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Hearts of Darkness

Why are almost all terrorists Muslims?

By Will Offensicht  |  December 5, 2008

The recent terrorist atrocities in Bombay, India, have forcibly returned the War on Terrorism to global attention.  People in the West have been lucky for some time now in enjoying the absence of terrorist attacks.  You've certainly had other things to concern ourselves with of late, but even if you're not interested in war, war is interested in you, and the same is true of terrorism.

This latest horror should serve as a timely reminder of our unfinished business.  There has been improvement in Iraq and in other places; but we are far from from a state of peace and safety.

By the nature of terrorism, it will always be far easier to carry out terrorist attacks than to defend against them.  The only long-term solution is to persuade the terrorists to stop, either by killing them all or by changing their minds.

Nobody minds killing terrorists in the heat of battle, but there seem to be an awful lot of them.  Polling data seem to indicate that around a tenth of all Muslims support the idea of suicide bombing.  There are roughly a billion Muslims worldwide; 10% is 100 million persons in favor of the most barbaric sort of terrorism.  Killing even a small fraction of that many people would be impractical; in order to be rid of the menace of terrorism, we'll have to persuade them to stop.

The ease of mounting terrorist attacks and the absurd cost of defending all possible vulnerabilities make it all the more important that we understand what motivates the terrorists so that we can figure out how to de-motivate them.  Yet in some ways, enlightenment is further away from us than it was on 9-11 itself.  The most fundamental reason for our lack of understanding of what we're up against is our leaders' ignorance of the most basic motivator of all: religion.

Why Religion Matters

There have been many articles discussing the disappearance of religion from European and American society; but even though American religiosity has plummeted, elites on both sides of the pond are still dismayed that a significant number of Americans cling to religious beliefs which the Europeans have long since abandoned as obsolete.  During the primary campaign, Barack Obama famously criticized rural Pennsylvanians for clinging to their religion rather than embracing modern diversity; as the resulting furor demonstrated, this view of religion as obsolete and irrelevant is almost unanimous on the left, and surprisingly common on the right as well.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post written by a professor who is also a Roman Catholic priest pointed out that our leadership elites tend to have no real understanding of faith, which is the basis of any religion.

It's not that we don't know about religion; it's that we don't understand faith and its life-shaping power.

This was OK when our elites led our fight against the Soviets during the Cold War.  The Soviet ideology of Communism was profoundly atheist.  Our irreligious elites could deal with their equally irreligious opposite numbers in the Soviet Union and understand them pretty well.

We won the Cold War because our economic system was greatly superior to theirs.  We beat 'em the old-fashioned way - we out-spent them.  This strategy worked because, as Reagan discovered of Gorbachev, neither of them wanted their grandchildren evaporated in a nuclear Armageddon.

If you're an atheist, all you get is this one shot at life and when you're dead, you're done.  The Russians didn't want to die any more than we did.  They wanted to win, and would spend as much as they could to do so, but the leaders wanted to live, everybody on both sides wanted their grandchildren to live, and the common people wanted decent lives.  This mutual desire to survive and to live comfortably if at all possible formed a basis on which their leaders and our leaders could agree that it was desirable not to annihilate the world in a nuclear war.

We face two different, more recalcitrant problems in dealing with terrorism.

First, terrorism doesn't cost the perpetrators much.  We can clearly outspend them, but that won't win the war, or battle, or whatever it is.

The second issue is an even bigger difficulty.  All over the world, the vast majority of terrorism is motivated by religion.  Our irreligious elites are ill-equipped to deal constructively with highly-religious terrorists.

If someone truly believes that he gains a huge number of points from God if he dies while killing you, it's difficult to negotiate with him to persuade him not to kill you or die trying.

Our side gets carried out in baskets when our negotiators don't understand the primary motivations of the other party.  We've reported on the Japanese government winning a hands-down victory when negotiating with us over restrictions on importing Japanese cars into the US.

It wasn't ignorance of Japanese religion that defeated us; Japanese religions are nominally peaceful.  What did us in was that our guys did not realize that their guys had had personal experience with starvation during and after WW II.  Personal experience with starvation profoundly affects one's world view.

If you've spent years wondering how you're going to feed yourself and your kids, you aren't going to settle for reduced exports just to please the United States.  Although not motivated by religions concerns per se, this fervent pro-export attitude on the part of the Japanese was as fervent as any religious belief.  Ignoring this belief system handicapped our negotiators just as surely as not understanding religion handicaps our diplomats in the Middle East.

Not only are most of our leaders utterly unequipped to understand the current wave of terrorism, they can't even decide what to call our efforts to combat terrorism.  Religion matters in dealing with religiously-motivated terrorists; what we call the conflict more or less controls how everyone else perceives our goals and motivations.  If we don't know how to describe what we're doing, we won't do it well.

The Many Names of War

What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

- Juliet Capulet, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

You might think that which we call a skunk, by any other word would smell as foul.  You would be wrong.

