ideas very seriously. Muslims are called to prayer not just on Sunday, but five times a day. An entire month of every year is devoted to fasting. Focus on the other world, determinism, faith and sacrifice are not empty phrases but deeply held beliefs, practiced to the point where they are fundamentally indistinguishable from the culture of the Islamic countries. Regarding fatalism, for example, “En Sh’Allah” (“God willing”) is one of the most common expressions in the Islamic world. It justifies a passive acceptance of events, and an unwillingness to take action to achieve goals to an extent so unknown and so frustrating to Westerners that one colleague of mine characterized the phrase as the Arab equivalent of the Mexican “mañana,” only without the sense of urgency. One need only look at how people live in the Islamic countries – shuffling resignation, grinding poverty, rejection of material values and a continuous focus on their relationship with Allah – to see that these are people who take their religion seriously.
  • ambiguity between personal striving and war – I discussed this ambiguity in my analysis of President Bush’s speech. The word “jihad” has multiple meanings in Arabic. In its most basic meaning, it is a religious duty to spread Islam by waging war. But what kind of war?Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Islam distinguishes four ways by which the duty of jihad can be fulfilled: by the heart, the tongue, the hand, and the sword. The first consists in a spiritual purification of one’s own heart by doing battle with the devil and overcoming his inducements to evil. The propagation of Islam through the tongue and hand is accomplished in large measure by supporting what is right and correcting what is wrong. The fourth way to fulfill one’s duty is to wage war physically against unbelievers and enemies of the Islamic faith.”

The equation of “striving” with conquest over others, as Dwyane Hicks put it, is a prescription for confusion, at the very least. Having integrity, living one’s views, is made equivalent to killing and conquest. Is it any wonder that this religion has many practitioners willing to engage in such killing? If one is brought up with no way to make a conceptual distinction between integrity and murder, then in principle those two concepts are the same in the practitioner’s mind. One story on Mohamed Atta mentioned that he had not come from a terrorist family or been a terrorist for his entire life, but had been a “normal” guy, living an undistinguished life. He’d had various jobs, seemed middle class. Then he began to attend a Mosque in Germany that bred terrorists, which turned him into a devoted terrorist. How could this happen? Whatever else is at the foundation of his odyssey from “middle class” to terrorist, I’m sure the Imams in the Mosque used the ambiguity between striving and conquest as part of their brainwashing in preparation for his taking part in the September 11 attacks.

The terrorist deserves moral condemnation and retribution for allowing himself to be turned into a killing machine – no one can claim “my religion confused me” as an excuse for mass murder. However, if there ever had been the slightest element of disgust that could make him recoil from murder, his religion would have made it impossible to argue why he shouldn’t do it.

  • emphasis on force – Islam has a long history of political murder (“assassin” is an Arabic word) and war as the means of implementing and spreading the religion. Islam was fighting religious wars centuries before the Crusades. Consider the following from the Introduction to the Everyman version of the Koran (sent to me by Dwyane Hicks):

“…the capture of Khaybar was part of a policy of pressure to the north that had started somewhat earlier and was to be pursued vigorously to the end of Muhammad’s life. It was also to lead to expansion northwards into Syria after his death. It appears to have been based on two aims: control of strategic routes and direct contact with northern tribes to convert them to Islam.

“The period from the treaty of al-Hudaybiya to the death of Muhammad was one of almost total success, the only reverse being the failure of one of the northern expeditions. Tribes began to send delegations to Medina to negotiate allegiance to Muhammad. His basic condition was always that they should become Muslims.”

A key point to observe is that whatever injunctions and protestations for peaceful dealings might be elsewhere in the religious texts, Islam has a tradition and a mythology thoroughly imbued with the idea of war as the means of spreading Islam. Judaic texts contain battles as well, but they are usually defensive battles. Christian doctrine emphasizes turning the other cheek, and has very little that could represent a mythology of war.

  • emphasis on martyrdom – Christianity has its martyrs, but they are usually pitiable creatures who either are unjustly harmed by brutes or who sacrifice themselves to help others. In Islam, the rank of martyr, or “‘shahid,’ comprises two groups of the faithful: those killed in jihad, or holy war, and those killed unjustly.” Hence, again we see a confusion-filled ambiguity mixing two very different motivations and results.The terrorist instruction manual contains these passages: “How beautiful it is for one to read God’s words, such as: ‘And those who prefer the afterlife over this world should fight for the sake of God.’ And His words: ‘Do not suppose that those who are killed for the sake of God are dead; they are alive…’ “

And from number 3 in the manual: “Read al-Tawba and Anfal [traditional war chapters from the Qur’an] and reflect on their meanings and remember all of the things that God has promised for the martyrs.”

