The True Source of Islamic Terrorism

James M. Arlandson

When violent, fanatical Muslims observe current events, they see a religion in recession culturally, economically, technologically, and militarily, and this brings shame, a strong cultural value in the Arab world and beyond. This historical fact of decline creates cognitive dissonance, because history is not consistent with their belief in the narrowly-defined theological truth: that God endorses only Islam and its civilization. We all sense that the terrorists follow some form of logic with their atrocities, though we may not be able to put our finger on it.

Ultimately, though, the trigger is theological. Communists in China and the old Soviet Union surely experienced cognitive dissonance as they observed Western dominance, economically and technologically. The Chinese also place a strong value on saving face. But neither of the two regimes, nor a nefarious communist organization operating in the US, ever crashed jets into American buildings. Instead, they (and we) embarked on fifty years of the (mostly nonviolent) Cold War. Something is at work that we have not seen before.

The communists were missing the theological factor that the current Islamic terrorists have. Therefore, realizing this, perhaps we will take effective action and avoid passivity.

Like Christianity and Buddhism, Islam has thrived historically as a "universalizing" religion in four major stages as it pertains to East-West relations. In the first stage, the days of Muhammad, the new Muslims expanded into the Arabian Peninsula, whether by proclamation, diplomacy or outright conquest. For example, in 624, they defeated a much-larger Meccan army in the Battle of Badr, which Muhammad oversaw.

This early expansion fixed the genetic code for the rest of Islam, which is important because it set up expectations that would eventually be disappointed. In contrast, the founders of Christianity and Buddhism endorsed the spread of their religion or philosophy, but only by proclamation, never by the sword. But Islam, it seems, applied the sword to their incipient theology of spreading the word or expanding politically.

Second, during the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), the Muslims expanded into Egypt, Libya, Syria (with its capital in Damascus), and all the way east into Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan. They also expanded into Spain and France, but were stopped at the Battle of Poitiers (732), so they retreated and flourished in Spain. The early genetic code was thus reinforced.

Third, during the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), the ascendant Muslims moved their capital to Baghdad, solidified control over their vast empire, and allowed other dynasties to grow in Islamic lands, which were careful to respect the Caliphate in Baghdad. The Abbasids witnessed the flowering of their culture into the Golden Age: superior medicine and science (Al-Kindi, Al-Razi and Al-Biruni), superb architecture and urban development (e.g. Granada), advanced philosophy and theology (Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, and Averroes), and great literature (A Thousand and One Nights and the mystic Rumi's poetry) and historiography (Ibn Khaldûn's The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History). Clearly, God has endorsed Islam as it grew by proclamation, cultural development, trade, and the sword.

Finally, the Turks, migrating south, eventually set up rule in Asia Minor (Turkey) under Seljuq after the fall of Manzikert (1071). Mehmed the Conqueror (reigned 1451-81) sacked Constantinople in 1453, consolidating his power because he overthrew his last rival, Byzantine Christianity. The Ottoman Empire (1258-1918), using that formerly Christian city as a launching pad into Europe, carried on the expansionist tradition with incursions into the Balkans, Austria and Hungary, and as far north as the Ukraine.

For example, in the Battle of Mohacs, the Turks overran the Hungarians (1526), which opened the door to the siege of Vienna (1529), though they failed to sack the city. However, they were still strong enough to besiege Vienna again (1683), though unsuccessfully, and to control the Balkans and force the inhabitants to convert. Much of the Islamic presence in the Balkans today dates back to these conversions. Thus, when Muhammad set the genetic code for expansion, he bred into the Qur'an and his early successors the notion that not only does God favor the new religion, which completes the two inferior religions, Judaism and Christianity, but He also oversees its expansion. Psychological expectations today, which are rooted in past military success and subsequent cultural hegemony, blend with theology and the cultural value of honor (the opposite of shame), linked by logic that is clear. If God endorses Islam, the truth, and its expansion by His sovereignty and compassion into non-Muslim lands in order to show God's will (shari'ah) to pagans and people of the Book (Jews and Christians,  then it should be able to expand endlessly and cover the whole world with His truth.

