What Motivates Jihadi Terrorism?

This paper argues that historical ambitions, socio-cultural beliefs, political sufferings and religious values are not necessarily the most genuine root causes of jihadi terrorism.


What Motivates Jihadi Terrorism: Historical Ambitions, Socio-Cultural Beliefs, Political Sufferings, or Religious Values?

By Farhad Arian      

Source: The Diplomatic Courier Magazine  

Date: 2/May/2012  



Terrorism, as a highly complex phenomenon, stands at the forefront of national and international agendas. Although terrorism has a variety of different forms in terms of its association with various secular and religious groups, Jihadi Terrorism (Jihadism) is considered as one of its most dangerous forms threatening the world. Jihadi terrorism is a consequence of integrating Islamic ideology with the idea of jihad in a sense that extreme interpretation of Islamic texts contributes to the rise of violent jihad. As long as Islamic texts are entirely open to a variety of interpretations, jihadi terrorists (jihadists) take full advantage of this flexibility to justify their act of violence against combatants and non-combatants. As such, the act of violence by jihadists is mostly justified under the banner of defending Islam, preserving the rule of Allah, and creating a worldwide Islamic fundamentalist state, the Caliphate.  

However, while these extreme interpretations of Islamic texts do not necessarily lead to a consensus on motivations behind the rise of jihadism, some academic and policy-making circles argue that historical, socio-cultural, political and ideological narratives are likely the major motivational factors for jihadi terrorism. To critically evaluate the motivational factors for jihadi terrorism, this paper examines the term “jihadi terrorism” in four contexts of historical, socio-cultural, political and ideological narratives.



Defining jihadi terrorism is highly complex and problematic since distinguishing between religious and secular motivations for the act of violence is not an easy task to undertake. However, aside from its problematic nature, jihadi terrorism is defined in a sense of religious terrorism in which jihadists employ Islam as a means of violently achieving their political goals based on their perceived ideological and fanatical interpretation of Islamic texts. Therefore, it is assumed that jihadists are primarily motivated by historical, socio-cultural, political, and ideological narratives in a sense that they blame the West for almost all problems in the Muslim world.



The historical narrative in terms of the superiority of the Muslim world in the middle ages is considered as one of the primary factors behind the rise of jihadi terrorism. From the perspective of jihadists, the Islamic world of the middle ages was more advanced in terms of philosophical, scientific and military achievements than the Christian world and other major civilisations. As such, for jihadi terrorists, the rise of the Christian world as the most powerful civilisation and consequently the expansion of Western imperialism significantly contributed to the fall of the superiority of the Islamic world. Such an analysis serves as a significant source of highly motivating jihadists to advocate jihadi terrorism as a means of confronting the West and restoring the Caliphate to its former glory.  

In addition, the desire of Islamic fundamentalists in restoring the Caliphate leads to their extreme interpretations of Islamic texts for justifying the use of violence as a divine duty of all Muslims. The historical narrative therefore serves as an underlying root cause, mainly motivating jihadists to violently mobilise Muslims under the banner of defending Islam and jihad. 



The socio-cultural narrative in terms of defending Islamic cultural values serves as a second motivating factor behind the emergence of jihadism. This in a context of social dimensions of culture in a sense of a unique collection of social rules, institutions, values, ideas and symbols fundamentally conditions the way in which members of a culture see the world and respond to its challenges. As such, jihadi terrorists take full advantage of the potentiality of socio-cultural values as a legitimate means of justifying the use of violence to defend their own version of Islamic way of life by fighting perceived Western influence.  

The reason why jihadists are easily motivated to commit terrorist attacks is because the notion of community is culturally very strong within Muslim communities, and individual Muslims consider themselves as part of the community rather than individual persons. Thus,  jihadists believe that defending socio-cultural values of their Muslim community against the influential Western values are their divine religious obligations.   



The political narrative in terms of external contributing factors to the political sufferings and injustice in the Muslim world is a third motivation behind the rise of jihadi terrorism. This is because the Western colonialism is largely blamed by jihadists for destroying the idea and political possibility of reuniting the Muslim world under the rule of a worldwide Caliphate. For jihadists, the presence of Western troops in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world is an obvious example of the Western neo-imperialism under the leadership of the United States, contributing to the sever political sufferings and injustice in the Muslim world.  

Additionally, the West is largely blamed by jihadists for its support for the Middle Eastern repressive regimes, the continued humiliation of the Palestinians and the division of the Arab world into various countries in order to suit well Western geopolitical and economic interests. Hence, the political narrative is a root cause of jihadi terrorism providing jihadists with the justification to attack the West and its allies all over the globe.   



