Terrorism and Islam

By Otto J. Helweg, Ph.D.

Since the religiously motivated attacks on the United States of September 11, so much has been written about terrorism and Islam that one might ask, "Why another article?" As one who has spent over ten years in the Middle East, studied Islam at the University of Tehran, classical Arabic, and the Middle Eastern culture, I want to clarify some of the fundamental aspects of Islam that the popular media has ignored.

Vastly Different Worldviews of West and East

First, few Westerners understand what Raphael Patai calls "the Arab mind," in a book by that title{1}. The Middle Eastern culture is so different than ours in the United States that we consistently misunderstand the rhetoric and actions emanating from that part of the world. Second, few have made the effort to understand Islam and its history. In our misguided efforts to be inclusive and tolerant, we have glossed over the basics of Islam, attempting (unwittingly) to see this religion through the glasses of a culture still steeped in Judeo-Christian assumptions. There is no question that many Arabs and Muslims decry terrorism and are loyal Americans; however, there are a significant number in the Middle East--probably a large majority--who genuinely hate the United States and rejoice in the success of the September 11 attacks.

To understand the source of this animosity it is first important to note that in Islam and the Middle East, there is no concept of the "separation of church and state." Social, political, economic, and religious systems are all subsumed under Islam. Indeed, Muslims boast that the Qur'an, the Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad), and the Sharia (the legal writings) deals with all aspects of life.

This worldview has two ramifications: first, I have observed a widespread embarrassment of American economic, political and military success. For example, Tony Horwitz, writing in the Wall Street Journal{2} quoted several Saudis after the Gulf War who said, "If we had a real army, we wouldn't need the West to defend us." Another said, "It makes me feel more shame that pride," referring to the U.S. victory in the Gulf War.

If, as its adherents believe, Islam is true and Christianity is false, why are their nations relatively unsuccessfully in comparison to the infidel nations of the West? Many see this disparity as an attack on the veracity of their faith and a continual source of frustration. (Much of the above is chronicled in Robin Wright's book, Sacred Rage{3}.) Condemnation of virtually everything Western results. For example, Ayatolla Khomenini decrying the impact of foreign medicine in Iran, declared, "...Our leaders have forgotten our traditional medicine and encouraged a handful of inexperienced young men to study this cursed European medicine. Today we realize that illnesses such as typhus, typhoid fever, and the like are curable only by traditional remedies."{4} Another example is a quote from Food for Thought for Christians, Pamphlet 2 from Darut Tabligh-e-Isalmi, "All vices come from the West... and careful consideration of this problem will show that women and drinking are the root cause of all this vice."

Second, military campaigns carry religious significance. This, of course, includes the non-conventional terrorist warfare preferred by the radical Muslim movements like Osama bin Laden's al Queda. If another Muslim country were being attacked, most Muslims would see this as an assault on Islam. Consequently, we may receive verbal assurances from Muslim governments supporting the fight against Islamic terrorists, but I believe the political support will not be there, especially over an extended period of time.

As much as the Arabs may distrust and harbor animosity toward one another, many of them will unite against non-Muslims over their hatred of the Jews. That is why Osama bin Laden effectively recruits Saudis, Egyptians and others from diverse countries.

We must realize that, within the Middle Eastern culture, saying what your listener wants to hear is more important than telling the truth. For a Middle Easterner, words are more important than ideas and ideas are more important than facts. It is this trait that caused many Americans to wonder how such outlandish statements can be made that are patently false. For example, when Sadam Hussein said that the battle of the Gulf War would be "the mother of all battles" and claimed victory before anything started, it was the words and ideas that were embraced by his followers. The facts were not important. Predominantly Muslim nations with controlled state-controlled media--virtually all of them--exhibit this mentality most powerfully.

Another example of the difference in cultures is the concept of success. In the United States, success might be embodied in a lower class woman that works her way through college doing menial jobs and achieves recognition in her profession through hard work, perhaps advancing to become CEO of a major corporation. By contrast, in the Middle East, most kinds of manual labor would be an embarrassment for a professional person, including college students. Agricultural work, for example, is considered beneath any educated person. The ideal success story in the Arab World is a person finding a treasure in the desert, immortalized in the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. That is why Saudi Arabia, with its rich oil reserves, is so admired.

Religion of Peace?

However often Islamic apologists may declare that Islam is a religion of peace and that it was not spread by the sword, the facts remain. The Qur'an contains many verses that encourage and sometimes command fighting for the faith against pagans and infidels, which are defined as non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews. Historically, while Christians and Jews could coexist in countries conquered by Muslims, they were forced by pain of death to pay a special tax and could never rise above certain levels in any government service. When Abu 'Ubaidah invaded Jerusalem "...he invited you to one of these three terms, either entrance into Islam, or the payment of the jizyah-tax, or the sword"{5}. Talk to Christian Copts in Egypt and they will confirm the discrimination and even persecution that they endure--even in one of the more liberal Muslim nations.

