Politics & Policy

The Actual Root Causes of Islamic Terrorism

Hint: They have nothing to do with Western “exploitation.”

Sensible people are discouraged from thinking about the root causes of Islamic terrorism, because of the routine nonsense from the Left, including the Obama administration, about “poverty” being the root cause. The root cause of leftists’ saying that is obvious: By “poverty,” they really mean Western “exploitation.” And if that is the cause, then Western military power is no solution.

Nevertheless, root causes do exist, and to have a successful military campaign we must know what they are.

The root causes are two, and only two: Islam, and Islamism.

Islamism has emerged in stages, out of two historical contingencies: (1) The historical failure of Islamdom, as experienced in its replacement by Christendom as the leading global force 500 years ago. For Islam, this was an unacceptable, insane inversion of God’s order. (2) The reaction to this in the 20th century was in the manner of what scholars are nowadays calling “generic fascism.” This reaction was able to grow into a movement thanks to the reversal of the spirit of the times from imperialism to anti-imperialism in the decades after 1914. It picked up steam with the access of huge oil wealth after 1970.


We cannot get the root causes right unless we call things by their right names. Islam is the bottom-floor root cause of Islamic terrorism.

Islam is a core part of the ideological foundation for Islamism. Islamism in turn is the main ideological foundation for Islamic terrorism, though often supplemented by leftist nationalism.

The ideological function is supplemented by social-base functions. Islam provides a mass social base for Islamism, and a powerful social support and protection network.

Islamism in turn provides a mass social base and support network for Islamic terrorism. This base is supplemented by a second support base, as Olivier Roy has shown, in the anti-Western Left; within the West itself, fashionably anti-Western radicals have converted to Islam in its militant and terrorist forms, because “it’s where it’s really being done.”

These support milieus form concentric circles — the same sort of concentric circles that exist with all ideological movements and all criminal groups. It is the legitimate reason for profiling. All good police work depends on identifying accurately the support milieus it needs to deal with. So does all good military work.

We are not talking here about whether Mohammed, or “true Islam,” is the cause of Islamic terrorism. Islam is, plainly, far more than the words and deeds of Mohammed. It is a historical religious community, replete with a lineage, leaders, adherents, mutual relations, institutions, texts, literature, memories, identities, and narratives. This structured religion-community must be studied empirically. In places where people are compelled to speak in a manner subordinate to Islamic belief, one is limited to arguing obsequiously that terrorist Islam is not the “true Islam.” That debate is not our concern. Terrorist Islam is a part of Islam as an empirical phenomenon — a demonstrably significant part of that empirical Islam.

To what extent is Mohammed culpable for the deeds of the religion-community that grew out of his words and following? That is a serious question, but a different one from ours here. What matters here is the objective fact that Islam, qua historical religion, is a root cause of and support base for its own terrorist subculture, which is, factually, “Islamic terrorism.”

Again, this does not mean that the way to fight terrorism is by destroying Islam, or converting Islamdom to Christianity.

What it does mean is, simply, this: We must support the efforts of honest Muslims to fight to eliminate the evil side of Islam. We must stop lying about Islam. We must stop embracing and reinforcing its claims to a special right to getting violently offended. We must instead join in the fight against its evil.

The standardbearer in this fight, today, is President el-Sisi of Egypt. In his speech at Al-Azhar University, the world’s most respected institution of Islamic learning, he demanded that Islam expurgate the evil from its ideological doctrines and practices. He did not minimize the evil. He credited it, accurately, with setting Islam against the world — and setting the world in fear of Islam. He drew, as a distressingly serious reductio ad absurdum, the logical conclusion of the evil doctrines: that they would mean trying to kill off all 6 billion non-Muslims, in order that Islam might live in peace. He couched this in terms of its being “impossible,” “inconceivable”; but he meant that it was intolerable morally and a disaster practically, and that the evil doctrines must be fully eliminated from Islam, so that their logical conclusion would indeed be rendered impossible and inconceivable.

El-Sisi thereby placed himself at risk of assassination, no less than European cartoonists, and like his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. He needs our support. It is positively shameful that the administration has instead been undercutting him. America should be standing by him, not only on his policy on reforming Islam, but also in his policies against our Islamist enemies in Egypt and in Libya — enemies that our administration has instead been coddling and, most of the time, supporting.

