a picture of one of the twin towers in NYC on fire

Anthropology: Correlation Between Religion and Terrorism

Since the beginning of time, human kind has found its way to brutal wars almost as if it a normal part of our evolution. In the history of wars and battles, many cite religion as the cause or motivation behind their need to be violent. It is not uncommon for generals and religious leaders to claim that God has deemed it necessary for them to indulge in these brutal fights. In more recent history, various acts of terrorism have one of few things in common: their leaders follow a religion to an extremist level. While it is easy to blame religion as a whole for these acts of terrorism, it would not be a just analysis. There are deeper reasons for why terrorists use religion as a scapegoat to justify their heinous crimes. In a world with so many diverse cultures and religions, it is important to understand and analyze the difference between a religion’s authentic teachings, and the horrific acts committed in its name. Because the two, while unfortunately intertwined, are not the same and thus, should not be treated the same.

What is Terrorism?

There are various definitions of the word terrorism, with seemingly no universal agreement. In the broadest sense, it is the use of violence and fear to achieve political goals. It is also further defined by the hostility and violence towards innocent civilians in times of war. The terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” originated from the French revolution in the late 18th century. Additionally, these terms gained more global attention during well publicized political conflicts, such as the Palestinian-Israeli situation. The reason there are various definitions of terrorism is because it is used with the undertone that something is ethically wrong. More commonly, non-state groups and governments use these terms to condemn opposing political groups. Some are even accused of using terrorist tactics to achieve their goals.

In the past, these terms have referred to right wing and left wing political groups, nationalist organizations, religious groups and ruling governments. In general, legislation that clearly declares terrorism as a crime has been adopted in many countries. Interestingly, however, when terrorism is committed by nation states, it is not considered terrorism by the state conducting it. Thus, leaving a generally grey-area.

Popular Religions and their Messages

Religion has always existed as some form of belief system in history. It can have a positive impact on people as it allows them to hope for better days in a more spiritual manner. Additionally, it  has enough influence to shape entire cultures and their nations. Therefore, in an effort to understand the acts of terrorism committed by criminals who cite different religions as their motive, it is important to first identify and thoroughly understand them. Today, the most popular religions in the world are Islam and Christianity. Thus, the following sections will outline the core beliefs of each.


The Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca
                            The Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca Credit: commisceo-global.com

Islam is a monotheistic religion that emphasizes to its followers that the messenger of god is Muhammad. It is the second largest religion in the world with about 1.9 billion followers, known as Muslims. Population wise, Muslims are the majority in about 51 countries. Additionally, it originated in the city of Makkah ( also known as Mecca) in Saudi Arabia around the seventh century.

The teachings of Islam center around the idea that God is merciful, generous and powerful; and that he has been guiding humanity since the beginning of time through prophets and religious texts. The holy scripture of Islam is called the Quran, and it is known within the Muslim world to be the exact words of God. In the early days of Islam, prophet Muhammad informed his followers that Allah protected the Quran. Therefore, in the coming years it could not be changed into different interpretations, and original scripture would remain pure. In addition, the Quran contains teachings, stories and examples of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE) .

A common thread of understanding among Muslim communities is that Islam is the final and complete version of every religion revealed before it. It is believed by Muslims that the messages of Islam were revealed in the past through different prophets such as Moses, Adam, Abraham and Jesus. Thus, emphasizing the concept that all religions are in a way intertwined, and as such Muslims are taught to be mindful of other people’s beliefs. Overall, Islam is considered to be the final revelation of God and as such, teaches about a final judgement day with the reward of paradise and the ultimate punishment of Hell.

Additionally, the foundation for this religion relies on the Five Pillars of Islam. These are obligatory acts of worship which generally touches on every aspect of the life that makes a good Muslim. The Quran presents them as a guideline for worship and commitment to the religion. These pillars include: profession of faith (also known as Shahada), 5 daily obligatory prayers (also known salat), Fasting, Zakat (giving charity/donating), and Hajj (pilgrimage). Zakat and Hajj are obligatory only for able  Muslims, while the others are obligatory for all Muslims.

One of the core beliefs of Islam is to be generous and kind to other people, especially strangers. In general, to help the poor and make yourself  useful and of service to those in need. For example, it was common for mosques (the place where Muslims go to pray and study) to be converted into temporary shelters for the poor, injured and homeless. Mosques, also known by their Arabic name Masjid) are popular during Friday prayers or holidays such as Eid. Additionally, Islam discourages violence especially if it can be avoided with a peace treaty. It also forbids certain violent acts such as killing, and sexual assault in any and all forms. Thus, at its core Islam is a religion of peace, and anyone that acts out with cruel intentions in the name of Islam is not actually following the religion’s teachings.


