Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Is religious terrorism a product of western modernity?

In the 21st century there is visibly an increase in religiously motivated terror attacks. Many of the radical groups identify themselves with radical Islam, but how did violence and religion evolve to this point?

Photo from ISIS taken in Ninive area, Iraq, in 2015 and published by the group on their web pages. Picture by Balkis Press ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. The world is currently facing a vicious, new form of international terrorism. The Islamic State (IS) has expressed its plans to attack Europe while recruiting a growing number of foreign fighters. In fact, a significant number of EU citizens are already engaged with IS both in Syria and in the EU. The attacks on Paris underline the scale and complexity of the current threat in Europe. Such brutal acts by religiously motived groups in western countries cause global outrage. People feel that their values and sovereignty are attacked. But how can this rise in religiously motivated violence be explained?

The literal meaning of the word ‘terror’ indicates the aim to change a political situations by spreading fear rather than causing material damage to the target. Looking at conventional warfare, material losses are the main goal, spreading fear is just the byproduct of these actions. ‘Terror’ on the other hand creates more fear than it causes material loss for the enemy. Spreading fear is therefore the whole story for terrorist groups and shows the disproportion of strength between the terrorists and their target, and the fear they, therefore, want to inspire.

Are terrorist attacks a new modern phenomenon?

In the 21st century there is visibly an increase in religiously motivated terror attacks. Many of the radical groups identify themselves with radical Islam, but how did violence and religion evolve to this point? Al- Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIS, just to mention the most popular ones are causing fear and anxiety throughout the world. But are terrorist attacks a new modern phenomenon? Why are so many attacks religiously motivated?

The role of religion in politics has always been a difficult one. With the Peace of Westphalia being established in 1648, a new international system was introduced. Before that, religion was the main source of conflict and competition between states or kingdoms. The Westphalian order banished religion more and more from the political sphere, which was exacerbated by the processes of modernization and secularization, leading to the view that religion would soon disappear completely from politics and even from the lives of people.

One can say that without the banishment of religion, the modern state and the development of the present-day international system would not have been possible [1]. The state took the marginalization of religion and the loyalty of the population to God and transferred it to the state. The rising confidence in national institutions make the belief in a supernatural power obsolete.  

The core features of the modern state are a reliable monetary system, a stable legal system and an apparatus, that can guarantee internal security [2]. As it is well known, the concept of the modern state has not emerged uniformly around the globe. The process of the modern state has a long history and has led to the disarmament of people and the centralization of executive power as well as the use of violence.[3]  This reorganization of public violence and the state’s monopoly on violence is the central instrument to ensure everyday safety of citizens from random acts of force.

Terror attacks undermine this monopoly and create fear among the population. According to Zygmund Bauman, in modernity we build a moral distance. Due to the huge bureaucratic apparatus and its monopoly on violence, the modern state can use violence without its people really knowing. Hannah Arendt argues in a similar way in ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’, where she describes that evil is not personified in one person, instead crimes can be committed by anyone, who follows orders and stops reflecting on their own actions.

The views of radical Islamist groups are as much shaped by western ideology as by their religious beliefs.

To use violence on a big scale you need a high degree of rationalization and process optimization. Waging war in modernity is all about logistics. The healthy soldier is the basis for the logistics of the military. The history to transform networks is fundamental to the history of warfare. Nazi Germany committed the worst acts of violence in history. The aim was to breed a new type of human being. The processes used there were highly modern. The gas chambers were part of modernity. Even though some people believe that being modern has only a positive connotation, in fact, there are many ways of being modern and some of them are monstrous.[4]

Like other modern political ideologies such as communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern. The views of radical Islamist groups are as much shaped by western ideology as by their religious beliefs. The positivist view of modernity explains that when societies fail to inherit the findings of science, they become chaotic and divided. The progress of a society is based on its progress in science. As knowledge advances, so does humanity. Hence, every society has to go from a religious worldview to a metaphysical outlook, and from that to a scientific or positivistic world view.[5] At the end of this process the moral and political conflicts of the past will disappear.[6]

Unfortunately, reality is a little different, modern war is a by-product of the modern state. In history, wars were waged in the battlefield. The main goal was to raise mass armies, but not to target the civilian population. 9/11 has produced a new kind of warfare. These new conflicts arise from the interaction of old religious and ethnic divisions and the increased competition for natural resources and are waged by very unconventional means. This situation leads to a moral problem, due to the verticality here, it becomes challenging to distinguish civilians from combatants.

