When They Get the Story Wrong: Muslims, Ideology & Terrorism

The truth is that nobody knows what actually causes terrorism to a point where we can generalize the motivations of all terrorists. There are different levels of explanation – social, individual, structural or political motivations – and whilst each may play a part, the dominant narrative takes a religious ideological approach as fact without any demonstrated scientific basis.

Guest Post by Tom Pettinger

“Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films. We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq. We were told we must do something big.”

– failed 7/21/05 London Underground bomber, Hussein Omar

ad67f2_ade1bfe5d3b947eebf8b2466c0ac3ff5-mv2How well do we as a society really understand the causes of terrorism? Since 9/11, and especially 7/7 in London, we’ve been fed the line that Islamic ideology, rather than politics, causes extremism, each new ‘Islamist’ attack apparently proving the theory. And because the theory that terrorists are mentally deranged has no scientific basis, what really drives individuals to engage in this kind of socially deviant and devastating behaviour, sometimes even to a point of killing themselves as well? Is it primarily religious ideology? Is it politics? What is the effect of choosing one narrative over the other?

Following a ‘jihadist’ attack, news coverage hysterically focuses on how individuals were radicalized by an increasingly fanatical Islamic ideology (white-supremacist attacks, conversely, receive far less attention), often with a backdrop of a failed personal life or a lack of integration into modern Western society. The actual motivations for the attacks are rarely investigated. 9/11, the Boston bombing, 7/7 in London, the Brussels attacks, Paris, Florida, Madrid are frequently implied by media and politicians to have no aims other than instilling senseless terror on the basis of a warped interpretation of Islam. 7ZPVBUXU6FFVHFUFFB7FYW3WDQIt is often ignored that such atrocities attempt to accomplish a goal or communicate a political message. All definitions of terrorism have at their core some political or social aim, but aside from passing comments, we don’t hear about these in news coverage. There is a growing body of literature (see here, here and here) that suggests this direction has been encouraged by governments to silence dissent over their foreign policy; it is in Western governments’ interests to ascribe the attackers’ motivations to reasons other than their military interventions and the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It’s a natural defence mechanism to place the blame for attacks like 9/11 on anything but their own actions (be it invasions, drone strikes, or Guantanamo).

George W. Bush notoriously claimed, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” This has become commonly accepted; the media and politicians incessantly bombard us with this idea. However, The Defense Science Board, a Federal Advisory Committee established to provide independent advice to the US Secretary of Defense, wrote in 2004 that,

Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

As well as politics appearing central to acts of terrorism, further problems with taking religious ideology as the principal driver of terrorism are that:

  • Most basically, there are people who possess what society deems as ‘radical ideologies’ yet don’t engage in violence;
  • To take ‘religious ideology’ as equivalent to brainwashing is misguided when a group’s beliefs are debated to a point where they sometimes split apart;syria-war-anniversary-body-image-1426292826
  • Radicalization scholars have found an ideology is only acquired following incorporation within a group;
  • Studies have consistently found “no empirical support” for many ideologically-focussed approaches to de-radicalization or countering terrorism, suggesting it plays little part in their radicalization;
  • And above all, there is nowhere near enough scientific research into individuals’ motivations to cast generalizations (and where studies have occurred, they often find social interactions play the most important role).

Governments totally ignore the attackers’ motivations in explaining terrorism; look up basically any attack on the West – what do the attackers say? Political grievances and aims are always central. Boston Marathon BombingWhat did the Boston bomber scrawl on the inside of the boat? It wasn’t challenging freedom and democracy, but US foreign affairs and the deaths America has caused. What did the Woolwich attacker say in the street when he was standing over Fusilier Lee Rigby? It wasn’t about creating an Islamic State, but lamenting the suffering Western invasions have brought to other parts of the world. What motivations did the failed US underwear bomber Abdulmutallab give during his court case? Not the rewards from martyrdom, but US tyranny and its oppression of Muslims. As an aside, it should also be remembered that those most affected by ‘Islamic’ terrorism are other Muslims. (Stats can be found here, here, and here.)

The truth is that nobody knows what actually causes terrorism to a point where we can generalize the motivations of all terrorists. There are different levels of explanation –  social, individual, structural or political motivations – and whilst each may play a part, the dominant narrative takes a religious ideological approach as fact without any demonstrated scientific basis. If that perspective only seems like common sense, it’s because it has been constantly emphasized by politicians and the media over time. hassan_reutersNo study has had anywhere near sufficient access to terrorists to show any causation. However, these unfounded assumptions cause us to view certain communities (those perceived to be Muslims) as suspicious, based purely on correlations with widely-publicized attacks that have previously taken place. In Britain for example, following the IRA Birmingham pub bombings, those with Irish accents were viewed with suspicion and hostility; similarly, the now-suspect ‘Muslim community’ is placed under constant suspicion of being a potential threat following jihadi attacks. Studies into the creation of suspect communities show they are treated with disdain and blamed for attacks, that they experience negative interactions with the police, racism and discrimination at work, and feel unsafe walking around and like second-class citizens.

