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Reflections in the Aftermath of September 11

Understanding Islam
Violence as a Religon
Roots of Terrorism

Understanding Islam

By Sara Wolper

The Sept. 11 attack has caused many people to link Islam and terrorism. That is a serious misunderstanding of the message of Islam. In fact, Islam insists on respect for all human life, not just Muslim lives. Chapter 5, verse 32, of the Koran states, "Whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever saved a life, it is as though he saved all men." Islam promises peace to all people and prohibits indiscriminate killing as a violation of Allah's wishes.

An example of how little we understand Islam is the confusion of the term jihad with a holy war. The idea of a holy war does not exist in Islam; the term was invented by the Christian crusaders during the Middle Ages. In fact, the Koran specifically prohibits waging war to force beliefs on others, stating: "There is no compulsion in religion."

Jihad comes from the Arabic word jahada, which means to endeavor or to strive to improve oneself and one's religion. The concept of jihad is divided into a greater and a lesser jihad. The greater jihad is a person's internal struggle to overcome base emotions like greed and cruelty and to perfect one's spirit. The lesser jihad is a fight to defend one's life, land and religion. It can only be undertaken in the most extreme circumstances. Even then, for most Muslims, harming women, children and innocent civilians is not acceptable.

Illustration by John MacDonald
Illustration by John MacDonald.

The word Islam derives from a three-letter Arabic root, s-l-m. Its related meanings include peace, salutation, commitment and submission to the will of Allah, or God. A Muslim, literally, is one who surrenders to God. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe in one God. In fact, Islam's message of monotheism goes back to Abraham. Muslims recognize other prophets through the centuries, such as Moses and Jesus, but believe the final and perfected word of God was revealed to Mohammed in the seventh century.

From Mohammed's death in 632 to about the 9th century, Islam spread rapidly across northern Africa to southern Spain and north throughout what is now Iran. Islam united the area we now call the Middle East for more than 1,000 years. Muslims believe that the message of Islam is the true message, and it is incumbent upon them to spread the word of Allah. Yet Islam is a fundamentally tolerant religion. As Islam spread, the people in lands conquered by the Arabs were almost without exception free to continue practicing their own religions.

In fact, part of the appeal of the Koran is its message of democracy. It calls upon all people, men and women alike, to be active citizens, contributing to the improvement of their society, and to be responsible for their daily actions. Obviously, not many of the existing regimes in the Middle East empower their people to follow this tenet. And this has caused much of the frustration in the region.

Since the colonial period, the Middle East has been strategically important in the struggle among various empires--first among the British, French and Russian empires and then between the Soviet Union and America. These superpowers have played a major role in the way the Middle East is ruled today; indeed, many of the national boundaries were created by outside forces. At the same time, it has been in the national interests of some Western countries to support non-democratic regimes in the region. One of the reasons many terrorist groups are so hard to deal with is that their membership, grievances and goals are not confined by national boundaries.

But the region's strategic importance and the threat of terrorist actions are not the only reasons toimprove our understanding of Islam. Islam is not only an Eastern religion; it is the fastest growing religion in the West. More than 1.2 billion people, or one in five people on Earth, are Muslims. People from all races, ethnic groups and cultures on every continent submit daily to the will of Allah. We cannot afford to ignore them.

Sara Wolper is an assistant professor of history at UNH. She specializes in the history of Islam and the Middle East.

Violence as Religion

By David Frankfurter

Religious violence is in no way unique to Islam or Muslims. Religions Eastern and Western, modern and ancient, have sanctioned astounding brutality in pursuit of expansion or authority. Often the motivation seems to be purity--a desire to expel the foreign or the demonic. Warriors then seek to re-establish a perfection and order lost through foreign influences or through some kind of Satanic conspiracy.

The largest religious bodies can purge their lands by inquisition, massacre and desecration, their warriors serving as the very hand of God. Smaller religions and sects have also seen themselves in this kind of divine role, attempting to bring the Messiah or to spark an endtime war between God and Satan by performing some spectacular act of destruction But these smaller religions and sects have often sought another option, also violent: group suicide. In such recent cases as Jonestown, the Branch Davidians of Waco, the Heavensgate group and the Ugandan "Ten Commandments Movement," believers saw themselves as abandoning an impure world to God's justice and crossing the life-death barrier to a blissful angelic life. Indeed, this barrier is imagined in the most minimal terms--hardly "suicide" in the conceptions of the actors. Paradise, one failed Palestinian "human bomb" was convinced, lies "very, very near--right in front of our eyes. It lies beneath the thumb. On the other side of the detonator." The Jonestown believers were "stepping across" to the "next plane . . . the green scene." The Heavensgate believers were dressed to join their heavenly counterparts on a comet. The word "suicide" seems woefully incapable of describing such attitudes.

Illustration by John

A principal characteristic of the groups that have performed acts of self-destruction is their prior isolation in social enclaves. Their acts follow long periods of intensive self-segregation, where new notions of death and life, this world and the next, threat and salvation, are thoroughly absorbed. This separation makes it easier for members to maintain ideas radically deviant from those of any mainstream religion. They can come to accept martyrdom as the highest form of self-expression attainable. Osama bin Laden's training camps and some madrassas in Pakistan and Palestine can certainly provide this kind of environment. But the young men who hijacked the airliners on Sept. 11 had left such enclaves far behind, living in America, enjoying an open culture with television, alcohol and strip clubs. Under such circumstances, how did they maintain the sense of purifying purpose and true martyrdom that would enable them to act so deliberately and effectively together on that morning?

