The following is from PBS Global Connections the Middle East:
What is religious militancy and its relationship to terrorism?
Religions can be a potent weapon to mobilize and unit people, and it has been used and misused in this way throughout human history. But religious militancy does not arise in a vacuum. Throughout history, extremist religious movements have been a response to historical circumstances, particularly arising when groups have felt threatened.
Religious extremism develops when some portion of a community rejects, often violently, the presence or influence of a challenge to its sense of self. Whether the challenge is cultural, political, or economic, or a combination of these, a violent or threatening response is seen by the extremists are religiously mandated.
The Middle East currently has a number of issues that challenge its communities’ fundamental living standards and values, which have given rise to religious extremists.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
The Arab-Israeli Conflict is the most obvious issues that provokes extremist responses. Religious militants as well as secular nationalist militants exists on both sides of the conflict. For example, Hamas, an Islamist alternative to the subdued and secular PLO, was founded in 1987 to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hamas and other Islamist Palestinian groups, like Jewish extremist groups on the other side, argue that the land of Palestine was given to them by God and that they will not give up any part of their claim to it.
Some religious and secular Jewish militants in Israel argue that the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights are permanent parts of the Land of Israel. They advocate establishing and enlarging Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories where the Palestinians currently live and take a hard line against Palestinian control. They advocate violent and vigilantism on the parts of Jewish citizens against the Palestinians. But they are a small minority. For the most part, Israeli settlers have not engaged in political violence on the same scale as radical Palestinian civilians.
The Israeli army has killed many Palestinians during the recent and previous Intifadas, which are the Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation that began in the late 1980s. In fact, more Palestinians have died in these conflicts than Israelis. Many Palestinians and other Arabs accuse the Israeli government of state-sponsored terrorism, but Israel says its military campaigns are necessary to protect its civilians from violent Islamist attacks by Hamas and Hezebollah.
Religion and Middle Eastern Politics
Other political conflicts have arisen around dividing communities by religion. For example, in Lebanon due to the legacy of French colonial policies, groups compete for political power along religious lines.
Religious conflicts can also rise not between different religions, but within one religion. Religious extremists may oppose a government’s policies in many areas, and insist that a purer, stricter form of religion would solve those problems. This has happened and is currently happening in Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Religion can be an effective way to channel opposition to an external threat or to a repressive regime---possibly the only political outlet if the regime has eliminated other opposition groups. An opposition movement organized around religion immediately inherits a number of advantages: a familiar language to mobilize and use to argue points and religious institutions, mosques, churches, synagogues, schools, that provide a convenient network for organization and recruitment.
Other issues that religious extremists cite as grievances are cultural. For example, Islamists may advocate complete rejection of Western morals and cultural practices such as violence in American movies, revealing women’s fashions, recreational use of drugs and alcohol, which are perceived as serious threats to the very fabric of their societies.
Terrorism isn’t new
Just as religious extremism has been around forever, so has terrorism. While there are different definitions of terrorism, they all have in common the use of violence as a means of causing fear in a community in order to affect political decisions or policy. The first “terrorists” to wear the label proudly were French revolutionaries after 1789. Maximillian Robespierre, the French radical leader, famously said that virtue is powerless without terror.
More recent examples of terrorist groups outside the Middle East include the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland. Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) in Spain, the Shinrikyo cult in Japan, and the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. Like terrorist groups in the Middle East, some of these groups justify their acts through religious arguments, while others base their acts on political ideas.
What is terrorism?
There are many ways to define terrorism, and each definition includes or excludes different political groups. Any definition, however, would state that terrorism is the use of violence or the threat of violence as a negotiating tool to achieving a political goal. Terrorism is generally defined as actions outside of a declared war between states and with civilian victims. Whether or not the terrorists are part of the legitimate government and state-sponsored or are an outside group, the definition varies.
There is also the issue of a revolutionary force. For example, a state militia led by a charismatic leader seeking to overthrow an oppressive government. What the Boston Tea Party the act of terrorists? Or is a revolutionary struggle exempt from that label? If there is to be a war on terrorism, each of us needs to define the term for ourselves and decide in every case whether the label applies or not.
Religion and terrorism
Terrorist groups in the Middle East that do justify their acts through religion, whether the Islamic groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Jewish groups like Kach and Kahane Chai, they are combining the powerful tool of terror and religion to try to change the political environment. Charismatic leaders can manipulate religion, defining their political goals in the terms of a directive from God. If they can convince their followers that God wants a particular result and they are His tools, they many argue that any means to achieve those results is okay.
Are Islam and terrorism connected?
Recent events, especially since September 11, 2001, have focused attention on whether there is a relationship between Islam and terrorism. A few extreme Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda, use terrorism to attack the West. The vast majority of Muslims, however, see the use of terrorism as anti-Islamic, because the Quran specifically orders Muslims to avoid harming non-combatants, event in times of war.
Inclusive and intolerant interpretations of Islam have competed throughout Islamic history. Pluralist interpretations emphasize the Quran’s call to live in peace, tolerate different religions and behaviors, and to protect Christians and Jews. Intolerant interpretations insist that their strict reading of the Quran and tradition mandates an aggressive application of Islamic law by the state that would outlaw Sufi and folk Islamic practices, restrict the public role of women and require them to wear some form of veil, and punish crimes like adultery and theft with stoning and amputation.
Many scholars prefer to use the term Islamists rather than fundamentalist for Muslim extremists. “Fundamentalists” implies that the people are returning to an original practice of the religion. Islamists however want to create a new political structure governed by a distorted reading of the Quran and hadith. They might want to create an Islamic state, as the Islamic Republic of Iran, has done, or make Islam the sole basis for the law in society. There is no separation of religion and state.