The ideological narrative is considered as one of the most important root causes of jihadi terrorism. In particular, the Islamic ideology in a sense of individually motivating and collectively unifying diverse individuals under a common banner of protecting Islam paves the way for jihadists to employ violence as a legitimate act of achieving their goals. Such an extreme interpretation from Islamic texts nonetheless provides the critics of the Islamic ideology with the opportunity to claim that jihadism simply represents Islam as a violent and intolerant faith. For instance, the critics of Islamic ideology refer to the manifesto of Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, as an example of the association of Islamic ideology with violence and intolerance.

This is because Sayyid Qutb in his manifesto claims that as the whole world is in state of ignorance and the true Muslims are in a state of weakness and under permanent attacks from the infidels, armed jihad is a necessary tool to reinstate the rule of Allah. As such, ideologically interpreting Islam in a violent way has become one of the biggest motivational factors contributing to the emergence of jihadi terrorism.



Despite the fact that some scholars and policy makers consider historical, socio-cultural, political, and ideological narratives as the major motivational factors behind the rise of jihadi terrorism, the role of these narratives in motivating jihadists is hotly contested. This is because jihadists blame the West for almost all problems in the Muslim world; thus, they would easily refer to countless reasons beyond the historical, socio-cultural, political and ideological narratives for the intention of justifying their act of violence.

First of all, the political narrative as a motivational factor for jihadi terrorism is contested because it blames the West for all political failings in the Muslim world rather than equally examining the internal factor of political
oppression. As the West-blaming game fails to consider the failure of oppressive regimes in the Muslim world in undertaking democratic political reforms, blaming the West for all political failings of Muslims is highly arguable. As such, while jihadi terrorists are more likely motivated by a variety of domestic factors rather than those political problems caused by the West, they perceive the use of violence as a legitimate tool of putting pressure on the West and their governments. Therefore, the political narrative can never be a genuine reason motivating jihadi terrorism.

In addition, the socio-cultural narrative as a motivational factor for jihadi terrorism is hotly contested because it does not distinguish between Islamic values and socio-cultural traditions of different Muslim countries. As such, the use of violence by jihadists under the banner of defending Islamic socio-cultural values against the Westernisation of the Muslim world is no longer justifiable since Islamic values do not necessarily represent particular socio-cultural traditions of all individual Muslim countries. For example, socio-cultural values of Iraq and Afghanistan, as two Muslim countries, are not only entirely different from one another in terms of their ethnic, religious and political traditions; but also their perception of Islamic values significantly differs from those of other Muslim countries like Pakistan or Indonesia. Thus, defending socio-cultural values of the Muslim world is not necessarily a genuine motivational factor behind the emergence of jihadism as jihadists use the socio-cultural narrative as a legitimate means of using violence. 

Finally, the ideological narrative as a root cause of jihadi terrorism is challenged by many scholars due to a variety of different interpretations in various sects of Islam. This is because aside from the attempts of jihadists to use Islam as a universal ideology and a single justifying force of mobilising Muslims against the West and other non-Muslims, various sects in Islam have their own interpretations of Islamic texts significantly differing from one another. Therefore, the use of ideological narrative as a means of mobilising Muslims to commit terrorist attacks under the banner of defending Muslims and Islam is neither acceptable for all Muslims nor is justifiable by Islamic texts. 



The research for this paper has demonstrated that jihadi terrorism is a highly complex phenomenon in terms of its concept and motivations. As such, apart from a variety of scholarly efforts to address the root causes of jihadi terrorism, there still is significant uncertainty in the academic and policy-making circles about the genuine motivations behind the rise of jihadism because jihadists unrealistically blame the West for almost all problems in the Muslim world. Jihadi terrorists are therefore no longer stuck to a single set of motivational factors as they take full advantage of any circumstances or opportunities to justify the use of violence as a means of achieving their political goals.


About the Author:

Farhad Arian is a former Deputy Director of the Department of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. Prior to joining the Afghan Foreign Service, he worked with a number of non-governmental organisations and international development agencies in Afghanistan. Farhad Arian has recently completed a Master of International Affairs at the Australian National University with a special focus on human rights. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Law & Political Science from Kabul University in Afghanistan. He is an independent consultant on Afghanistan and the Middle Eastern affairs, and regularly writes in the areas of human rights, democratisation, social justice, and post-conflict institution building.



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