What is the religious, social, and psychological motivation behind Islamic Terrorism?

What is the religious, social, and psychological motivation behind Islamic Terrorism?
By Dennis Florio
Argosy University
June 19, 2009

This paper reviews some theories and data regarding the religious, social and psychological motivation behind terrorism. Very few controlled experimental studies have been conducted investigating the psychological ideology of terrorism. There are four types of theories of terrorism: psychopathological theory, religious theory, sociological theory, and psychological theory. There is no one general theory of terrorism.

What is the religious, social and psychological motivation behind Islamic Terrorism?

Terrorism is a type of violence used tactically in conflict, and war. The threat of terrorism is ever present, and an attack is likely to occur when least expected. In trying to find out what factors can cause an individual to choose terrorism, it is first necessary to define what terrorism is. The Department of Defense has defined terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Terrorism is further defined as “the systematic use of intense fear as a means of coercion.” To wit: the terrorists are not giving into a whim of random acts, but these individuals are using calculated moves in order to achieve the purpose of the group. Simply put, these individuals are making a conscious choice for violence. What motivates these groups to choose terrorism as a means to achieve a particular agenda? The majority of the motives can be broken down into three basic areas: religious, social and psychological.
Review of the Literature

The field of counterterrorism is largely characterized by theoretical speculation based on subjective interpretation of unreliable observations. Moreover, most studies and theories fail to take into account the great diversity of terrorists. Many conceptual and psychological barriers like political correctness have slowed progress in this important field.

More than one criminologist has pointed out that the disciplines of theology, religion, and philosophy have had important things to say about terrorism (Stitt 2003). It is also a fact that about a quarter of all terrorist groups and about half of the most dangerous ones on earth are primarily motivated by religious concerns (Hoffman 1993). They believe that God not only approves of their action, but that God demands their action.
In (Jones, 2006) Why Does Religion Turn Violent, his primary method of research uses written resources opposed to a clinical observation or study. Much of his principal literature was written by people in the Islamic community and one letter was written by Mohammed Atta (one of the 9/11 terrorist) to his wife (Atta, 2001).

In (Hudson, 1999). The Sociology And Psychology Of Terrorism: Who Becomes A Terrorist And Why?, the paper was prepared by the staff of the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress under an Interagency Agreement with the sponsoring United States Government. The primary method of research was the same as in (Jones, 2006) based primarily on subjective interpretation and simple observations. This appears to be the primary avenue of research in this field, since it is doubtful that the terrorist will agree to a controlled research study.


Although some motives are difficult for the majority of the World to understand; given a motive, terrorist groups have a purpose for violence. The religious motivation behind Islamic terrorism is the most powerful force of all and the very reason they are so dangerous. Religious terrorism is nothing new; it is common knowledge that the Catholic Church “converted” half the known world to Catholicism using three Crusades and many inquisitions including the Spanish Inquisition, which overall, killed tens of thousands of people.
Virtually every report on militant Muslims stresses the reward of entering paradise as a major motivator for their actions (Hassan, 2001). A Palestinian militant, when asked about his motivation, replies, “The power of the spirit pulls us upward,” (Hassan, p. 37). Atta tells his fellow hijackers: “You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage (in heaven) is very short. Afterward begins the happy life, where God is satisfied with you and eternal bliss” (Atta, n.d., Last Letter). A Palestinian recruiter said of his methods of recruitment, “We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they too can be saved from the agonies of Hell” (p. 40). A Palestinian arrested by the Palestinian Authority before he could carry out his mission said of Paradise, “It is very, very near-right in front of our eyes. It lies beneath the thumb. On the other side of the detonator” (Hassan, 2001, p. 40). Their cause is sacred, and consists of a combined sense of hope for the future and vengeance for the past. Most religious traditions are filled with plenty of violent images at their core, and destruction or self-destruction is a central part of the logic behind religion-based terrorism (Juergensmeyer 2001).

Most religious terrorist groups can trace their origin to key historical events and figures such as Mohamed the founder of Islam. It is not unusual for the group to conduct rituals designed to “never forget” some long-ago victory. In its early history, it is common knowledge that Islam had conquered and thus converted the entire Middle East, Persia, Pakistan, North Africa and much of India, it ruled most of the known world. This made it one of the largest unitary empires in history and one of the few empires ever to have extend direct rule over three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia). The ideology of this religious state was “convert to Islam or die” (Qur’an 8:39). Modern Islamic fundamentalists desire a return to former glory; they use the religious writings of that day as a blueprint for modern conquest.

