A Justification for Terrorism: A Violent Hope in the 20th Century


May 26, 2009


In this paper, I will analyze the definition of terrorism as an abomination, and thereby conclude that terrorism is not an abomination, and instead, understandable if approached differently. I will explain that terrorism is used as a method to achieve change. This paper will elaborate on the use of terrorism as a response to oppression and hopelessness, in addition to its use as a means to attain religious salvation and as a military strategy in asymmetric warfare. The Tamil Tigers are presented as an example where terrorism has been a response to oppression and injustices, while the situation in Palestine will further exemplify this. Islamic extremists will provide an example of religiously-motivated terrorism. I will examine the advantages of terrorism in asymmetric warfare and its goals, thereby exploring the consequences of the terrorist act. Thus, this paper aims to provide a justification for terrorism as a hope in the twentieth century, contrary to previous definitions of the term.

The term terrorism is one that conjures images of disturbing explosions and death; the term terrorist has underlying connotations of religious fanaticism and violent desperation. Throughout the twentieth century, terrorism became increasingly prevalent across the world stage. Such violence, as seen in acts similar to the infamous Oklahoma City bombing and the Lockerbie bombing, conduces to the redefinition of terrorism as an abomination. In this manner, terrorism has come to represent an incomprehensible evil that is unjustifiable. However, terrorism, while wreaking havoc on an international scale, becomes manageable if viewed as a means to cope with oppression and poverty, to attain religious salvation, and to achieve an advantage in asymmetric battle.

Evidently, terrorism is justifiable as a logical response to oppression and poverty. Scholars have attempted to classify terrorism as the result of the combination of brainwashing, severe poverty, emotional dysfunction, and despair. Many terrorists are driven by despair, as many terrorist acts are acts of desperation. Incidentally, many terrorists have claimed to be driven by a sense of injustice or humiliation, or personal revenge for the loss of a loved one. The Black Widows in Chechnya are suicide bombers who have lost loved ones, while the “Birds of Paradise” unit of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) consists of Tamil women raped by Sinhalese security services and Sinhalese military.

The Tamils are an ideal example of oppression and poverty acting as justification for terrorism. After 1948, Sinhala State repression of the Tamils became more widespread and rampant. Unconstitutional measures and discriminatory legislation constituted the oppression that deprived the Tamils of their rights. Moreover, the state aided Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas, which deprived the Tamils of rights to the land. The Tamils resolved after failed attempts of peaceful compromise that there was no alternative to terror and asserted themselves in an attempt to struggle against the overwhelming oppression. The Sri Lankan government later committed further war crimes and human rights violations against the Tamils (successive Sinhala governments illustrate years of political and violent physical abuses): the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) emerged in these conditions and further upheld its right to self-determination.

Generally, extreme terrorist organizations claim that states’ human rights abuses serve as justification for terrorism. The foreign occupation and suppression of Muslims, as well as military interventions and old conflicts, has spawned a feeling of injustice and desperation at the heart of the Muslim world. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine expressed that armed attacks against Israel were justifiable in response to the usurpation of land in the 1960s- 1970s. British philosopher Ted Honderich has justified Palestinian terrorism against Israel, as the Palestinians are attempting to free themselves from the dominating force of the Israelis. “Palestinians suffer from an oppressive Israeli military occupation, unlawful Israeli settlements, economic privations, and serious rights violations.” In the 1980s, other examples occurred, including the Irish Republican Army bombings of the English in attempts to emphasize their belief that the British imperialists were colonizing their land, and the Uighur separatists in modern China who believed Chinese religious repression justified terrorist tactics. Thus, arbitrary bombings, civilian casualties, torture, human rights abuses, racial slurs, and discrimination have formed the background driving force of terrorism—terrorism is motivated by social and political injustices: poverty and oppression.

Additionally, terrorism becomes justified as a means to attain religious salvation. Religious extremism conduces to acts of martyrdom. Terrorist organizations have manipulated religious fervor in order to recruit young terrorists: martyrdom is presented as correlated to heavenly reward and ascension to heaven or paradise. Terrorists are motivated by spiritual incentives; children growing up in such environments promoting self-sacrifice in the name of religion are likely to become terrorists later in life; children are indoctrinated into cultures that glorify sacrifice against the enemy people or to service a leader such as Villupilai Prabhakaran or Abdullah Öcalan. Where religion was the primary rationale for terror, religiously motivated terrorists have existed.