Jesus Christ on a wooden Cross
                                                                Jesus Christ on the Cross
Credit: commisceo-global.com

Christianity is the largest and most popular religion in the world with about 2.4 billion followers. It is a monotheistic religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Accompanying the messages of Christ, is a holy scripture called the Bible. While most Christians agree on the basic rules of the religion, there are many different interpretations of the holy book. The Christian bible is divided into two parts: the Old testament and the New testament. The old testament contains the Hebrew scriptures of Jesus’s time, while the new testament contains accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings, along with his death and resurrection.

Additionally, precise confessions of religious beliefs are known as creeds. The Apostles’ Creed is the most commonly accepted state of articles within Christian faith. It is popular among liturgical churches of Western Christian tradition, which includes Anglicanism, the Latin Church of the Catholic Church, and the Western Rite Orthodoxy. This creed is also used by Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists. Moreover, the Apostles’ creed originated in the 2nd and 9th centuries; and was defined by the central belief of the Trinity, God and the Creator. The creed can be summed up as :

  • Belief in God as the Father, Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit
  • The death, descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ
  • The holiness and righteousness of the Church and the communion of saints
  • Christ’s second coming, the Day of Judgment and the salvation of the faithful

Furthermore, the central point of Christianity is belief in Jesus as the son of God and his role as the messiah. Christians believe that Jesus was picked by God to be the savior of humanity and maintain that his coming was foretold in the prophecies of the old testament. At its core, Christian belief is that through faith and acceptance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sinful humans can be forgiven by God. Thus, they will be offered salvation and paradise. In addition, according to the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to the Virgin Mary. A cornerstone of Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus, as it will be considered the most important event in history. According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified and thus died a physical death, was buried within a tomb, and rose from the dead three days later. This is the foundation for most of Christian theology in existence today.

Equally important, Modern Christianity has a new more progressive branch in the world of religion. While traditional Christianity did focus on being charitable, it also concentrated on the greater good.  As in, a person should devote themselves to the progress and achievements of their community, rather than selfish personal gain. In contrast, progressive Christianity advocates for individual needs along with the whole. Some values of progressive modern Christianity are loving one another, caring for the poor and oppressed, ending social injustice and questioning tradition. Thus, these days some Christians put a heavier emphasis on tolerance, compassion and justice. Unlike the traditional form of biblical Christianity, modernism Christianity does not believe there is only one way to repent. As such, those who follow this form of religion do not believe in just a few set ways to achieve salvation.

Ideology of Terrorism

Ideology of Terrorism

Global Terror Index

Global Terror Attacks

Examples of Terrorist Acts and Groups

The following terrorist attacks and groups have defined political history, and have had a long lasting impact on the world. This section is not to be misunderstood as implying that religion incites hate or that all religions have violent teachings. On the contrary, this is simply to highlight what occurs when unhealthy individuals misinterpret religious scripts, and add personal extremist values resulting in a twisted narrative.

Al-Queda: The 9/11 Attacks

Al Queda
Credit: https://sofrep.com/
the twin towers in NYC on fire during the terrorist 9/11 attacks
                                                                      Credit: reuters.com

On September 11th 2001, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States by the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda took place. On Tuesday morning in New York City, a commercial jet plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, cutting through floors 93 to 99. While the news of this was still spreading, civilians watched in shock as another plane crashed into the South tower. Reports confirmed that about 40 minutes after the second, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon (the headquarters for the U.S department of defense). Within an hour and 42 minutes, the twin towers crumbled to the ground as their structural integrity was destroyed by the fires erupting within the buildings. There was a fourth plane that apparently missed its mark due to the passengers intervening after learning about the previous attacks. This fourth plane crashed in a field within Pennsylvania. It is said that its potential target might have been Washington D.C or specifically, the White House.

The four commercial flights were scheduled to land in California. Mid Flight, the planes were hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. Once the terrorist group was suspected, the U.S formally responded by initiating a military campaign named War on Terror. The U.S then invaded  Afghanistan where the headquarters for this terrorist group was suspected to exist. Especially since the country of Afghanistan was not able to track down or remove the group from its land. The man who planned and coordinated the attacks was the leader of the terrorist group, Osama bin Laden. He officially claimed responsibility for the attacks in 2004 and cited the U.S. ‘s support of Israel, the presence of U.S troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq as motives. Eventually, after almost a decade, Bin Laden was located in Pakistan in 2011 and killed during a U.S. military raid.