  • no distinction between personal views and political organization, no “separation of Church and State” – As Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Because Islam draws no distinction between the religious and the temporal spheres of life, the Muslim state is by definition religious.” Adherence to religious law is paramount, and there is explicit sanction in Islamic doctrine for dictatorship to implement this adherence: “The first step taken in this direction by the Sunnites was the enunciation that ‘one day of lawlessness is worse than 30 years of tyranny.’ This was followed by the principle that ‘Muslims must obey even a tyrannical ruler.’ … No doubt, the principle was also adopted…that ‘there can be no obedience to the ruler in disobedience of God’; but there is no denying the fact that the Sunni doctrine came more and more to be heavily weighted on the side of political conformism.”And those quotes describe the Sunni wing of Islam, the supposedly moderate side. The Shi’ite wing of Islam is even more tyrannical, as the theocracy in Iran shows. However, it is still only a matter of small degree on a scale completely tipped toward dictatorship. One example is the penalties for attempting to convert a Muslim from his faith. True, in Afghanistan, the penalty for this crime is death. Nonetheless, even in the United Arab Emirates, supposedly one of the most moderate of the Arab states, the penalty is imprisonment (as a recent case in Dubai demonstrated).
  • thorough hatred of the West – No one is surprised that the terrorists hate the West. That is the primary motive for the horrors they commit. Most people, though, cannot believe the extent to which this view is common in the Middle East. We got a taste of this hatred when it came out that Arabs all over the Middle East were dancing in the streets when they saw the World Trade Center attacked. An example on the TV show “60 Minutes” (which aired an excellent program on this West-hatred): A well-dressed woman, speaking impeccable English, said that she was happy about the attack because it showed that America was no longer untouchable, no longer invulnerable.Quotes from the terror instruction manual are horrifying, but they express views common in the Middle East. From number 15: “All of their equipment and gates and technology will not prevent, nor harm, except by God’s will. The believers do not fear such things. The only ones that fear it are the allies of Satan, who are the brothers of the devil…[they] are fascinated with Western civilization, and have drank the love [of the West] like they drink water.”

Of course, hatred of the West is not an explicit tenet of Islam. When the texts of Islam were written, there was no “West” – Europe was in the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, hatred of the West as it is today is almost an immediate consequence of Islam’s other views. The philosophy of the West is the exact opposite of those views.

Whatever doctrines Islam shares with the other major religions, it is clear that it has distinctive views that add a powerful incentive and doctrinal justification for mass murder. All religions have in them the philosophical premises which could lead to terror, but not all have supporting doctrines and traditions that make terror a likelihood. This status is unique to Islam. Nonetheless, the really important point about what is distinctive to Islam is the first one – its serious religiousness. All secondary attributes are dispensable in explaining terror, but Islam’s serious adherence to the four primary philosophical premises of religion, and its implementation of those premises in practice, would lead to such terrorism even if there had been no tradition of war. Hatred of the West, for example, is not an isolated premise unrelated to the four primary premises. Hatred of the West is a consequence of the fact that the secular West thoroughly rejects such views (notwithstanding the remnants of a more religious past).


Attorney General Ashcroft referred to the terror instruction manual as “disturbing.” As I heard him say this, I was wondering why he found it so disturbing. Did he find the details of this heinous mass murder spelled out to such a degree that it turned his stomach? Probably. Was he shocked at the explicitness and completeness of the manual? Surely. But one very clear reason he would be shocked is that the manual is so thoroughly religious. It has far more emphasis on devotion to God and being good than it has on the pragmatic details of carrying out the terror. In places, the manual sounds more like a Sunday-school text than a terror manual. Instead of the dry prose of a nihilistic group’s website or of the Unabomber, it has something that is common to all religious texts: piousness. I believe Ashcroft, and all others in the Administration, are disturbed at how religious the terrorists are, how devoted to supplicating God, to religious ritual, to cleanliness and to getting into heaven the terrorists are. The deeds being talked about are shocking, but the language has the same dreamy, religious piety of the writings of any number of religious groups in America and around the world, whether they are terrorists or not.

We will hear (and have already heard) a lot of discussion about how these terrorists are extremists who merely pervert the word of God for their own evil purposes. But the really disturbing fact, that may have dawned on Ashcroft and will surely be clear to you if you read the manual, is that the views expressed in the manual are very common among all religions, and by implication terrorism is not caused by a perverted sub-cult but ultimately by religion itself, if taken as seriously as most Muslims do. That fear at the root of Ashcroft’s reaction is a well-founded one, and it should give us all pause to question the politically correct notion that “Islam isn’t at fault,” or the even more entrenched notion that “religion isn’t at fault – this is just an extreme perversion of it.”

NOTE: This article was also published in Capitalism Magazine.  Go here for the published version.

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