El-Sisi, despite being in power, was in a sense speaking truth to power. He was speaking truth to the powers of the fashionable elite set in the West, and to entrenched religious powers at home. His speech is shock therapy against the lies of the times.

Everyone should read his speech and learn from it. Particularly President Obama and his support media — virtually the entirety of the mainstream media.

El-Sisi provides the beginning of an answer to our questions: What is the root cause of Islamic terrorism, and what needs to be done about it? It is an imperfect and incomplete answer, as with all human answers, but one far more serious than the answers thus far from Western regimes.


Islamism is the large branch of Islam for which the religion serves as a militant political ideology. Its substance derives from the failure of Islamdom, in the face of the rise half a millennium ago of Europe — the bearer of the Christian religion that Islam was supposed to have corrected and supplanted — and from the eventual generic fascist reaction within Islam to this failure.

A word on terminology. “Generic fascism” has been defined by contemporary scholars, notably Roger Griffin, as “palingenetic ultra-nationalism” — i.e., a collective ideology of national-civilizational regeneration in the face of a feeling of decadence. Its general ideological content always includes the point that regeneration comes through a special, organically unified group of humans and a faith that is unifying by its intrinsic nature; e.g., Islam’s pure all-unity monotheism and all-encompassing law; or fascism’s “integral” national unity; or, in the related, symbiotic Communist ideology, the workers’ natural universal unity. This intrinsic saving unity is contrasted to the decadent, individualistic, internally competitive bourgeois West. The West is shining on the surface but rotting at the core from the divisions and the contradictions of its individualism, always on the edge of collapse. If the true organic collectivity believes in itself and regenerates itself, in a higher synthesis with Western technology, it will inevitably replace the West as the leader of the world, and save the world from the collapsing West.

This formula is the heart of Islamism, as it was of European fascism and Communism. This “generic fascism” is, however, an algebraic formula with three open variables to be filled in: the group that is to be regenerated, the specific ideological content that is to be used for the regeneration, and the vanguard that will lead the regeneration. European fascists filled those open variables with the nation as the concrete organic totality, traduced by decadent liberalism but not yet destroyed; national unity and regeneration as the ideology; and the fascist movement as the vanguard and ideology-supplier, with popular nationalism and the counterrevolutionary Right as its wider support milieu. Islamism fills the open variables with the Islamic umma as the organic group never fully destroyed by the disintegrative Western influences that have traduced it; Islam as the regenerating ideology; under the leadership of an Islamist organization.

Its developmental phases:

a. Generic fascism did not take shape as Islamism and emerge as a major force in the Islamic world for a long time, not even after the 1790s when the collapse of Islamic power was rubbed in by Napoleon. It emerged only in conducive historical circumstances, and these required centuries to appear.

b. In the 1900s, the West lost the sense of confidence and legitimacy with which it had dominated the world for centuries. The retreat of the West, morally and physically, brought dreams of reversing the scales of history once again. One of these dreams was Communism, another fascism, a third, Islamism. Ironically,

i. Anti-imperialism became the dominant ideology worldwide after 1914, and the anti-imperialist reaction found an ideological expression in each venue. The Islamic world was one of the more significant venues; one where, paradoxically, the direct Western ruling role increased in some areas after 1919, under League of Nations mandates for replacing Turkish rule; but they were mandates for preparing for independence. Nationalist expectations were directly fostered by the empires.

In most post-colonial regions, nationalism has deepened with time. Initially, a  state-nationalist elite attempts modernization along European lines, often mixed in with grafts from Marxism and from national traditions. A generation or two later comes a “nativization” of nationalism, more populist, more like fascism, embracing local traditions as the real solution to the problems of the country and the world. The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in the 1920s in communication with European fascism, expressed this in its signature line: “Islam is the solution.”

ii. The second phase of the rise of Islamism came in tandem with the rise of oil money. It saw the birth of Islamist regimes and the growth of Islamic terrorism worldwide.

Oil power’s role in terrorism operates above all through its support for Islamist ideology. Nevertheless, since it is an economic factor, and since the phrase “root cause” is usually just a euphemism for positing an economic cause (and blaming the West), let us separate it out for special treatment.

Oil Wealth and Islamic Terrorism

When a previously outclassed society gets a lot more wealth and economic power than it had before, this provides a basis for dreams of a great rise in global strategic power as well. This has been seen in Germany, Japan, and many other countries. It is seen nowadays in China, leading to fears of an eventual world war.

