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Islamic and Christian Religion and Terrorism Research Paper


The advent of the 21st century has been marked with globalization, closer intercultural relations, and numerous technological and scientific advances. However, despite a significant potential for peaceful cohabitation in the world, the global community faces an enormous level of violence manifested in various forms, including terrorism. It is important to keep in mind that one of the primary motivations of present-day terrorist attacks is considered to be religious.

In literature, the term “terrorism” has many definitions. In fact, the understanding of the word varies depending on socio-cultural, political, religious, and historical backgrounds. Nevertheless, researchers agree that all terrorist acts are inherently violent and dangerous, usually have more than one target, and are intended to bring about either political or ideological change (Rausch, 2015). Thus, for the convenience of this research, terrorism will be defined as a violent act or a threat of violence targeted at several individuals at once and aiming to initiate social, political, or religious transformations.

Despite the common evangelical view of the problem, terrorist attacks are not committed solely by Muslims. History shows that terrorism occurs all over the world, yet the scope of recent terrorist acts, initiated by organizations that claim to be religious, has contributed to the creation of a negative image of Islam. Nevertheless, terrorist groups from other religious backgrounds continue to initiate terrorist attacks today as well. One of the best examples of violent actions caused by Christians is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who have exploited religious justifications for the engagement in terrorism, similar to those used by radical Islamists.

It is possible to make a distinction between individual self-named ‘Islamic’ terrorist groups who abuse religious concepts to justify their actions, and Islam, a world religion, that does not promote violence and, moreover, shares humanistic values similar to other theological traditions. To understand if Islam itself holds an inherently terrorist nature, and whether Christianity presents a contrast, we will review the factors pertaining to religious terrorism and evaluate them using examples of terrorist organizations from different religious backgrounds.


Initially, Christianity developed as a movement within Judaism in the 1st century C.E. when Jesus started to preach about his spiritual revelations and wisdom (Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life [BCRAPL], 2015). Over several centuries after his death, his followers recorded his teachings in numerous religious documents and created narratives of his life events. These texts are now known as the Christian Scriptures.

As Christianity drew more and more devotees, a few denominations developed, including Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity, and nowadays, the beliefs and values held by U.S. Christians can be regarded as ranging from evangelical, fundamentalist, conservative, or liberal (BCRAPL, 2015). These terms represent slightly varying interpretations of Christianity and imply different modes of behavior and views on religious practices. For instance, fundamentalists tend to interpret the Bible literally, while most other Christians allow for a more symbolic understanding of certain parts of the texts (BCRAPL, 2015). While liberal Christians permit the metaphoric interpretation of information comprised in the Biblical scriptures, e.g., the creation of the World, the miracles of Jesus, etc., conservative Christians usually read the Biblical texts in a literal way and, therefore, have a less positive view on human nature (BCRAPL, 2015). However, despite these differences, they all share the core beliefs that individuals should seek spiritual rebirth through faith, convert others to Christianity and convey the theological message to both Christians and non-Christians, and treat the Bible with sanctity because it is considered to be directly inspired by God (BCRAPL, 2015).

Love, justice, and forgiveness are the three major spiritual values within Christianity. At the same time, researchers observe that throughout world history, Christian missionary activity has not always been associated with fair and just treatment of other cultures, communities, and societies. Some scholars tend to see evangelism as “self-righteous and arrogant” and relate it to Western imperialism (BCRAPL, 2015). During some periods, Christians implemented radical, violent, and intolerant methods to spread their faith and strengthen political power using religion, e.g., during colonization. In this way, the desire to proliferate specific theological views and beliefs is, to some extent, present in any mainstream religious community. At the same time, it could be argued such desires are inherently interconnected with political motivations and, thus, cannot be regarded as purely religious.


To understand Islam, we should review the context in which Muhammad’s religious message appeared. The society in which the prophet was born in the 6th century AD is known as the Jahiliyah or “the age of ignorance” (i.e., ignorance of Islam) (Pinault, 2017, p. 14). The pre-Islamic world was tribal, and paganism was a major religion. At that time, Mecca was the center of commercial activities, polytheistic worships, and pilgrimage. As Pinault (2017) states, “the Kaaba was surrounded by a circle of 360 stone idols” representing various tribal spirits (p. 15). Among a great variety of pagan spirits, there was a supreme deity known as Allah, “the greatest god” (Pinault, 2017, p. 15). Worship of Allah introduced by Muhammad was not something new; the prophet just brought a new, refined understanding of the nature of Allah, and promoted the understanding of Allah as the only God who is gracious and merciful.

The analysis of historical and cultural contexts makes it clear that one of the main purposes of Islam was to bring about the unification of the Arabic tribes. Muhammad also conveyed a peaceful, religious message aimed to bring meaning to human lives. As with many other monotheistic religions, devotion to God became a core spiritual element, and the direct links between the quality of individual behavior and the outcomes of life appeared in Islam. We may see that still today, where religion significantly affects the behavior and social practices of many Muslims around the globe dedicated to daily prayers, and other religious rituals, including a pilgrimage to the holy sites and zakat (purifying almsgiving) (Rowan, 2014). Overall, submissions to God create a deep spiritual meaning for all Muslims, and similarly to Christians, where most perform their religious duties in a peaceful manner.

