Explore and analyse the ways in which one of the following factors (economics; politics; religion) influences contemporary terrorism?

Modern terrorism is affected by various political causes. However, before the discussion starts, it seems important to specify a definition of terrorism (Schmid, 2005, p.127). Accordingly, this paper’s argument will be based on the definition that views terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence”(English, 2009, p.2). Furthermore, it can be as defined by Wilkinson “the use of violence for political ends” (1986, p.30). These political factors can be divided into two types. The first type comprises explicit factors that can be noticed and understood by, almost, all violence observers. The second type comprises implicit factors which cannot be read by all observers, but by those who have a wider understanding of terrorism. This paper will focus on explicit political terrorism, such as the violence that is practiced by the secular extremist groups. Examples of these terrorist groups are the Red Army and the Red Brigade which were motivated by political factors (Porta, 1996, p. 166).

In addition, this essay will assume that there are various kinds of factors that lead to political violence such as religious, economic, mental, educational and retaliatory reasons. However, the discussion will concentrate on two types of causes which are the obvious and unobvious political factors. The paper means by these two kinds -the political factors which are explicit and the religious or economic and other factors which are considered in this paper as implicitly political factors. These factors, as Noricks has stated, “establish an environment in which terrorism may arise” (2009, p.11) to gain a particular political purpose. As a result of the limited number of words, this paper will focus more on the violence that is committed by religious extremist groups for political achievement, in addition to highlighting the explicit political factors.

According to Pedahzur, et al (2004, p.778), “Terrorism has been widely exploited for political purposes”. Furthermore, Crenshaw (1981, p.385) has argued that terrorism delivers a political message that has nothing to do with the targeted victim. Schmid (2005, p.127) and Richardson (2006, p.20) have stated that violence, in general, can be seen as a means to attain political ends. Moreover, It has been asserted by Veldhuis & Staun (2009, p.6) that “terrorism is, above all, a political tool that, irrespective of its success rate, is used in an attempt to bring about political or societal change”. Gupta (2004, p.6) has also asserted that although the political grievances are significant motivations, they are not enough to provoke people to commit violent acts. He said that having various violent catalysts such as political, religious, and economic complaints are not sufficient for people to act violently. Gupta (2004, p.6) and Pilta (2009, p.173) have emphasised the idea that unless there is a leader who can draw people’s attentions to the deprivation, correlating terrorism to any motivations political, economic or religious will provide insufficient statistical connection. Pilta (2009, p175)has argued that if religion was not the factor behind the  September 11th attacks, and if it is assumed that there was a political motivation  behind these attacks, then what are these political factors? Pilta answered his question, relying on Brzezinski’s (2002) explanation which views these attacks as a result of political grievances resulting from the Americans’ involvement in the Middle East. Such grievances had turned into hatred which was subsequently directed against the Americans by al-Qaeda.

Pilta’s argument shows the importance of the implicit effect of the political factor. Although some terrorist attacks seem explicitly non-politically motivated, such as by religious or by economic factors, a careful study of the terrorist phenomenon demonstrates the implicit involvement of political factors. In fact, there are some activists who use their religion to achieve political purposes that they will fail to attain through political means (Jameson, 2002, p.301). English stated that terrorism is a strategically selected force within a political framework. Moreover, the explanatory influence of religion is difficult to be complete in itself. For instance, the case of al-Qaeda shows the connection between political grievances and religious convictions that provides a full explanation for terrorism (English, 2009, pp.39-48). Talking about religion in this essay as an implicit political motivation does not mean that religion is the only aspect that is exploited to achieve political ends. Various issues, such as religion, economy and ethnicity may be subjugated to attain political targets. For example, Newman (2006, p.751) stated that “Poverty can breed resentment and desperation and support for political extremism”. In the same context, there is not sufficient proof that can show a direct connection between economic grievances and terrorism unless there are political factors present (Krieger and Meierrieks, 2011, p.10).

Political factors play a significant role in achieving general political targets. If a terrorist group wants to oppose a government, it may use violence to achieve its end. In this case, the motivations are obviously announced and defined by the organization as political purposes (COT Institute, 2008, p.14). According to Crenshaw, there are many terrorist organizations which rely on rational political options. When one of these groups decides to oppose a state, it may tend to exploit violence as an active means to achieve its goals (1981, p.385). For instance, when a group of terrorists blew up the Madrid train, in March 2004, killing 191 and injuring 1,500, their aim was to induce the Spanish government to pull its troops out from Afghanistan. Consequently, this terrorist act motivated the Spanish electorate to choose a new government which had promised to withdraw their troops (Montalvo, 2008, p.14 and Richardson, 2006, p.24).

What has happened in Spain can be considered as one strategy of terrorism exploitation for political purposes. Another strategy is when innocent people attacked by a terrorist group to drive them to seek protection from the state. A neo-fascist Italian member has mentioned that those in the right wing attack civilians in order to motivate them to resort to seeking assistance from the government and to seek more security procedures (COT Institute, 2008, p.28). It appears important to mention the absence or weakness of the state which motivates some terrorists to resort to violence (Pilta, 2009, p.174). In this regards, Krieger and Meierrieks (2011, p.7) have noted that political change may create a suitable environment for terrorist groups to achieve their political ends, as in such a situation there is no strong government to challenge them.