“We are constantly demonized, all through the media. I used to go to the cinema every weekend…I’ve given up because every time I would go…there’s at least one hint somewhere [that Muslims are terrorists or cause terrorism] – and in newspapers and the media as a whole, constantly we’re demonized.”

– Anonymous audience member, Evening with Arun Kundnani, YouTube

The West spends billions on domestic counter-terrorism efforts taking this unproven and highly presumptuous ideology-based explanation to minimize the threat from suspect communities. Desktop6-005A frightening consequence of this drive is that particularly within the US, in borrowing predictive principles from the widely-criticized British Prevent Strategy, a network of 15,000 informants has developed to target Muslims, and the practice of entrapment (“tricking someone into committing a crime in order to secure their prosecution”) has escalated. The FBI has even killed Americans on American soil based on opportunities the agency itself has provided to ‘vulnerable’ Muslims. (A recap of the events can be found here, but Arun Kundnani goes into more detail in his book, The Muslims Are Coming.)  Judges have repeatedly noted that these entrapped individuals would not otherwise have engaged in such deviant activities had the FBI not placed them in the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’. Judge McMahon, sentencing the Newburgh Four, said,

Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except [that] the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.

Activists Demonstrate Against Recent Rhetoric Against Muslims And Refugees Near Trump Tower

Governments have gradually diluted the threshold for ‘terrorism’ charges: in the UK, non-violent extremism is now a criminal offence, and thousands of children as young as four have gone through the British de-radicalization program. Umm Ahmed, a British Muslim, was jailed for 12 months for the possession of Inspire Magazine which she had obtained to keep updated with her brother’s trial (apparently reading the magazine online does not land you in jail, but possessing it on a USB stick does!). In sentencing her the judge said that Umm posed no threat, that she had no intent to harm, that she was not a terrorist – and even that she was a good Muslim – but that he had to imprison her based on her possession of the magazine.

The idea of a distinct and definable ‘Muslim community’, separate from the rest of the population, has been encouraged by the provision of cohesion funding that targets places with a certain number of Muslims, and by politicians calling for this apparently distinct community to condemn the latest attacks as though they were in some way collectively responsible. David Cameron in his (in)famous multiculturalism speech called for moderate Muslims to condemn the radical ones, and Trump similarly called on Muslims to “report when they see something going on”. cariprotestnwexpy4This leads to Muslims being seen collectively as a threat, and advancing the perception of them as separate to ‘the rest of us’. In turn, like after the recent Manchester bombing, we see a rise in hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslims, who are often approached in public and told, “shame on you… for what you did”. People have been killed as a result of anti-Muslim attacks, although like other right-wing extremist attacks, they get far less attention than what is considered ‘Islamist’ violence.

We have become obsessed by denouncing those engaging in political violence as deluded Islamist ideologues, when in fact, by their own testimony, the attacks they carry out seem much more like retaliations for Western policy decisions, like invasions and occupations, support for Israel (which is taken as definitional support for the oppression of Palestinians), Guantanamo, drone strikes, and so on. Claims that ideology is the overriding explanation are wholly unfounded and exist to minimize Western governments’ responsibility in motivating the attacks. However, because of these narratives being endlessly repeated, we have succeeded in separating Muslims from non-Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims, allowing totally irrational fear and distinction, rather than unity, to triumph.

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For more information….

Syria: Find the Helpers

At risk of sounding like a broken record, find an organization that resonates with you and get involved! Donate, engage via social media, like and share their posts, support them as they serve on the ground.

I know, I know, I know — it feels painfully insignificant in the face of such horrific tragedy, but if we all do what we can, we can actually make a difference. Promise.

by Michelle Palmer

1655605_846742275396821_62768170551269110_oI was going to post about something very different today, something much more in my wheelhouse. But it just didn’t sit well with me to ignore what’s happening in Syria. (Because that’s what happened for far too long.)  If you’re looking for a Master’s level introduction to the Syrian conflict with all the hows and whys, you won’t find it here. I want to offer a very basic overview of the situation, provide you with resources to find out more, and then, most importantly, highlight some groups who are helping in the middle of the mess.

As many of us do, I understand better with visuals. This particular video helped me understand the basics: “Syria’s War: Who is Fighting and Why.” 

(Another helpful video is “Syria in Five Minutes,” which is now slightly outdated, but is helpful in understanding the beginning of the conflict. // Related: “Understanding the Refugee Crisis in Europe, Syria, and around the World.”)