Extremist Muslims are an example of this and have interpreted the Qur’an, and the term jihad, as encouraging terrorism. Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar attempted to justify the killing of civilians with verses from the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’an and other religious texts are often purposefully misinterpreted to support terrorist aims. On February 23rd, 1998, Osama Bin Laden and allied groups published a fatwa under the name "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders”, which asserted that all Muslims had a religious duty to wage war against citizens of the United States, military or civilian, anywhere in the world. This further detailed that Muslims were to commit these violent acts in the name of God, thereby fulfilling their duty to Islamic faith. Abdal-Hakim Murad, an anti-terror Muslim has stated the following concerning Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, “All this amounts to an odd and extreme violation of the normal methods of Islamic scholarship. Had the authors of such fatwas followed the norms of their religion, they would have had to acknowledge that no school of mainstream Islam allows the targeting of civilians. An insurrectionist who kills noncombatants is guilty of baghy, “armed aggression,” a capital offense in Islamic law.”

Islamic extremism demonstrates the quintessential use of religion as justification for terrorism. In Islamic terrorism, the terrorist act is associated with incentives: spiritual rewards in the afterlife and a place with God. Suicide is viewed as the ultimate sacrifice and leads to religious purity. In Islam, the assassination of innocent people is unacceptable. Islamic terrorism is a perversion of Islamic teachings that uses excerpts from the Koran to support their beliefs. Such passages include quotations stressing the importance of struggle and the prevalence of Islamic faith: “O prophet! Strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be harsh against them. Their abode is hell, and an evil destination it is.” This type of religious fanaticism, as with other extremist religions, is a perversion of the original religion and strays from its roots, and instead uses an exaggerated form of religion to justify terrorism. The suicide bombing attacks in Lebanon by Shi’ia terrorists demonstrates how religious fervor can be manipulated for political purposes. The murder of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egypt, was also motivated religiously. These events, like many others, illustrate the fact that terrorism is often motivated by religious fanaticism.

Finally, terrorism is used to gain an advantage in asymmetric warfare. Terrorism is an effective tactic for the classically weaker side in a conflict. “As an asymmetric form of conflict, it confers coercive power with many of the advantages of military force at a fraction of the cost.” Moreover, as terrorist organizations are small in comparison to their opponents, as well as secretive, it is difficult for the victims of terrorist acts to deter or defend against such acts. In a state that is disadvantaged to battle with stronger states, terrorism may gain appeal because it allows weaker combatants to succeed unconventionally. For terrorism to exist, it must be deemed that other peaceful strategies or tactics have failed: terror will be used as a tactic if seen as advantageous and if other resources are deemed more ineffective.

Another “benefit” seen from acts of terror is the intensity of immediate media coverage it generates. The aim of terrorism as an advantage in this sense is to commit violent acts that draw the attention of governments, populations, and the world to their cause. This attention is an advantage, as it allows fear to spread. As seen in the July 2005 attacks in London, suicide terrorism in particular signals that if one individual or group of individuals are willing to die to carry out an attack, there perhaps will be more attacks of the same nature to come. This fear grows in the media, which leads viewers to believe that there will be more attacks if something is not changed. If the media consistently reports these acts of terror, governments will potentially pay closer attention to the terrorists. Through the media, terrorists can coerce these governments into changing what they wish to change. In fact, Robert Pape believes that terror is a coercive strategy directed externally (against a more powerful enemy) to coerce democratic governments to change their policies and evacuate a homeland territory under their control. He has stated, “The reason suicide terrorism is so often chosen by terrorist groups is because they have come to believe that suicide attacks generate the most coercive leverage to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize.” He continues with insisting that the majority of terrorist attacks hold specific secular goals in common, rather than religion: these goals are to use terrorism as a tactic to force change, thereby causing terrorism to become a tool in asymmetric warfare.

To conclude, terrorism is justifiable as a means to cope with oppression and poverty, to attain religious salvation, and to achieve an asymmetric advantage in battle. The primary goal of terrorist acts is attention: attention for change. In situations of oppression and poverty, terrorism appears as an enticing method of self-assertion. In situations of religious fanaticism, terrorism appears as a method of spreading one’s religious beliefs as deemed necessary by religious text. In situations of war, on the side of the disadvantaged opponent, terrorism appears as a method leading to victory. Thus, terrorism becomes understandable and justified as a method, a tool, an implement. Regardless of the destruction left in its wake, the terrorist act remained a violent hope in the dark of the twentieth century.


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