God does indeed endorse it, according to received theology; therefore, the rest follows logically (the consequent necessarily obtains)-ole fashioned modus ponens (affirming the antecedent):  1. If A (antecedent), then B (consequent).  2. A (the antecedent is affirmed).  3. Therefore, B (the consequent follows necessarily). Such must be the psychological expectation of observant, concerned Muslims who care about Islam's spread, and especially of fanatical Muslims. Thus, theology and logic worked harmoniously, so Muslims did not experience cognitive dissonance or shame-in the distant past.

However, Islam did not expand endlessly. As usual in history, what goes up must come down (or, more accurately, what expands sometimes contracts). History does not always follow the laws of logic and abstract theology. Thus, in 1492 the Spanish pushed out the Muslims, except in Granada, though they too were removed in 1609. (Al-Qaeda refers to this event in 1492 as the "Andalusian tragedy," the Arabic word for Spain.)

In 1686, the Ottomans lost half of Hungary, and in early 1699, the Holy League, formed by the Pope, after defeating the Ottomans a few years earlier, forced the Muslims to cede vast territory in Europe. More examples could be cited, demonstrating the contraction of Islamic civilization in the last two or three hundred years before the Twentieth Century. The contraction is painfully continuing now, with the rise of the US in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

So the retreats continue to the present. During WWI the Ottomans chose the wrong side, so the Allies dissolved the Ottoman Empire and took possession of the Middle East: Syria and Lebanon for France, and Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Iraq for Great Britain. (Usama bin Laden refers to this as a "great humiliation.")

Finally, in 1924 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a young army officer, led a revolution and dragged Turkey into the modern era by building a wall of separation between mosque and state, establishing a secular state and closing the book of Islamic law, shari'ah in its excessive forms, in a traditional Islamic land. Besides these political defeats, Islamic lands have not developed culturally, economically or technologically vis-à-vis the West, especially the US, which is a claim so obvious that it does not need any elaboration. The inference from all of these data is not far to seek: a religion and its subsequent civilization, both endorsed by God, does not go forward by going backwards. The infidels are surpassing the true believers.

Consequently, history in the last three or so hundred years teaches not-B, so the old, positive logic must give way to a new, negative one. Briefly, the new logic says that if God endorses Islam, then it should expand endlessly. However, it is not expanding endlessly, but receding in the face of the expansion of the West, the "Christian" lands. The new conclusion must be terrifying to violent fanatics, but it is they who have initiated belief in the first two premises.  The conclusion: therefore, God does not endorse Islam. This is known as modus tollens (denying the consequent): 1. If A, then B.  2. Not-B (the consequent is denied). 3. Therefore, not-A (the antecedent is also denied).

For fanatical Muslims, the internal (psychological expectations) and the external (historical reality) are in conflict. Therefore, they are experiencing cognitive (religious) dissonance as they work out the simple, terrifying logic. Moreover, whereas Westerners may experience merely dissonance, it seems that in vast areas of Islamic culture, dissonance runs more deeply than an uncomfortable mental state; it intensifies to social shame and loss of honor. Even the "average" Muslim, the so-called "man on the street," who has been interviewed in print or on television often in the first half of 2004, constantly refers to the (mostly US) occupation in Iraq as "humiliation."

Basic psychology says that a subject experiencing cognitive dissonance (and presumably shame) may do the following: (1) alter one of the dissonant cognitions; (2) reduce the importance of one of the dissonance; or (3) add new information that reconciles the dissonance. So how may Muslims grapple with these defeats and retreats?  The vast majority, living in distant and diverse regions like Indonesia and Turkey and all points north and south, seem to adopt the second strategy. They simply do not experience the conflict of expectations and reality because they do not have the high expectation of equating expansion with God's endorsement in the first place. They do not connect history and theology: Muhammad's early success, the thousand-year ascendancy (mixed in with retreats), the recent steady decline (without victories mixed in), and God's will to further Islam (theology). They reduce stress by ignoring the importance of the dissonance or the dissonance altogether and the shame as well.