Syria Timeline:

[2011] Protests break out during what became known as Arab Spring. These were peaceful protests for democracy. The government, under President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, lethally attacks the protestors. Many from the military defect to join the protesters and form the “Free Syrian Army.” Thus begins the Syrian Civil War.

But then, it gets complicated.

Extremist Islamists join the rebels fighting the government, including Al Qaeda.

[2012] Iransyria-war-anniversary-body-image-1426292557 begins to back Assad, sending aid to government forces. Other gulf states support the rebels to counter Iran’s influence. (Sunnis are generally supporting the rebels, and Shias are generally supporting Assad.)

[2013] ISIS expands into Syria, creating its own “caliphate,” and fights against the rebels and the Kurds, who have taken up arms in the north. Assad’s forces use chemical weapons and kill 1,400 people in Damascus. Obama threatens military action, but through Russia, a diplomatic agreement is reached. Syrian government forces agree to get rid of all chemical weaponry. US sends non-lethal aid to opposition forces.

[2014] US and allies launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. “76,000 people died in the Syria conflict in 2014, according to the UN. The deadliest year yet.” (That’s too big a number for me to imagine, but that averages out to about 208 lives lost, each day, for an entire year.)

Sincegettyimages-591717242_custom-628e98f91625439d550f0297a147dc6cce2ef421-s900-c85 then, airstrikes and fighting have continued. Over half of the prewar population is displaced (11-12 million people), and with involvement from wealthy nations who can provide near endless supplies and firepower, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

[Lots of links to much better explanations of the situation are at the bottom of this post.]

So, what does this have to do with justice?

In the middle of all the fighting, there are civilians who have no access to food, clean water, and basic necessities. And like Mr. Rogers’ mom used to say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

We previously highlighted two organizations, Preemptive Love Coalition and International Rescue Committee, who both work in Syria. That post can be found here.

Syria Civil Defence (The White Helmets)syria-civil-defense-team-aleppo-body-6-2-2014

How do they work?

“We work in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. As defined in Protocol I (Article 61) of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, we pledge to provide the services listed at paragraph 5 for the following purposes:

  • a) To protect the civilian population against the dangers arising from hostilities or other disasters.
  • b) To speed recovery from the immediate effects of such events.
  • c) To provide the conditions necessary for survival of the civilian population. “

Watch the Oscar-winning documentary about The White Helmets on Netflix.

[I donated while writing this post. How about you donate while reading it? And let us know if you do!]

Doctors Without Borders

msf_logoHow do they work?

“Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare.”

Long standing, and well-established. Find them on Facebook.

Karam Foundation

e8882099d0c8c40a7bef37f57667e54dHow do they work?

“We develop Innovative Education programs for Syrian refugee youth, distribute Smart Aid to Syrian families, and fund Sustainable Development projects initiated by Syrians for Syrians.”

A very cool U.S. based organization, started by Syrian-Americans. Find them on Facebook.

Mercy Corps

mercy-corps-internships-2016How do they work? 

“Support Syrian families who’ve been displaced by ongoing conflict. Meet immediate needs for food, water and shelter while focusing especially on the longer-term emotional and developmental needs of traumatized children and adolescents.”

Find them on Facebook.


At risk of sounding like a broken record, find an organization that resonates with you and get involved! Donate, engage via social media, like and share their posts, support them as they serve on the ground.

I know, I know, I know — it feels painfully insignificant in the face of such horrific tragedy, but if we all do what we can, we can actually make a difference. Promise.

For more information….

5th Tuesday Guest Post: Islam & Religious Freedom in America

Completely different religions can coexist in America just as easily as different denominations of Christianity. There aren’t campaigns where Methodist try to convert all Baptists, and churches with totally different beliefs collaborate to accomplish work in the community. The same type of collaboration is possible between churches and mosques.

by Josh Shelton

825810372208816128-png__700There’s debate about whether the recent executive order can fairly be called a “Muslim ban.” On the campaign trail, the proposal started as “a total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the US” and evolved into “extreme vetting.” When asked if the executive order had anything to do with religion, Former Mayor Giuliani also described the President’s intention as a “Muslim ban.” Legal permanent residents (with green cards) were also affected by this ban. Iraqi interpreters and other soldiers who fought and served alongside US troops are also barred from entering the US.

Whether the President intended to target Muslims or just possible terrorists, many Americans have a very hard time making any distinction between refugees, peaceful Muslims, and extremists.