The lack or absence of political freedom and civil liberty play an essential role in the presence of terrorist activities. The increase of terrorist actions can be associated with the decline of political rights (Abadie, 2004, p.8 and Kruglaski & Fishman, 2006, p.196). Abadie has stated that political freedom can explain terrorism. He asserted that it could be said that societies with dictatorships or an intermediate range of political rights are more likely to suffer from terrorist activities than societies with high levels of political rights (2004, p.3). This argument has been highlighted by Fearon and Laitin (2003, p.75) who asserted that governments that “observe civil liberties” seem to have less conflict than a totalitarian state. Newman who argued, according to Freedom House study, that there is no visible linkage between terrorism and the absence of political rights and civil liberty, has asserted that the most dangerous terrorist groups prevail in a society with poor records of these two aspects (2006, p.765).  All these stress the significant role that the absence of political rights plays in leading to violence as a possible alternative. This role is crucial because it may allow terrorist leaders to recruit from amongst those who are deprived (Piazza, 2011, p.341). In this regards, Crenshaw has asserted that the deficiency of political participation opportunities that occur owing to regimes who deny their people’s political rights create grievances that may lead to violence (1981, pp.383-384). The absence of political rights may create violent oppositions who resort to terrorism when they feel that there are no other alternative means to achieve their political rights. For instance, if a state is run by a dictator who aggressively deals with opposition and does not give them their political rights. The opponents may assume that the state does not represent them and, as a result, they may resort to terrorism (Bird1, et al., 2008, p.260).

Religion is exploited by some terrorist groups to achieve political aims. In many cases, religion is applied to provoke political violence to a level it cannot be ignored (Coetzee, 2010, p.2). Bjorgo, (2005, p260) has suggested that “A charismatic ideological leader is capable of transforming widespread grievances and frustrations into a political agenda for violent struggle, sometimes by implementing religious rhetoric”. According to Berrebi (2009, p.183), “Political activism is as likely to be based on religion as it is to be rooted in secular ideologies”. Consequently, it can be said that some religious leaders exploit their beliefs to attain particular political interests. For instance, bin Laden had the ability to catalyse his followers to assist him to achieve his political demands (Coetzee, 2010, p.12). Bar supports the idea that bin Laden was seeking for political targets, stating “The political motivation of the leaders of Islamist jihadist-type movements is not in doubt” (2004, p.28).

Berrebi argues that it confuses outside observers when political aims are declared by a terrorist group in the name of a particular religion, while this religion is not at the source of these allegations (2009, p166). For instance, when “Sayyid Qutb advocated jihad to establish an Islamic state” (Wiktorowicz, 2005, p.79 and Sageman, 2008, pp.37-41), in reality, he was using terrorism to approach a political purpose under a religious umbrella. Qutb’s motivations may become more evident when compared to Mawdudi, who “formed a political party and social movement to promote reform” (ibid). Both scholars had a religious mentality and wanted to achieve a political end. However, Mawdudi used a political means which tends to be much harder, while Qutb used an easier way that he called Jihad, to attain his political target. Qutb’s ambitions which were to overthrow Nasser’s regime and to establish his state seem to confirm Berrebi’s argument that religion is not at the source of these allegations. Pilta (2009, p.175) asked if Islam is the motivator of what has been called “Islamic radicalism”. He answered his question by saying that Islam is not the cause of violence. Pilta asserted that Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace, but terrorists’ actual factors are political ends that focus on establishing a new caliphate extending from Spain to Southeast Asia. However, what has been stated here does not mean that all those who wage religious violence are motivated by political factors. There are various religious activists who have dedicated their lives to their religions with no political motivations. Khattab, who was a commander of foreign fighters in Chechnya, refused to intervene in any top-level political aspect there (Moore and Tumelty, 2008, p.421).

In conclusion, it can be said that political factors play crucial roles in today’s violence. These factors were divided, in this paper, into two types. The first type is the explicit political factors which are unmistakably identified by most observers. Under these kinds of factors, there are various aspects, such as the absence of political rights, freedom and general political demands, such as motivating a state to behave in a particular way. The second category is the implicit factors which lead to political ends under different causes, such as religion or economy. It has been shown, in this essay, that many religious terrorist activities seem to occur for holy purposes, but studying these events, in a careful way, demonstrates that there are implicit political ends. In this regards, al-Qaeda and bin Laden can be considered as an example of a political group that uses terrorism under a religious umbrella. In the final analysis, it is almost certain to be true that terrorism can be reduced to the lowest possible level if the political concerns are taken seriously by the local regimes, and with the international community’s observation and assistance. In this regards, Richardson (2006, p.35) says, “if the political grievance is addressed properly, the phenomenon will fade”. This statement can be true especially regards the assumption that most religious, economic and ethnic aspects have a close correlation with political issues. If the political matters were to be solved, that may help to resolve the related matters such as those relating to religion and economics. Consequently, this can lead to a limitation of violence as a result of addressing its political factors in a proper way.

 Fahd Alghofaili


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