As politicians have discovered, deciding on the correct name to call things is vitally important in persuading people to see things your way.  Would you rather be "pro-life" or "anti-choice"?  Would you rather be "pro-choice," "pro-abortion," or "pro-aborticide"?  Do you oppose the "estate tax," or the "death tax"?  How about "racial preferences and quotas" versus "affirmative action"?

Each of these pairs describe the same thing but they sound rather different.  You can get a decent idea of which side of a debate holds the upper hand by which terminology becomes most widely used.

The more important the issue, the more important it is to call it by its proper name, and there are few issues more important than war.  We've been fighting what some call the "War on Terror" for nigh on seven years and we still haven't come up with a name everybody accepts.

Sometimes we are in a "clash of civilizations", or a "War on Islamofascism"; other times, we're responding to the "Terrorists' War on Us"; then there's the "Global War on Terror" or GWOT.  When things look particularly bad, we're trapped in "The Long War."  There have been countless lesser labels which have been tried, found wanting, and cast aside.

If you don't know where you're going, you probably won't get there.  If you don't know what you're doing well enough to describe it clearly, you probably won't do it very well.  The very word "terrorism" is problematic; it means different things to different people.  We've explored the history and origins of both the word and the tactic and proposed an improved definition.  Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy; you can't fight a war against a tactic.  You can't fight a "War on Land-Mines" or a "War on Phalanxes," for example.

For as long as there have been historians, wars have been named in one of four ways.  Some wars are named by the geography of where they were fought - e.g. World War I and II, or the Peloponnesian War.  Others are named after the combatants, like the Iran-Iraq War and Sino-Japanese War.  A few are named for the ruler involved, such as King William's War, though this causes problems if the ruler changes partway through.  Occasionally you get a war named after the event or cause which triggered it, like the War of Spanish Succession or the War of Jenkins' Ear.

We could call it the War of the World Trade Towers, perhaps - but what about the Pentagon, the USS Cole, Khobar Towers, and so on?  Many Democrats like to call it "George W. Bush's War," and often do; but the problem of terrorism is not going to end with the Bush administration, no matter how much we all might wish it to, as the Bombay horror makes plain.  Al-Qaeda has operations all over the world but somehow calling it World War III seems a little overblown.  We don't have a good name for the conflict.

The Face of the Enemy

Even naming the war still leaves the enemy unnamed.  Who is the enemy?  What do we call the enemy?  In naming the enemy, we run smack into political correctness.

We all know exactly who the enemy is.  What's more, the enemy knows who they are, as do all people who have occasion to be close to them.  Abdelrahman al-Rashid, managing director of al-Arabiya satellite TV, put it very plainly:

It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.

This statement has been attacked as scandalously politically incorrect.  It can be ignored; it can be excused, but it can't be denied.  Not only is Dr. al-Rashid's statement true, it is so true as to be not merely a stereotype, but a truism.

Sun Tzu, the author of the world's first and greatest military treatise The Art of War, advises the warrior to "Know Your Enemy."  Whether we are in a "real" war or are merely dealing with international criminals, we surely do have an enemy which we must understand.

This is not to excuse the enemy.  While Ground Zero was yet smoking, various liberal apologists attempted to blame terrorist attacks on their victims; Ward Churchill memorably referred to the WTC financial workers as "little Eichmanns", comparing them to the infamous Nazi.  There is no understanding to be found in placing ourselves at the same level as barbarians.

It is not necessary to excuse barbarism in order to understand what motivates it.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that Adolf Hitler was a rational man like himself, a man you could "do business with", and who would keep his word in negotiations.  Chamberlain thought the Munich Agreement which sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazi machine would ensure "peace in our time" because that's what the agreement said - and honorable people stick to their agreements.

He failed to understand that Hitler viewed treaties as nothing more than scraps of paper to buy time and then to be disregarded when convenient.  Winston Churchill had a far deeper and more accurate understanding of Hitler.  This didn't make him sympathize with Nazism, far from it!  Staring directly into the dark heart of evil gave Churchill the strength and determination to fight it with all his might and to win.  It was Chamberlain's refusal to see the evil truth standing in front of him that nearly sacrificed his country.

The fact that nearly all terrorists are Muslims is a fact which urgently needs to be confronted, considered, discussed, analyzed, and most of all, understood.  This is not to say that we agree with terrorists.  It's not to say that Osama bin Laden's conviction that Allah requires good Muslims to kill non-Muslims is the correct one, necessarily, or that Islam has a correct world view.

All that matters is that, as we have pointed out, the terrorists are utterly convinced that they hold the only true interpretation of Islam and they take their beliefs seriously enough to die for their beliefs.  If we are to fight and win to the point that they stop trying to kill us, we need to understand what makes them tick.

This series will examine the roots of the religion of the terrorists, in comparison with various other world religions that might be more familiar.  There are very good reasons why, as the devout Muslim Abdelrahman al-Rashid mentioned above said, "almost all terrorists are Muslims."

In the next article, we'll examine some of the basic ways in which religions differ so that we can discuss the many reasons why almost all terrorists are Muslims.