As is the case with Christianity, Islam is now divided into several denominations. While some Muslims prefer a liberal approach to religious practices, others remain conservative and strict. Although the findings of the literature review suggest that terrorism is not inherent within Islam, researchers suggest that it may be closely associated with fundamentalist movements within the religion because it implies a categorical, and highly critical, view on human behavior in society. According to Rausch (2015), “ideological requirements for modern fundamentalism include defense of tradition, selective choice in doctrine, dualistic morality, absolutism, and messianism” (p. 30). These features correlate with the attributes of religious terrorism, i.e., fanaticism, the involvement of extremist militancy, etc. (Rausch, 2015). Therefore, we may conclude that religious terrorism is associated with a particular approach to religion in a social-political context rather than a theological perspective itself.

ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram

Although Islam was initially a profoundly unified religion, it divided into two denominations – Sunnis and Shiites – directly proceeding Muhammad’s death. The differences in practice, traditions, and customs are manifested in the several schools of law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali (for Sunnis), and Jafari (for Shiites) (Azumah, 2015). To understand how does terrorism fits into religion, we need to investigate the views of behavioral norms held by the representatives of the most conservative school of Islamic law, Hanbali.

While in the most liberal school of Islamic law, Hanafi, scholarly reasoning, and individual opinions are respected and supported, Hanbali is largely suspicious of them and only acknowledges the authority of the Quran and Sunnah. Hanbali tradition itself is also divided into two lines: Wahhabi and Salafi. Salafis only acknowledge the old Islamic traditions and refuses new religious trends and tendencies. However, it is Wahhabism that is regarded as, “the most literalist and iconoclastic branch of Hanbalism, which itself is the most conservative of the four main schools” (Azumah, 2015, p. 34). For instance, Wahhabis forbids the use of any intoxicating substances, including alcohol and tobacco. They dictate what type of clothing should be worn, what cultural and social practices should be performed, and even with whom one can and cannot relate, encouraging devotees to avoid non-Muslim friendships and activities. Above all, Macris (2016) states, early Wahhabi sources encourage violence in spreading Islam and fighting foreign political and religious forces.

According to Azumah (2015), “the origins of Boko Haram lie in a network of Wahhabi-Salafi groups in Nigeria,” while Al Qaeda is “a direct spinoff of Wahhabi Islam” (p. 34). Wahhabi principles and beliefs are also practiced by ISIS (Macris, 2016). All three extremist organizations seek to reconstruct a contemporary caliphate. To do so, they try to evict the Western political and social agents from the Middle East and reduce their influence by using mainly violent methods. Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and ISIS emphasize their disconnection to the modern democratic systems which reveal their close relatedness to fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, and the given ideological context provides a framework for justifying violence (Azumah, 2015).

The findings of the literature review make it clear that such radical organizations as Boko Haram and ISIS are, to some extent, related to Islam. Nevertheless, jihadists are at odds with the majority of Islamic traditions. All schools of Islam, including the most conservative ones, declare that jihad operations should never target vulnerable groups within the population (women, children, elderly, etc.) (Azumah, 2015). However, Rowan (2014) observes that the destructive measures undertaken by terrorists can aim to eliminate towns inhabited by innocent, noncombatant people from non-Muslim religious backgrounds. Additionally, Islamic tradition is against attacking holy sites and places of worship, as well as the places of economic value (e.g., markets) (Azumah, 2015). Yet, terrorist attacks often take place in such locations because they are crowded by civilians. One of the most important features of radical Islamic groups is that they declare Muslim governments illegitimate. For this reason, religious terrorists may kill Muslims as well. No Islamic school justifies the killing of fellow Muslims in the name of holy war or Allah; Rowan (2014) states that, although jihadists fight in the name of Islam, the motivations behind their acts are primarily political. ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are mainly self-interested and anarchical in their nature and, therefore, do not represent the true face of Islam.

Comparison to Christian Terrorism

Despite the common view of religious terrorism held by the Western media, and the presumption that it is a solely Islamic phenomenon, the evidence makes it clear that terrorism can occur within any theological context, including Christianity. Many Christian groups are reported to use terrorism and violence as a strategy to fulfill their missions and purposes. One example of such an organization is the Hutaree, a Christian militia group that initiated attacks on U.S. police officers. The Hutaree quotes the Biblical scriptures and use them to encourage violent acts meant to prepare the organization’s members, “for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive” (Christian terrorists?, 2010, p. 7).