Background on Islam

Although the Qur'an is technically not supposed to be translated, since Arabic is seen as God's holy language, I will herein use the English translation by A. Yusuf Ali, the most widely accepted translation. Muslims believe there were many holy books, among which the Old and New Testaments were included (the Qur'an refers to them as the Torah and Gospel.) Muslims believe that Jews and Christians changed the original message and, thus, the present Bible is corrupted. Most believe that Christians took out passages that referred to Muhammad despite the fact that the New Testament existed prior to the birth of Muhammad in 570 AD.

Muslims affirm the Bible's claims that Jesus was a prophet, was born of a virgin, was sinless, and performed miracles. However, they do not believe accept his divinity or crucifixion. The concept of a suffering servant is foreign to Islam. Gross misrepresentations common among Muslims include the claims that Christians believe in three gods and that Mary produced Jesus from a coital relationship with God.

Shorter than the New Testament, the Qur'an consists entirely of beautiful Arabic poetry. Muslims believe Muhammad received the Qur'an from the angel Gabriel and most believe that Muhammad was illiterate, which supports the doctrine of its supernatural reception. As Muhammad received these Suras (revelations), others would either memorize them or write them down. While Muhammad admitted that he never performed a miracle, he claimed the Qur'an provided sufficient proof of his apostleship.

It is instructive to note that Muhammad's first military victory was accomplished during a month of truce, which he broke by raiding a caravan. From then on, continued successes capturing village after village caused his following to increase.

The Qur'an

Various Suras came to Muhammad during this time to encourage his followers to fight. Several examples:

4 "Therefore, when ye meet
The Unbelievers (in fight)
Smite at their necks;
At length, when ye have
Thoroughly subdued them,
Bind a bond
Firmly (on them): thereafter
(Is the time for) either
Generosity or ransom:
Until the war lays down
Its burdens: Thus (are ye
Commanded): but if it
Had been God's Will,
He could certainly have exacted
Retribution from them (Himself):
But (He lets you fight)
In order to test you,
Some with others.
But those who are slain
In the way of God,
He will never let
Their deeds be lost.

5 Soon will He guide them And improve their condition,

6 And admit them to
The Garden which He
Has announced for them,"
(Sura 47, the parenthetical phrases are in the text.)

Another example in Sura 48:

16 "Say to the desert Arabs
Who lagged behind: 'Ye
Shall be summoned (to fight)
Against a people given to
Vehement war: then shall ye
Fight, of they shall submit
Then if ye show obedience,
God will grant you
A goodly reward, but if
Ye turn back as ye
Did before, he will punish
You with a grievous Penalty,"

One final example in Sura 41:

4 "Truly God loves those
Who fight in His Cause
In battle array, as if
They were a solid
Cemented structure."

From these passages alone one can easily understand how a Muslim terrorist would view his suicidal death during a terrorist jihad as ensuring a place in Heaven. Heaven, for the Muslim, is a paradise complete with unlimited sex and rivers of wine (both prohibited on earth). This may explain the reported visits to pornography shops prior to the September 11 attacks by the perpetrators. Perhaps they were anticipating their reward, probably using these erotic reinforcements to strengthen their resolve.

Besides the battles during Muhammad's life, after his death in 632 AD, the Caliphs (civic and religious leaders, successors of Muhammad) continued the military expansion into what is now Iraq and Iran and across North Africa. A power vacuum created by the mutual beating given by the Persian and Byzantium empires helped ensure conquest. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, subdued surrounding tribes that rebelled after Muhammad's death and led forces into Palestine and Syria. The next three Caliphs (Umar, Uthman, and Ali) were all assassinated, Umar in the Mosque at Medina. The ensuing battle at Kerbela (680 AD), at which the grandson of Muhammad, Hussein, was killed, split the Islamic world into the Shias (mostly in Iran) and Sunnis, which continue today.

In Conclusion

We need to remember that the events of September 11 are only unique in the magnitude of the destruction and the location (here in the United States). The hatred for the "Christian West" dates back to Islamic invasions of Europe, the Crusades, the establishment of Israel--all fresh in contemporary Muslim minds. The September 11 attack is merely a continuation of this modern jihad (holy war). Recall the 1984 U. S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, the TWA disaster in the United Kingdom, and U.S.S. Cole attack, etc.

It is naïve to believe that we can eliminate Islamic terrorism and optimistic to think that we can contain it. When fanaticism is fueled by religious fervor, it breeds a disease with no military or political cure. For reasons that go beyond the desire to curb terrorism, Christians should redouble their efforts to introduce Muslims to the Prince of Peace.


{1} The Arab Mind, Raphael Patai, Charles Scribner's Sons: NY; 1983

{2} Wall Street Journal, pg. 1, Vol. LXXIV, No. 63

{3} Sacred Rage; The Wrath of Militant Islam, Robin Wright. Simon & Schuster: NY; 1985

{4} Sayings of the Ayatollah Khomenini; Political, Philosophical, Social, and Religious, Trans. Harold J. Salemson, ed. Tony Hendra, Bantam Books: NY; 1980

{5} The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Bat Ye'or. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Otto Helweg serves as Dean of the Engineering Department at North Dakota State University and lived and studied in Iran for over 10 years.