Countries in the Middle East inherited the modern state from Europe, but their societies weren’t adequately prepared for that change. The reason violence is still so dominant in those societies, has nothing to do with human beings having an irrepressible instinct for aggression, but the simple fact that no substitute for this arbiter in international affairs has appeared in the political scene.[7] Political-religious crises occur especially where old segregation patterns erode without being replaced by effective new ones. This is especially true when the balance of power between different groups shifts or new actors and elites emerge, who no longer respect the current power distribution.  One of the main examples of such an erosion of established religious conflict is the emergence of radical fundamentalist movements in the 20th and 21st centuries.[8]

Hannah Arendt argues that the proliferation of techniques and machines menaces the existence of whole nations. According to her, violence can destroy power but not create it. The fact is that the decrease of power will increase violence. Governments and organizations, fearing their power is slipping away, won’t resist the temptation to use violence in trying to restore their power.[9]

The less the population is used to political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock after an act of terrorism

However, the terrorists hope that even though they can barely dent the enemy’s material the so inspired fear and chaos will cause the enemy, to misuse its strength.[10]  To achieve their aim, they present the modern state with an impossible challenge. The less the population is used to political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock after an act of terrorism. Killing 130 people in Paris draws far more attention than killing thousands in Nigeria or Iraq. Yuval Noah Harari calls this the paradox of the modern state: the very success of modern states in preventing political violence makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism.[11]

The power of the state is defined by its monopoly of the legitimate use of force.[12] In other words, state action and policy always relies upon the deployment of police, military, the prison system and so on. Without the legitimate ability to deploy violence, modern states cannot function.[13] 

Violence can be separated into objective and subjective violence. Subjective violence can be seen in the crimes that dictators and authoritarian regimes commit. You can easily locate the evil, the subject, which caused the violence. Objective violence is more difficult to locate. It is more difficult to identify the guilty subject in these crimes, e.g. in the million who died as a result of globalization.[14] 

For many scholars, radical Islam is a western construction. During the Cold War, religious movements in the Middle East were funded, armed and used as buffers against the Soviets.[15]  Even though Islamists define themselves as anti- modern, radical Islam is evidently a by-product of the late modern globalization. You can see that in Al- Qaeda’s use of technology, offshore financial institutions and in ISIS´s use of the internet.

The use of terror by Islamist organizations has very little to do with traditional Islam, but is more related to asymmetric warfare used by modern revolutionary movements.[16] Therefore, suicide bombing has nothing to do with anything religous, but falls into strategic terrorism, justified by religious ideology.[17]  Cheap and highly effective, suicide bombing is the technique of choice for groups confronting overwhelming conventional military force.[18]

For many scholars, radical Islam is a western construction.

Those who join violent extremist groups rarely have formal training in the religion they are trying to defend. Often they don’t even have a deep understanding of the religion and their knowledge is shaped mostly by online sources or discussions with other extremists.

Reports say that those drawn to religious violence are usually raised in secular families and households.[19] However, many foreign fighters were diagnosed with mental problems before joining ISIS. An aggravating factor is that most of the recruits have had criminal records before joining the organization, starting from petty crimes to more serious ones.  Terrorist cells ready to perpetrate a terrorist attack are mostly domestic and locally based in European countries. ISIS’s training of recruits consists of imported warfare techniques in the use of weapons, explosives and specific killing techniques.

With the shift of conventional warfare to asymmetric warfare the techniques and technology that terrorists use, are very modern and contemporary. The inability of the west to establish functional democracies in regions like the Middle East, enabled radical religious groups to emerge. With the further development of globalization these ideas were easy to be spread and members easy to mobilize. Even though Islamists define themselves as anti- modern, the way they wage war is evidently a by-product of the late modern globalization.


[1] Thomas, Scott M.: Taking religious and cultural pluralism seriously – The global resurgence of religion and the transformation of international society in International Relations Theory and Religion, Palgrave MacMillian, New York 2003 S.25

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kössler, Reinhart: The Modern Nation State and Regimes of Violence: Reflections on the Current Situation, http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/acd/cg/ir/college/bulletin/e-vol.2/kossler.pdf, Date: 21.02.2017, p.3

[4] Gray, John: Al Qaeda: And What it Means to be Modern, Faber, 2003, p2.

[5] Gray, John: Al Qaeda: And What it Means to be Modern, Faber, 2003, p. 29

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arendt, Hannah: On Violence, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970, p.5

[8] Ibid.

[9] Arendt, Hannah: On Violence, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1970, p. 87

[10] Harari, Yuval Noah: The Theatre of Terror, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/31/terrorism-spectacle-how-states-respond-yuval-noah-harari-sapiens?CMP=share_btn_tw Download: 21.02.2017

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Zizek, Slavoj: Blasphemische Gedanken: Islam und Moderne, Pocket Book, 2015, p.12

[15] Gray, John: Al Qaeda: And What it Means to be Modern, Faber, 2003, p. 16

[16] Gray, John: Al Qaeda: And What it Means to be Modern, Faber, 2003, p. 18

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kricheli, Ilana; Rosner, Yotam; Mendelboim, Aviad; Schweitzer, Yoram: Suicide Bombings in 2016: The Highest Number of Fatalities, Download: 21.02.2017 http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/7e6eb677-ec57-4ad8-bde5-3b62c173898f

[19] Senzai, Farid: Isis and its Violence, Islamic Monthly, Download: 21.02.2017, http://theislamicmonthly.com/isis-and-its-violence/

About the author

Feodora Hamza studied Islamic Studies in Freiburg, Germany and finished her Masters in Religion and Conflict at Lancaster University, United Kingdom. She is living in the Hague.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.