Like many other radical religious groups, the Huretee violates strict Christian tradition. The Biblical quotes used by its group members are nothing more than distortions of mainstream religious beliefs. Van Pelt Campbell (2011) states that the Biblical texts teach Christians to react to hostility and other unwanted phenomena without violence or vengeance. In addition, the Bible provides behavioral alternatives including trustful belief in God, love for others, and self-control. In general, religious scriptures encourage Christians to follow the example of Jesus (Van Pelt Campbell, 2011). This means that even if the person is mistreated, he or she should practice forgiveness, one of the paramount Christian values.

Overall, Christians are called to trust God, love others, and contribute to the development of common welfare rather than react with anger and violence. Thus, even if religious terrorists cite the Bible and endow their acts with religious significance, they do not represent the original, true face of Christianity.

A Special Case: The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam (NOI) is an African American religious organization, established in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1930s. According to Fishman and Soage (2013), it is based on a heterodox form of the Muslim religion, i.e., the NOI members use the same terminology as the representatives of mainstream Islam, but hold untraditional beliefs. For instance, the NOI members believe in a succession of Supreme Beings, consider ‘Blacks’ as the supreme race and regard ‘Whites’ as “blue-eyed devils” (Fishman & Soage, 2013, p. 59). Therefore, the NOI’s core ideas do not conform to the traditional Islamic views described in the Quran. Even the NOI’s perspective on God significantly differs from the orthodox Islamic image. While Muslims regard God as omnipotent and omniscient, and do not give any particular form, the Nation members consider God a human-like being who, moreover, is specifically ‘Black’ (Fishman & Soage, 2013).

The suggestion that only black people are divine reveals the supremacist and radical nature of this religious organization. Although the NOI’s activities are carried out in the name of Islam and God, the fact that it has a distinctly divergent understanding of multiple Islamic concepts and beliefs, including the afterlife and the creation of the world by God, show that there is no significant affinity between the two theological movements. On the other hand, the propaganda of the inferiority of Whites makes the NOI ideologically closer to extremist Islamic groups. Researchers observe that despite significant differences in faith, the NOI managed to build alliances with the leaders of many Arabic nations which had the same enemy – Western imperialism (Fishman & Soage, 2013). Although there is no evidence of the NOI’s direct collaboration with Islamic radical groups, and their acts are mainly performed within specific social-political contexts, the organization’s ideology provides areas of solidarity with these other groups.

A Special Case: The KKK

The KKK is also similar to many Islamic supremacist organizations. According to Ward (2011), like Al Qaeda, the KKK incorporates reactionary political views into its activities. Both organizations appeared in similar circumstances, as the opposition to unwelcome forces: the military occupation of Afghanistan in case of Al Qaeda, and the occupation of the Southern States by Federals in case of the KKK (Ward, 2011). Along with this, similar to Islamic radical groups, the KKK uses religion as the ideological justification for violent behavior. The Klansmen claim that their organization adheres to Christian traditions:

Membership is restricted to those who accept the tenets of true Christianity, which is essentially Protestant…We can say to the world without apology, and say truly, that our forefathers founded this as a Protestant country and that it is our purpose to re-establish and maintain it as such. While we will energetically maintain and proclaim the principles of religious liberty as essential to the life and progress of this nation, and we will vigorously oppose all efforts to rob the American people of this right (Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK, 2017, para. I).

Other KKK’s principles include; the use of the image of Jesus Christ as the criterion of character and behavior; the consideration of the Bible as the foundation of the American Constitution and the political establishment; the promotion of the worship of God; and serving the higher purpose, “moved by unselfish motives,” such as characterized by Jesus Christ (Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK, 2017, para. V). In this way, we may say the KKK uses religion to encourage ethnic discrimination and violence. It is also possible to conclude that the KKK is fundamentalist in its nature – its activities are associated with the aggressive politicization of religion for the pursuit of non-religious goals, it has a defensive attitude, and its morality is profoundly dualistic (Rausch, 2015).

However, at the same time, the very purpose of maintaining the racial ideals and segregation of individuals by their ethnicity goes against the core Christian values of equality, fraternity, and justice. For instance, in John 13:34-35, Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (New International Version [NIV]). Moreover, from the Christian point of view, justice and impartiality are incompatible with solidarity and favoritism: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15 NIV). These verses emphasize the importance of fraternity and equality in the Christian worldview. Although the KKK claims to be religious, the purpose of their existence significantly deviates from mainstream Christianity.


The findings of this literature review make it clear that there is a link between religious fundamentalism and terrorism. It appears that a particular way of looking at religion – be it too strict, too literal, and fanatical – may accelerate violence in the modern world. The analysis of scholarly evidence reveals that various radical religious organizations, including ISIS and the KKK, emerge under similar circumstances. This finding points at the reactionary nature of those terrorist groups. It is also clear that religious terrorists primarily fight social-political phenomena and trends. In this way, their acts are mainly politically oriented. Based on this, it is possible to conclude that neither Islam nor Christianity, as a world religion, is inherently violent.


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Ward, T. J. (2011). The shared trajectories of Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan. International Journal on World Peace, 28(4), 3358.

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