Also, a vast number add new information, the third strategy. It is still widely believed that "the Jews" instigated the plot to smash jets into buildings. The alleged evidence? No Jews supposedly went to work on 9/11 in the two Trade Towers. Or, the Ayatollah Khomeini and others like him believe Satan is currently backing the rise of the West, so true believers must revive the true religion in Islamic lands to resist Satan, the "Whisperer" or Seducer, typically embodied in America, the "Great Satan."

Recently I heard a Muslim preacher on a university campus lamenting how Islamic civilization has declined because "we got corrupt, my Muslims." He then said, with a slight tone of anticipation (glee?), that the West too will collapse due to corruption. His logic was also clear: If a civilization becomes corrupt, it will decline. Islamic civilization became corrupt; therefore, it declined. However, this logic, though technically valid, is unsound because it overlooks the reality that all civilizations are corrupt to some degree, and many civilizations, e.g. ancient Egypt or Rome, lasted many centuries and declined due to numerous additional factors. Be that as it may, these Muslims explain away or reconcile the dissonance by adding in hidden evidence or another side of theology, the problem of evil-Satan and moral corruption.

But most importantly, it seems a large number take action in order to alter one of the dissonant cognitions (and subsequent shame), that is, the first strategy. The moderates-far too few-seek to interpret old data, such as the meaning of jihad: exclusively an inner struggle, not also a military war against non-Muslims. I heard an imam tell a group of non-Muslim students that jihad means only inner struggle. Then he gestured sharply with one hand: "there is no other meaning, nothing else." Or the moderates softly interpret passages that state Muslims must thoroughly conquer non-Muslims, even People of the Book: they may urge dhimmitude instead of elimination (Qur'an 9:29, 73, and 123). The harsher interpretation of these verses and others like them and the excesses in the Hadith are passed over quietly.

In contrast, the fanatics join together as militants to curb by terror and violence the decline of Islamic civilization and the inverse expansion of Western civilization, removing or altering the not-B, the negation, the psychological dissonance. They seek to curb the cultural shame they feel and blend their efforts with a deadly theology: the cult of death, martyrdom. If one dies in battle against an infidel (especially a Jew), he achieves high and instant status in the afterlife. This is clearly the strategy and belief of Usama and al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, like Hamas, in the past twenty years, culminating in 9/11.

Western governments have zeroed in on the economic and social backgrounds of the terrorists, and perhaps even the psychological dissonance and cultural shame, as has been done in this article, but they have not adequately addressed the theological component to Islamic terror that drives the other factors and the logic that binds all of them together. This is understandable, since Western leaders do not want to invoke the Medieval image of the Crusades-politely overlooking the brute fact that Islam has been expansionist as well.

However understandable it may be for governments to avert their gaze from the religious component, it does not get us very far in understanding the militants. But a true understanding is crucial because countless Westerners, especially intellectuals, believe that only philosophic materialism provides the necessary insight into the sources of terrorism. If society over "there" improves materially, then terrorism will stop. This may be true for some future, would-be terrorists, but not for the fanatics who have already embarked. Many hijackers on 9/11 came from wealthy or middle class families and were Western educated. Therefore, the standard materialist interpretation of the historical and psychological facts must ultimately yield to the non-material, the theological. Clarity brings resolve: first, more Westerners must understand the one deep motive of the violent fanatics. Second, in order to teach them that their theology is twisted and that God is not on their side, more Westerners must therefore join the fight to eliminate them before the terrorists eliminate or paralyze Westerners over the next several decades.

Jim Arlandson, Ph.D., teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class and Society (Hendrickson, 1997).

ReferencesAyoub, Mahmoud M. "The Islamic Tradition." World Religions: The Western Traditions.  2nd ed. Ed. Willard Oxtoby. New York: OUP, 2003. 341-462.-Campbell, J. B. "Cognitive Dissonance." Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and  Behavioral Sciences. 3rd ed. 2001.-Chesler, Phyllis. "The Psychoanalytic Roots of Islamic Terrorism." May 3, 2004.Kagan, Donald, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner. The Western Heritage. 2 vols.  Englewoods Cliff, NJ, 1995.Lewis, Bernard, ed. The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture. 1976. New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1997. -. What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. New  York: Perennial, 2003.

Copyright (c) by James Malcolm Arlandson and used by permission. Originally published at, and later slightly edited for Answering Islam.

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