Most Muslims are not Islamists. They do not want to revamp their governments or follow a strict interpretation of Islam. Nor do they advocate violence. Many people in the Middle East might agree with the anti-Western attitude of the Islamists, because they resent being exploited by the West under colonialism and globalization. Others might want to live in a society where Islam has a greater role. But the vast majority who hold those beliefs would oppose the use of violence to achieve those ends.
Oil-rich states, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Persian Gulf states, have used their financial power to support like-minded conservative Muslim groups around the Islamic world. They through official state funding and donations might build mosques and schools or support Islamist political activities from Bosnia to Malaysia, from Egypt to the United States. These financial resources have affected the tone and practice of some people in Muslim communities worldwide. For example, some Bosnian Muslims in Eastern Europe receive Saudi charity with the condition that they practice a more conservative form of Islam. However, these oil-rich states have also given funds to terrorist groups as well. So for America, some of our Middle Eastern allies are supporting some of the Islamist groups that target the West.
The following information comes from BBC News in the month of September 2014
Islamic State (IS) is a radical Islamist group that has seized large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq. Its brutal tactics - including mass killings and abductions of members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the beheadings of soldiers and journalists - have sparked fear and outrage across the world and prompted US military intervention.
In 60 seconds: What does Islamic State want? The group aims to establish a "caliphate", a state ruled by a single political and religious leader according to Islamic law, or Sharia. Although currently limited to Iraq and Syria, IS has promised to "break the borders" of Jordan and Lebanon and to "free Palestine". It attracts support from Muslims across the world and demands that all swear allegiance to its leader - Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
What are its origins?
IS can trace its roots back to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who set up Tawhid wa al-Jihad in 2002. A year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which became a major force in the insurgency. The tactics of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were considered too extreme by al-Qaeda leaders
After Zarqawi's death in 2006, AQI created an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). ISI was steadily weakened by the US troop surge and the creation of Sahwa (Awakening) councils by Sunni Arab tribesmen who rejected its brutality. After becoming leader in 2010, Baghdadi rebuilt ISI's capabilities. By 2013, it was once again carrying out dozens of attacks a month in Iraq. It had also joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, setting up the al-Nusra Front.
In April 2013, Baghdadi announced the merger of his forces in Iraq and Syria and the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis). The leaders of al-Nusra and al-Qaeda rejected the move, but fighters loyal to Baghdadi split from al-Nusra and helped Isis remain in Syria.
At the end of December 2013, Isis shifted its focus back to Iraq and exploited a political stand-off between the Shia-led government and the minority Sunni Arab community. Aided by tribesmen, the group took control of the central city of Falluja.
In June 2014, Isis overran the northern city of Mosul, and then advanced southwards towards Baghdad. At the end of the month, after consolidating its hold over dozens of cities and towns, Isis declared the creation of a caliphate and changed its name to Islamic State.
Civilian deaths in Iraq 2006-2014
How much territory does IS control?
Some estimate that IS and its allies control about 40,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) of Iraq and Syria - roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe they control closer to 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq miles) - about the size of Jordan. That territory includes cities - Mosul, Tikrit, Falluja and Tal Afar in Iraq; Raqqa in Syria - oil fields, dams, main roads and border crossings. Eight million people are believed to be living under partial or full IS control, where the group implements a strict interpretation of Sharia, forcing women to wear veils, non-Muslims to pay a special tax or convert, and imposing punishments that include floggings and executions.
How many fighters does it have?
US officials believe IS could have as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Iraq expert Hisham al-Hashimi says about 30% are "ideologues", with the remainder joining out of fear or coercion. A significant number of IS fighters are neither Iraqi nor Syrian. The Soufan Group recently estimated that more than 12,000 foreign nationals from at least 81 countries, including 2,500 from Western states, had travelled to Syria to fight over the past three years.
What weapons does IS have?
Islamic State has become one of the most formidable jihadist groups in the world IS fighters have access to, and are capable of using, a wide variety of small arms and heavy weapons, including truck-mounted machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and portable surface-to-air missile systems. They have also captured tanks and armoured vehicles from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. Their haul of vehicles from the Iraqi army includes Humvees and bomb-proof trucks that were originally manufactured for the US military. The group is believed to have a flexible supply chain that ensures a constant supply of ammunition and small arms for its fighters. Their considerable firepower helped them overrun Kurdish Peshmerga positions in northern Iraq in August, surprising many. Where does IS get its money from?
Islamic State is reported to have $2bn (£1.2bn) in cash and assets, making it the world's wealthiest militant group. Initially, much of its financial support came from individuals in Arab Gulf states. Today, IS is a largely self-financed organisation, earning millions of dollars a month from the oil and gas fields it controls, as well as from taxation, tolls, smuggling, extortion and kidnapping. The offensive in Iraq has also been lucrative, giving it access to cash held in major banks in cities and towns it has seized.
Why are their tactics so brutal?
IS members are jihadists who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam and consider themselves the only true believers. They hold that the rest of the world is made up of unbelievers who seek to destroy Islam, justifying attacks against other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Beheadings, crucifixions and mass shootings have been used to terrorise their enemies. IS members have justified such atrocities by citing the Koranic verses that talk of "striking off the heads" of unbelievers, but Muslims have denounced them. Even al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who disavowed IS in February over its actions in Syria, warned Zarqawi in 2005 that such brutality loses "Muslim hearts and minds".