It is a circular argument, but it seems that they could do it because they were the types of people who could do it. And while they lacked the encouragement of an enclave, they had astounding organizational support. Indeed, it seems we are seeing a new form of violent religious fanaticism in this age. Instead of the physical enclave, we have a more general "enclave culture" like bin Laden's Al Qaeda, which produces a network of "sleeper cells," similar to classic espionage or organized crime systems. In fact, we have witnessed this new form of religious fanaticism before on the violent fringe of the U.S. anti-abortion movement.

This kind of organized subculture of terrorist operatives claims for itself the legitimacy of religious tradition--even identifying itself in its violent missions as the very arm of God. And yet by the nature of its constituency of hardened terrorists, this kind of subculture lies at quite a distance from anything we might imagine as "mainstream" Catholicism, Islam or Judaism. Operatives may be recruited from vast ranks of disaffected men, but the movements they join focus almost exclusively on violence and the millennial bliss it might bring, not on revitalizing the larger community of believers. So while we must devote our greatest intelligence and law enforcement efforts to neutralizing such groups, we can rest assured that they will remain always on the far periphery of the great religions.

David Frankfurter is a UNH associate professor of history and religious studies, who specializes in violence and destruction in early Christianity.

Roots of Terrorism

By Thomas Trout

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we have begun to ask hard questions about American conduct overseas and the impact of our foreign policy. Did we bring this on ourselves? And, if so, what can we do to change, so that we won't continue to be the target of such horrific acts?

The answers are not simple. This terrorist assault arose from conditions within the Middle East and South Asia, among the most complex regions in the world. Their tangled histories, colonial residues and fractious relationships make the outcomes of virtually all policy choices uncertain. The United States has acted unevenly in these regions in response to a variety of influences--the geopolitics of the Cold War, the role of oil in the U.S. economy, the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute and a number of other perceived American interests. But America's actions are not sufficient to explain the ruthless attacks of Sept. 11.

The true roots of this terrorism can be traced to the struggle occurring within Islam with Osama bin Laden, the battle is for the heart and soul of Islam. What offends is not simply the United States or its conduct, but the secularism and Western modernity that can now be found within emerging states and governments in the Middle East and South Asia.

Elites in resource-rich countries within this region have sought advancement through industry and trade with nations of the developed world, adopting their patterns but often neglecting the social costs of economic development. While holding out the promise of democracy and economic well-being, authoritarian governments have contributed to discontent among their own people not only because they have delivered less than promised, but because, in doing so, they have disrupted religious convention. Meanwhile, resource poor nations like Afghanistan, lacking any means to advance or to affect their destiny, have added further disaffection. In both cases, estranged groups have sought refuge in the fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and have challenged the values that their governments have promoted.

The principals and supporters of the bin Laden network are all opponents of regimes within these regions. Their acts of terrorism are intended ultimately to dislodge those governments that espouse views that are associated with the democratic norms and liberal patterns of American society. Americans are thus the object of international terrorist attack as much for what we are as for anything our country has done or may yet do. From the First Amendment to MTV, we symbolize almost everything to which bin Laden's brand of fundamentalism stands opposed.

The bin Laden network seeks to kill as many Americans as possible with as much physical destruction as possible. That is the function of international terrorism: purposeful violence against targets of great symbolic import. That is not a framework for negotiation; it is a framework for war. This is a war, however, burdened with all the complexities of its origins. The nature of the regions from which it arises and the enormity of the issues there make it difficult to think in terms of conventional borders and forces. The enemy is not an opposing military, but is more like organized crime on an international scale. The difference, though, is substantial, for these "criminals" are religious zealots who pursue their goals by building support through propaganda and sympathy wherever the struggle within Islam is to be found. The bin Laden network is diffuse, global, multifaceted and mobile.

Illustration by John MacDonald

These facts constrain the options for U.S. foreign policy. The need to neutralize the threat, eliminating bin Laden and any safe haven that his network may seek, is imperative. Equally urgently, we need to secure our nation with better intelligence and physical and procedural barriers so we are not such an easy target for those who intend to harm us.

But we must do so with a clear sense of the larger issues upon which this terror relies. For the struggle within Islam and within the regions of the Middle East and South Asia will produce more bin Ladens, perhaps not as well organized or as well funded, but as determined. We must eliminate the foundation upon which they might build. That means addressing the economic roots of disaffection within the region and helping moderate states to attain the political freedoms and societal well-being they have espoused. It is well to listen to those who admonish us that this struggle will be long, difficult and costly. ~

Thomas Trout is a professor of political science at UNH. He specializes in U.S. foreign policyitself and its efforts to accommodate the 21st century. For the terrorists associated

Recommended Reading


"An Arsenal of Believers," by Nasra Hassan, The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2001, pp. 36-41

"Yes This Is About Islam," by Salman Rushdie, The New York Times, Nov. 2, 2001 (available at


A Concise History of the Middle East, by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. (Westview Press)

The Fundamentalism Project, 5 volumes, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press)

A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)

Inside Terrorism, by Bruce Hoffman(Columbia University Press)

Islam, by Jamal Elias (Prentice Hall)

Islam, Continuity and Change in the Modern World, by John Voll (Syracuse University Press)

Islam: The Straight Path, by John Esposito (Oxford University Press)

Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, by John Esposito (Oxford University Press)

Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements, edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (Routledge Press)

Terror in the Mind of God, by Mark Jurgensmeyer (University of California Press)

Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, by John K. Cooley (Stylus LLC)

Web Sites

A University of Michigan site offers a comprehensive look at America's war on terrorism, with links to hundreds of other sites.

The Air War College's site provides a primer on homeland security and the war on terrorism with many useful links.

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