The Combating Terrorism Center is an independent educational and research institution based in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy, West Point. They have pointed out another crucial point to ponder in researching the complex settings of terrorist motivations. The method in which al-Qa`ida is promoting al-Tatarrus,(the law on using human shields) seeks to facilitate the sacrifice of Muslim lives in light of fourteen centuries of religious teachings. For instance, both al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula and the al-Qa`ida Organization in Yemen hid behind the protections offered by al-Tatarrus in their justification of terrorist attacks that resulted in significant Muslim casualties (Brachman, Jarret & Warius, Abdullah, 2008). These phenomena cannot be fully understood without first understanding the overall motivation behind Islamic terrorism.

Most scholars agree that the Qur’an is the overall motivating factor in all terrorist activities focused against Israel and the West. It is necessary, therefore, to look at a portion of their Holy Book, the Qur’an. It is quite clear in its intention, it states: “Your Lord inspired the angels with the message: ‘I am with you. Go and give firmness to the Believers. I will TERRORIZE the unbelievers. Therefore, smite them on their necks and every joint and incapacitate them. Strike off their heads and cut off each of their fingers and toes” (Qur’an 8:12) [emphasis mine throughout]. Moreover, “So fight them until there is no more Fitnah (unbelief) and all submit to the religion of Allah alone (in the whole world)” (Qur’an 8:39). These are some of the most chilling words ever expressed in the name of god: “If you gain mastery over them (unbelievers) in battle, inflict such a defeat as would TERRORIZE them, so that they would learn a lesson and be warned” (Qur’an 8:57). This is the actual definition of terrorism and the religious terrorist justification for September 11, 2001. The Sirah, or biography of Muhammad, which is another Islamic religious text presents the “Terror Manifesto” this way: “If you come upon them, deal with them so forcibly as to TERRIFY those who would follow them that they may be warned. Make a severe example of them by TERRORIZING Allah’s enemies” (Ishaq: p. 326). These versus and many more like them are constantly uttered an al-Qaeda’s speeches, rhetoric and religious teachings. It is hard for most people to reconcile these words with the Islam-is-a-peace-loving-religion doctrine. However, According to the more moderate American Muslims, the Qur’an teaches they may only undertake warfare in order to defend the Muslim ideology against aggression or oppose a system that oppresses helpless people who are asking for help (Shaw, 1986). Anyone who has read the Qur’an at face value would be hard pressed to come to such conclusions.
One important note to remember is that it is well established that religious fundamentalist, regardless of religion, subscribes to the methodology of literal interpretation of religious texts. Islamic fundamentalists do not interpret the Qur’an, they take it literally and this is where their beliefs come from.

Another finding revealed those terrorists are not psychopathic or mentally ill. Contrary to the stereotype that terrorist are psychopaths, terrorist are actually quite sane, with powerful ideological and religious convictions (Hudson, 1999). Members who exhibit signs of psychopathy or other mental illness are removed from the group. Terrorist groups need members whose behavior appears to be normal and who would not arouse suspicion. A member who exhibits traits of psychopathy or any degree of mental illness would only be a liability for the group. That individual could not be depended on to carry out the assigned mission.

In Friedland, (2000). War, Sex & God: Religious Terrorism in the Mind of Mark Juergensmeyer. (Friedland is a teacher in the departments of religious studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara). His brief paper is a critique of the work of Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology and global studies, professor of religious studies, and director of the Center for Global and International Studies, at the same school. Clearly there are two opposing forces in the ongoing argument of what motivates religious terrorism. Friedlands paper does not really convey any strong cohesive evidence to establish his argument, which states that modern terrorists just want to be men. He cites no relevant sources and his argument is solely based on his own opinion, it is not very scholarly. Friedland states that:
“…one way to understand the religious terrorists’ simultaneous embrace of heterosexual masculinity and homosocial male bonding is to see the sexed ego and the nation-state, the individual and the collective subject, as parallel psychic projects imagined in terms of each other. This means that challenges to individual males can be projected onto the collective body, the national state” (Friedland, 2000).

