The Salience of Islam in Terrorism

Terrorism, no matter who it is perpetrated by, is an act of violence done for political reasons. There may also be a religious component, but per any definition of terrorism, politics, not religion, is the necessary component. So why then does the West focus so much on Islam?
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Terrorism, no matter who it is perpetrated by, is an act of violence done for political reasons. There may also be a religious component, but per any definition of terrorism, politics, not religion, is the necessary component. So why then does the West focus so much on Islam?

Research in social psychology tells us that in every culture, people tend to focus on what is most salient. With terrorism, the religious component is often zeroed in on because of its simplicity and salience. But if Islam were the cause of terrorism, everyone who is a Muslim would be a terrorist. This is not true.

Osama bin Laden said that 'this is a fundamentally religious war.' But was it really? Terrorism always has a political component to it; religion is just a mechanism for delivery and communication. Religion is not a cause, it is a correlate and a justification.

I once heard someone say that I learned everything I need to learn about Islam on 9/11. That is about the same as saying I learned everything I need to know about Christians from the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the KKK, abortion clinic bombers, or the IRA in Ireland. In the US and the West in general, we tend to focus on what is easiest to comprehend. That is human nature. But is what we focus on representative of the whole? Are the examples that we see right in front of us representative of all? In the case of Islam and terrorism, no.

Consider the following examples. The world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, did something progressive and modern that the United States has not done and that is elect a female president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was in office at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Turkey is a founding member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, yet Turkey is a secularly run nation. Saudi Arabia requires its citizens to be Muslims, but it is not an Islamic Republic like Iran. Iraq is a country that never attacked a US citizen prior to our invasion in 2003 but we invaded that country, whereas 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a US ally.

The common theme between all of these countries is Islam, but the forms of government are all vastly different. Their relationship with the West is vastly different. And the people are different. It is easy for people who have not lived in any of these countries to assume that the aspect of the country that is the most salient to us (Islam) is reason to believe all countries are the same. This is just not true.

The idea that all terrorism is done for the same reasons, or that all terrorism should be dealt with the same way is just about as ill informed as thinking that all illnesses have the same etiology or require the same treatment. We don't think this about crime, illness, broken cars or anything else. Why would we think this about terrorism? A simplistic understanding of a problem will offer a simplistic remedy.

In my experience living in Saudi Arabia, we had three types of religious adherence. On the one extreme was about 15 percent of Muslims who were very strict in their interpretation of Islam. On the other extreme was about 15 percent who were very liberal. In between was 70 percent who would oscillate their voiced view of Islam depending on who was around, the strict or the liberal. However, none of these Muslims were violent. All agreed with the perceived political injustices that terrorists talk about but not a single one would take up arms, and would not do so for many reasons. Some had a good family they didn't want to leave. Others didn't believe that violence was ever acceptable. Some agreed with the injustices but thought that the realm of politics was above their level of individual influence or even interest. The fact is that all were Muslim, none were a terrorist.

Something other than Islam is responsible for terrorism. Something more personal. Something with the thought patterns.

Consider the following hypothetical statement: we must kill them before the kill us. We have to protect our women and children and our land from them or they will invade us. Who could say this? So-called Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, right-wing Christians on Fox News in the US? In fact both can and do say this. Radical Islamists and war mongering in the West are both described as 'right wing' meaning that the structure, not the content, of their thinking is similar. This rigid and simplistic way of thinking only entrenches each side. It is a failed strategy that only exacerbates the problem.

The Politics of Terrorism
It is well documented that there is a dual track approach to dealing with terrorism. On the one hand, there is the approach perpetuated by the right that says we must capture or kill the terrorists. On the left there is the view that we must be cautious with how we deal with terrorism because our reactions to it could incite more terrorism. Most people subscribe to one view or the other.

After upholding the Constitution, the number one goal of an elected official should be to work to keep citizens safe. Accordingly, we have to capture or kill terrorists when capture is not possible. As a corollary to this, it is equally important to be mindful that we do not do so in a way that offers a justification for more terror. This is what I call the aftermath of intention.

Moreover, encouraging assimilation is important but this does not mean that we need to impose our culture, values and language on Muslims. Assimilation is critical but we have to do so in way that is encouraging, not threatening. Additionally, my undergraduate thesis was on immigrant acculturation. There are individual differences in the speed at which people acculturate and with this in mind it is important to remember that there will always be, from my study of the issue, about 15 percent of any immigrant group that will be highly resistant to assimilation. This is not a threat to our way of life. It is just human nature.

Terrorism is never justified. Killing others to make a political statement or to exact revenge for a real or perceived injustice is wrong. When it comes to terrorism, we can ask: who, what, where and when, but we cannot ask why? Until the public stops demanding simplistic approaches from their elected officials, we will continue to pursue simplistic approaches. This won't change anything. In fact, history tells us it will only make more enemies or leave us vulnerable.

When it comes to making policy, we need to be very mindful and work with the seemingly competing views. I can't help but think of the story of three blind people all touching different parts of an elephant and describing what they are touching. No one perspective has it all right. Each has something to offer.

PAUL HEROUX is a state representative from Massachusetts and previously lived and worked in the Middle East and he speaks a bit of Arabic and Farsi. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at

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