This effect is among the best documented ones in social science. It has been convincingly quantified. It is significantly predictable.

This effect has taken place in the Islamic world, too; it just looks different there. Its new wealth has not been earned by cumulative labor and ingenuity, but arrived windfall-style from oil — by luck, nationalization, and piracy-style cartel.

Scholars have failed to notice it when piracy economies inspire fantasies of global power. Nevertheless, they do. And indeed they make the usual inflated dreams of global power even more radical, because not disciplined by the reality principle.

Cumulative economic effort leads to respect for objective reality and incremental business-like calculation. Piracy encourages speculative gambles instead, in the consequent struggles for a reversal of global power structures.

Productive countries that grow by cumulative economic effort usually turn to traditional statist methods of power politics to express their pride. They build their hopes of global power methodically. Rentier and pirate countries are different; their struggles against the world order may break out haphazardly from any corner of society. Terrorism, kidnapping, extortion: these have been among the chaotic methods of struggle for reversal of power hierarchies. God is left to clean up the mess.

It was painfully obvious that Muslims could claim no empirical credit for their oil wealth. The economic use of oil was thought up by Westerners, not Muslims. The technology was invented by Westerners, not Muslims. The oil fields of the Mideast were developed mostly by Westerners and by Western investment. Muslims inherited the results by accident.

The accidents that gave this wealth-power to Muslims were not just those of geography. They included also the political turn in the international system toward anti-Western, anti-colonial nationalism. It was this factor, coupled with the powerful competition from the Soviet Communists for anti-imperialist loyalties around the world, that inspired the passive acquiescence of the West to the oil-field nationalizations of the 1970s, despite their technical illegality and their obvious danger to global security and stability.

Islamism and Islamic terrorism both emerged as serious global forces together with the OPEC cartel and the oil embargoes of the 1970s. The efforts to get an “Islamic bomb” have the same date of origin. The causal connection has been made by leaders of Muslim countries themselves, from Libya to Pakistan, as they have sought to translate oil wealth into nuclear weapons, claiming a mandate from Allah.

The same significance has been given to the windfall wealth by Islamist theorists and national leaders alike: The access of oil wealth is interpreted as God’s plan for restoring global power to Islam.

This was, in retrospect, an inevitable ideological development, once the oil fields were conceded for nationalization, and once OPEC was accepted despite its being an illegal extortionist cartel. There was no other positive interpretation available for the oil wealth, no other way to justify it as an ethical thing.

 As any Marxist would tell us, no society is going to fail to imbue itself with a doctrine of justification for its wealth. It would be too demoralizing to do otherwise. And so oil power became God’s plan for the power of Islam.

A failure to mystify the mind in this manner would have left Muslims face to face with the fact that Islamdom, with its illegal OPEC cartel and its often vastly overpriced oil, was the one actual “economic exploiter” of the ordinary productive people of the world. It would have shown that the anti-imperialist assumptions about the West and the free market being the global exploiter — and the power against which all good forces are fighting, the root cause of poverty and terrorism and every other major evil in the world — was an exact inversion of the truth. It would have been a fundamental problem for anti-imperialism, one pointed out by Lewis Feuer in his penultimate book, Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind. The anti-imperialist world had no wish to admit its moral flaw. It preferred the Islamist mystification.

There was, thus, a serious ideological consequence from the Western tolerance of the seizure of oil wealth by the Arab countries. It led to a widespread belief in a mandate from heaven for the Islamic world to reclaim global power. And to the embrace of terrorism alongside Islamism as a means for that reclamation.

There we have, in a nutshell, the root causes of Islamic terrorism. Its primary bases for recruitment and support: Islam and Islamism. Its secondary safe spaces and aids in radicalization: the non-Muslim Left, and the Western media and intelligentsia. Its economic base: oil.

These are root causes that all have to be confronted. If this long war is ever to be brought to a decent end, they will have to change dramatically. The outer circles, Islam and the Western talking classes, will have to change their ideological ways and sever their links to the intermediate circles — the Islamists and the radical Left. The intermediate circles will have to shrink and face strong pressures to sever their links with the inner, terrorist circle. It will then be possible to defeat that terrorist circle. “Defeat” meaning: succeed not only in driving back specific Islamic terrorist groups, as is necessary here and now, ready or not, but in reducing Islamic terrorism globally to a marginal nuisance level.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility. 



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