Security and Foreign Policy

Modern Day Terrorism – Using Religion as a Façade for Power

Terrorist attacks in the Western World have created the misconception that terrorism is solely synonymous with religious fundamentalism. Aliasha Zafar examines how terrorist organizations manipulate religion and the youth to serve their political motives, which have less to do with religion and more to do with consolidating power.

BY: ALIASHA ZAFAR

Terrorism is a term that is notoriously hard to define. Simply put, terrorism is equivalent to power politics. Naturally, this is a simplification of a complex phenomenon.

Power is terrorism’s foundational motive, and the world often overlooks power politics within terrorism. Religion, in “Islamic” terrorist organizations, is being abused and used as a façade for greater power strategies implemented by terrorist groups.

The result? Mass media and a population growing accustomed to an ‘Islamophobic’ mindset, which not only perpetuates the cycle of violence and victim, but it also does not permit us to see the full scale of the terror problem.

To say that ‘power politics’ and terrorism may be on the same stage, it means that the political action taken by a person or group, in this case a terrorist organization, stems from an intentional and well thought-out deliberate strategy to increase their power or influence- which is what many terrorist groups do precisely by weaponizing religion.

But what is one of the things that makes terrorism in our modern world different from what it may have been decades, or even centuries ago? The difference is the same as what distinguished World War I from World War II and from wars before them- technology. Technology, and in this case specifically the use of mass and social media, has made it easier to spread fear and influence on a global level; for politicization on both sides- as seen in terrorist groups that ‘recruit’ and ‘market’ themselves online vis-à-vis fear mongering politicians, who do the same with populist policies. ISIS is a perfect example of this– branding themselves as regular, common, everyday citizens on various social media platforms. This recruitment strategy has resulted­­ in a young generation going down the ‘terror rabbit hole’ – without necessarily understanding the full scopes, functions, and intentions of what they joined. Summarily, the propaganda machine that ISIS has created is so vast and intricate, that it has the ability to target a diverse and widespread group of people around their cause.

In many cases, young recruits are victims of the terrorist group themselves. Once they are in the group, every day for them becomes a matter of life or death, as the group sucks them into a “kill-or-be-killed” power dynamic, with no way out.

Despite the evident power strategies behind these aforementioned examples, today’s “war on terrorism” in the Western world, which peaked after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, has created a major misconception – that terrorism is solely synonymous with religious fundamentalism. To understand the root of terrorism, we must recognize this common misconception.

It is important to note that these “Islamic” terrorist organizations are attacking Muslims just as well as any of their political opponents. ISIS’ regime within Raqqa and Mosul highlighted some of the many ways in which the group systematically oppressed, tortured and killed people- in the name of protecting them. Despite hearing so much about terrorist attacks in the Western world, the majority of terrorist attacks continue to occur in non-Western countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Although it remains true that ISIS, for example, has openly proclaimed its pursuit of establishing a Caliphate, in reality, its terrorist, violent and fear-mongering strategies happen to go against the very principles of love and respect that are equally preached in Islam. Thus clearly, religion is used as a façade to pursue something much greater – political power; using recruited terrorists as pawns in a game masking political motives. In the midst of all of this, terror and Islamophobia are spread at rapid rates, perpetuating the terror problem.

The youth in various parts of the world are brainwashed to sacrifice their lives for the personal motives of a select few. Through proxies, including religious preachers and cultural leaders, the head honchos of terrorist outfits are able to manipulate different aspects of religion to obtain and in some cases usurp power. While the world continues to be embroiled in the battle against terrorism, it is the people on the ground that are caught in the crossfire. From the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to mass migration from Syria, the proxy wars of terrorist organizations with tacit support from regional powers have besieged Muslim countries and towns. Amidst it all, the East has lost more than the West, yet it continues to be demonized as the purveyor of terrorism. Social media has, thus, amplified the voices of the fringe groups both on the right and the left, making sure that one group’s rhetoric and tactics fuel the other. Quite simply, terrorism is business, and it is vital for vulnerable and potential recruits, as well as our global society, to separate the religion from the extremism.


Aliasha R. Zafar is a recent graduate from Boston University – Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, with a B.A. in International Relations and a minor focused in Communication.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: Getty Images Via CNN

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