Michael “Duke” Lowrie is a Bossier City candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives this year, and he has proposed boycotting any business that employs a follower of Islam—not businesses making political or religious statements—literally any business with a Muslim employee. Lowrie went on to say, “I will challenge every Islamist (sic) I see to denounce their false god and religion. Those Islamist (sic) here walk among us in stores and we act as if they’re no different than any of us. Well I’m sorry they are different.” Far from being an isolated case of Islamophobia, Lowrie’s candidacy comes at a time when violence against Muslims has risen to post-9/11 levels.

Imagine if a politician was making these kinds of harsh statements about Catholics, Pentecostals, or Baptists. It may seem incomprehensible today, but there have been times when Americans were this paranoid about other groups of Christians.

Persecution of Christians in America

https3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f3649662f08147d4b-988a-4a3f-b23d-4f2838a2a4b5In spite of America’s historical emphasis on religious freedom, virtually every religious and ethnic group has faced paranoia and oppression at some point. Catholics and German immigrants are two noteworthy examples. Anti-Catholic sentiment was present even in the colonial era, such that the founding fathers made a point of being inclusive. In the Bible riots of 1844, Catholic homes and churches were destroyed. Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon faith) was killed by a mob the same year. Even as recently as 1960, JFK had to give a speech assuring voters that he would not “take orders from the Pope.” What’s interesting is that the average believer still has a very limited understanding about the differences between different branches of the Christian faith. Modern Baptists generally speaking aren’t more informed about Catholicism than their ancestors; they have just learned that coexistence is easy and beneficial. Denominations can have fundamentally different ideas about the path to salvation, and yet they can also collaborate on work in the community.

Elevated Tensions in Times of War


Language barriers, cultural differences, and the threat of concientiousobjectorsterrorist attacks all heighten people’s anxiety about Muslim immigrants. Again, history has relevant examples for comparison. Amish and Old Order Mennonites are now viewed positively as hard-working Christians adhering to a peaceful and simpler way of life. Back in WWII, however, these communities were viewed with extreme distrust. Why would someone come to America and refuse to integrate into our culture? Many communities still persist in speaking Pennsylvania Dutch instead of English, even after generations of living in America. Even more incomprehensible, many of these able-bodied men were conscientious objectors in a war against German and Japanese imperialism. To an unsympathetic observer, it was easy to see the Amish as Germans on American soil.

All across America—Texas, Washington, and Michigan all have entire towns dedicated to German culture. Turbans and mosques seem threatening to many Americans, and yet we have come to see towns of German immigrants as tourist attractions. People who lash out against Muslims also end up attacking people of completely different faiths. Over 500,000 American Sikhs practice a religion from Southern Asia, and yet they are routinely harassed by people who perceive them as Muslim.

“But Islam is Different”

Some people claim that Islam doesn’t deserve protection as a religion because it also has rules governing diet, clothing, and other lifestyle choices. Of course, any Christian who opens their Old Testament will see long lists of laws governing everything from diet to fabric choices. Others have spread misguided fear about “Sharia courts.” The truth is that Americans are woefully uninformed about Islam. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for decades, and yet Americans know only a handful of second-hand stereotypes about Islam.

A 2007 photo of Munira Ahmed was the basis for the poster made by Shepard Fairey.

Nearly half of Americans do not know a single Muslim, and a majority of Americans know either nothing at all (30%) or not very much (25%) about the Muslim religion and its practices.

With over 1.6 million adherents, Islam takes many different forms in different cultures. Still, the vast majority of believers are concerned about extremism and opposed to groups like ISIS. Peaceful Muslims are potential allies in the prevention of terrorist attacks. On the other hand, making life harder for all Muslims will play into the East-vs-West narrative presented by ISIS and other extremists.

Myths About Islam

While Americans know incredibly little about Islam, we have all heard a few catch phrases  of propaganda that make religious war seem inevitable. The most problematic falsehood is that “Christianity and Islam cannot coexist.” The religions can and do peacefully coexist in countries all around the world. I personally spent two years in Cameroon, a country that borders Nigeria. I lived in two Muslim towns with a Christian population around 20 percent. I witnessed more tension between Baptists and Catholics in Louisiana than between Christians and Muslims in Cameroon. It is not a perfect democracy, and yet Cameroon maintains a high degree of religious tolerance nationwide.

A Methodist Pastor and a Muslim Imam collaborate together in Dallas.

Completely different religions can coexist in America just as easily as different denominations of Christianity. There aren’t campaigns where Methodist try to convert all Baptists, and churches with totally different beliefs collaborate to accomplish work in the community. The same type of collaboration is possible between churches and mosques. In Sweden, this kind of inter-faith cooperation has helped to find housing for refugees.

Founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington made it clear that America’s religious freedom extended to Muslims. Now, Christians must also determine a Christ-like response to refugees and immigrants with different cultures and faiths.


For More Information…


Here’s a GUIDE to what you can do when you see Islamophobia in action.