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Presbyterians Complicit in Terrorism with Their "Blame the Victim" Approach

[The July 2004 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. passed a "Resolution on Violence, Religion and Terrorism," that directs Presbyterians contemplating the carnage caused by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and similar terror organizations to "acknowledge our complicity in contributing to the circumstances that prompt individuals to engage in acts of terrorism." This article could be viewed originally at the following link.]

Resolution on Terrorism Confuses the Issue: 216th General Assembly (2004), Briefing Paper #1
Erik Nelson
June 22, 2004

Item 12-06, the "Resolution on Violence, Religion and Terrorism," urges Christians "to ponder the message of attackers who are so desperate that they surrender their lives to kill others" (p. 2). The resolution calls Presbyterians to "acknowledge our complicity in contributing to the circumstances that prompt individuals to engage in acts of terrorism" (p. 4). It advises "less reliance on the military response to terrorism" and "increased investment in programs that can transform and reduce the root causes of terrorism across the developing world" (p. 4).

Presbyterian Action urges commissioners to reject the terrorism resolution, or refer it back for a thorough rewrite. We see the resolution as minimizing the evil at work in terrorism by focusing blame on the victims of terrorism rather than on its perpetrators. It does not adequately address the problem of radical Islamism as a driving force behind contemporary terrorism. It employs arguments of moral equivalence to blur the distinctions between just uses of violence to preserve the peace and terrorism aimed at innocent civilians.

Defining Terrorism

Terrorism's definition is by no means as difficult to pin down as this resolution implies. Terrorism is generally understood as violence by non-uniformed, irregular combatants against innocents for political gain by inducing fear and capitulation. It is a refined form of asymmetrical warfare.

The rationale warns against "falling into the quagmire of attempting to label individuals, groups, or governments as 'terrorists'" (p. 3). But no one can claim that the acts repeatedly perpetrated by al Qaeda, Laskar Jihad, Hamas, or Hezbollah are anything but terrorist attacks. These groups use terrorism as their key tactic, and so they are called "terrorists."

An instructive analogy can be drawn here between terrorism and crime. Those who show a pattern of crime, such as those who rob banks, are rightly called "criminals" and "bank robbers." The same is true of groups that engage in prostitution or illegal gambling -- they are rightly called "organized crime" syndicates.

This unwillingness to call a spade a spade is demonstrated most particularly by the title the rationale gives to Sayyid Qutb. The rationale calls him a "writer/philosopher/activist" (p. 8). He is also the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and is considered the architect of contemporary Islamism, the philosophy behind Islamist terrorism. His works are a favorite of Osama bin Laden, and one of his most ardent disciples is Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik now in an American prison for conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Root Causes

The resolution focuses on the acts of terrorism rather than the causes that terrorists say they are advancing. It shows far more interest in considering "root causes" of terrorism outside of the nations and cultures which at the moment seem to be producing the vast majority of terrorist individuals and groups. Those "root causes" almost always deflect blame from those perpetrating the acts to those who are victims of the acts. The resolution suggests that Western affluence, and the poverty of the Global South, is the real "root cause" of terrorism.

A June 24, 2002, article in The New Republic, asked the question "Does poverty cause terrorism?" In the end, the authors expressed doubt. Terrorism, the authors say, more closely resembles violent crime than property crime (property crime increases with poverty; violent crime does not). And the more wealthy and educated people are, the more likely they are to engage in politics, including the radical politics of terrorism. Poverty seems to have a negligible role in most terrorism. Some nations that are very poor -- Bolivia, for instance -- are not known for having a problem with terrorism. On the other hand, wealthy Saudi Arabia produced many of the 9/11 terrorists.

Ignoring Human Sin, Islamist Ideology

While the resolution focuses on economic causes, it largely ignores other potential sources for terrorism, including the statements of the terrorist groups themselves. By looking more closely at the causes that terrorist groups claim to be fighting for, we can discern an interesting pattern. Groups using terrorist tactics tend to be advocating a tyranny that they have been unable to achieve through persuasion. This correlation suggests that the use of terrorist tactics might itself indicate an unjust cause. That such groups so routinely dehumanize their enemy to the point where they are no longer bothered by the killing of women and children cannot help but raise questions about the legitimacy of the cause for which they fight.

Overall, there is little sense in the resolution of the role of both human sin and the powers of evil in this world. For instance, the rationale implies that those participating in violent revolution do so because they are "oppressed or marginalized." But not all those who revolt against political authority do so for noble reasons.

The resolution speaks of the influence of a generic "religion" in the spread of terrorism. It is unwilling to address the key concern faced today -- that most terrorism is being generated by certain forms of the Islamic religion. The rhetoric spilling out from terrorist leaders is not about poverty, but specifically religious language about the corruption caused by "infidels." Why do the writers of this resolution not take these leaders at their word when they speak of their own motivations? Or are they claiming a deeper understanding of motivations than the terrorists themselves?

Moral Equivalence

The rationale asks a rhetorical question: "Is there anything that distinguishes the firebombing of Germany and the atom bombing of Japan toward the end of World War II from the officially sanctioned terror of the Israeli Defense Force or the Palestinian responses to Israeli actions or from the terrorist acts perpetrated by al Qaeda?" (p. 9). Clearly the rationale implies that there is no moral difference. But many Christians would insist that there is in fact a qualitative difference between these acts. For example, whereas the atom bomb attacks on Japan were aimed at saving both Japanese and American lives that would have been lost in an invasion, al Qaeda's attacks are designed to take as many lives as possible.

For solutions, the resolution focuses primarily on "transformative initiatives" in response to terrorism, although it does suggest that sometimes military force may be necessary. Such approaches as non-violence and dialogue are quite inadequate for dealing with some of the terrorist organizations we face today. Some groups are simply not interested in dialoguing with the West, and show no interest in adopting non-violent means of protest when terrorism seems to get them what they want.


This resolution fails on all accounts to take seriously the avowed goals of those who perpetrate terrorist acts. It seeks to avoid the fact that some organizations are driven not by noble goals of liberation, but by sin and evil. Because of this failure to recognize the role of evil and sin in the world, the resolution fails to address the overarching moral concerns at the heart of the issue of terrorism. Any statement by the General Assembly on terrorism must address a broader set of moral and ethical concerns than is expressed in this resolution.

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