This can be seen as unfounded reasoning; it flies in the face of modern psychology.
In his summation, Jones concluded that:
“…universal religious themes such as purification or the search for reunion with the source of life can become subsumed into unconscious dynamics such as splitting and a Manichean dichotomizing of the world into all-good, all-evil camps, or into the drive to connect with and appease a humiliating or persecuting idealized patriarchal other. The result is the psychological preconditions for religiously sponsored terrorism and violence” (Jones, 2006).

Jones’ paper is revealing, filled with citations and references with a more sound reasoning than other papers researched, he is also the author of; Terror and Transformation: The Ambiguity of Religion in Psychoanalytic Perspective (2002). Although he considers himself a “clinical psychologist of religion,” he does not claim to be an expert in terrorism or counterterrorism.

Another study analyzed how democracy might lessen the underlying causes of Islamic terrorism. Although spreading democracy had become one prominent strand of the U.S. government’s strategy for defeating terrorism during the Bush administration, it is unlikely to have the affirmative effects that its supporters expect. Unless it is possible to change the fundamental core beliefs and mindset of individuals, including their religion, this is more than unlikely. The article analyzed how democracy might alleviate the underlying causes of Islamic terrorism. The study found that democracy will be unlikely to affect perceptions of occupation, or to reduce the perceived threat from the West to Islamic identity and culture, unlikely to compensate for the economic failures of modernization, and unlikely to offer a more legitimate political ideology than religious extremism does to jihadist (Freeman, 2008).


If one accepts the position that political terrorists are made, not born, then the question is what makes a terrorist. The scholarly literature on the psychology of terrorism is lacking, there does not appear to be a single terrorist persona. This seems to be the consensus among terrorism psychologists as well as political scientists and sociologists. There do not appear to be any visibly detectable personality traits that would allow authorities to identify a terrorist. Hence, the need for more substantial research is an absolute must. Coming to grips with the reality that defeating terrorism is the same as defeating crime – impossible. It must be approached as an ongoing suppressive effort to control acts of aggression.

Regular criminals are completely self-serving, committing crimes to benefit themselves emotionally and financially. Terrorists, on the other hand, believe their actions serve God and preserve the existence of their culture. In their minds, there is nothing greater or more powerful than laying down one’s life in service to their God. To them it is not just religious lip service as you would expect in the Western world, these people are absolutely convicted by their beliefs and they live it, every day, all day – not just on Sunday. If they die as a martyr engaged in jihad, their family and culture worship them as heroes and victors. Most people who commit suicide do it for self-serving reasons their motivation is selfishness without any consideration for others. To the contrary, suicide terrorists believe with all their being that they are offering up their life in service to God and the preservation of Islamic culture. This is why they are such a dangerous global threat and this is why we need to understand their religion better.


ATTA, M. (2001). Last letter. Available from Reuters News Service, dated September 28, 2001.
Brachman, J., & Warius, Abdullah (2008). Abu Yahya al-Libi’s “Human Shields in Modern Jihad.” CTC Sentinel, West Point, May 2008. Vol1. Iss. 6
Freeman, M. (2008) Democracy, Al Qaeda, and the Causes of Terrorism: A Strategic Analysis of U.S. Policy. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Jan 2008, Vol. 31 Is1, p40-59
Friedland, R. (2000). War, Sex & God: Religious Terrorism in the Mind of Mark Juergensmeyer. Tikkun.San Francisco: May/Jun 2000. Vol. 15, Iss. 3; pg. 23
Hoffman, B. (1993). Holy terror. Santa Monica: RAND.
HASSAN, N. (2001, November). An arsenal of believers. The New Yorker, p. 36-41.
Hudson, R., A. (1999) The Sociology And Psychology Of Terrorism: Who Becomes A Terrorist And Why? Library of Congress. September 1999
Jones, J., W. (2006) WHY DOES RELIGION TURN VIOLENT?: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Religious Terrorism. Psychoanalytic Review. Vol. 93, Iss. 2; p. 167
Juergensmeyer, M. (2001) Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Shaw, E., D. (1986) Political Terrorists: Dangers of Diagnosis and an Alternative to the Psychopathology Model, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 8, 1986, 359–68
Stitt, B. G. (2003). “The understanding of evil: A joint quest for criminology and theology.” Pp. 203-218 in R. Chairs & B. Chilton (eds.)

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