Firefighters on the ground in the aftermath of the Terrorist 9/11 attacks
                      Firefighters on the ground in the aftermath of the attacks credit: theconversation.com

The attacks resulted in 2,977 fatalities, with over 25,000 injuries and long term health consequences. In addition, there was at least 10 billion dollars worth in property and infrastructure damage. These attacks were considered the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

The Aftermath

Cartoon highlighting Islamophobia in Europe
Cartoon highlighting Islamophobia in Europe. Credit: Carlos Latuff/Flickr, CC BY-SA

After the events of 9/11, many countries strengthened and reinforced their anti-terrorism legislation. The destruction of the World Trade Center along with the nearby structures, greatly impacted NYC’s economy and created an economic downturn. Many closings, evacuations and cancellations followed, out of both fear of more attacks and respect for those who had died.

Moreover, across the West a new wave of Islamophobia emerged after the 9/11 attacks. During this time, America framed the attack as a black and white picture, good versus evil. Radical Islam was the latest enemy in the media. News outlets, social media platforms, voices in both media and politics, used the extremist actions of Islamic terrorists to alienate Muslims in general. 9/11 was a defining moment for the U.S in terms of military and casualties, but it was also a defining moment for American Muslims. Since 9/11, Muslims have faced increased violence and discrimination in Western countries. A lot of this hate is based on ignorance of the religion as a whole, because those who understood the real messages of Islam would know that AL-Qaeda did not represent them. Thus, terrorist groups like it are not an accurate representation of the religion or its people.


Black and white image of terrorist group the KKK in white robes and masks
                                                                       Credit: nationalgeographic.org

The Ku Klux Klan, more commonly referred to as the KKK or the Klan, is an American white supremacist terrorist hate group. The targets for this group are African Americans, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, Catholics, Muslims and atheists. Primarily though, most of their crimes are targeted towards black Americans and other people of color.

The Klan has existed in three distinct eras. Historically, the first Klan used terrorism, both assault and murder, against politically active African Americans and their allies in the Southern U.S during the late 1860s. All three eras of the Klan have called for the “purification” of American society and are considered right wing extremist organizations. The Klan swears their actions are justified as they are attempting to uphold pure Christian values. Each chapter of the Klan was highly secret, and its plans were revealed only to long term members.

Furthermore, after their organization was suppressed by federal law enforcement in 1871, the members began to make their own costumes, masks and robes in order to maintain animosity. They also aimed to look as terrifying as possible. The second wave of the Klan flourished in the mid 1920s within Georgia. It held its place within Protestant Christian communities, and sought to enforce white supremacy. Additionally, it opposed Catholics, Jews and the political power of the pope and Catholic church. This wave of the KKK was funded by initiation fees and selling their trademark white costume to other members. It also added to its list of rituals, cross burning, and mass parades to intimidate others.

The current manifestation of the KKK emerged after the 1950s in the form of localized and isolated groups. Since then, they focused on the opposition of the civil rights movements, and used murder to suppress activists, along with other forms of terrorism. The KKK has been officially classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group is still active and as of 2016, the Anti- Defamation League puts its members nationwide at around 3,000-6,000. These numbers may vary with future statistics.

Although members of the KKK insist they uphold true Christian values, they have been denounced by Christian denominations. None of the members or actions of the Klan represent the teachings of Christianity. Similar to Islamophobia rising after 9/11, this terrorist group is a poor representation of the religion as whole and as such, should not be seen as a reflection of Christianity and those who follow it.

The Anthropological Significance

We can not judge an entire civilization on its actions in the name of religion, if we do not understand the religion itself. Additionally, as more and more culture is infused into our daily lives, learning about other people’s beliefs is a crucial part of existing in society. Therefore, judging a religion by the acts of terrorism committed by the few in its name is thoroughly unjust and inaccurate. Moreover, while today terrorism may be fueled by religious motivation, in the past it was primarily indulged by nationalists. Before 2000, it was nationalist separatist terrorist organizations such as the IRA and Chechen rebels who were behind the most attacks. The number of incidents from nationalist separatist groups has remained relatively stable in the years since while religious extremism has grown. The prevalence of Islamist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria is the main driver behind these trends. Thus, religion is not the sole cause, rather the differences in ideologies and ignorance of culture are more responsible. This is not something that can be easily remedied, as people tend to fear what they do not understand. And fear can lead to hatred when combined with ignorance, therefore understanding other cultures is vital to an individual’s education. Furthermore, through these religious beliefs and branches of culture, we learn about each other and the infinite possibilities of living in the modern world.

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