Time and again it is reported that Muslim terrorists in the process of inflicting lethal bodily harm (with firearms, explosives, knives, or by running over people with cars) shout “God is Great!” (Allahu Akbar). It is a remarkable and seemingly puzzling phenomenon that has received little attention, although it is likely to shed light on the motivation and mindset of the terrorists.
These exclamations appear to be a form of encouragement, intended to vindicate and justify actions that certainly need justification. God is great, the perpetrators seem to say, because He allows, perhaps even demands, that some people—the infidels, deserving to be put to death—be dispatched. On these occasions, God, or the God of Islam, is compulsively invoked to bear witness to these acts of faith and reassure the perpetrators. The exclamation is intended to make clear and confirm—both for the perpetrators and for those witnessing their actions—that the perpetrators are carrying out divinely sanctioned retribution, rendering the act meaningful and morally justified. These violent radicals are among the men, who, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of . . . those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.”
The terrorists, assured that God endorses their motives and actions, are certain of their access to Him and of their understanding of His will. Given that their target selection often includes civilians—children, women, and the old—they may need extra reassurance that they are doing the right thing. They may need even stronger reassurance if they aspire to become “martyrs,” suicide bombers, to convince themselves that they are throwing away their lives for a very good cause. In doing so, they also rely on the comforting belief that they will be recipients of generous otherworldly rewards.
Western nonbelievers are likely to interpret such behavior as delusional, perceiving the devout terrorists as suffering from a serious mental illness, or victimized by a rare form of false consciousness originating in their justified grievances and low socioeconomic status. As a rule, these commentators aver that Islamic religious beliefs provide no justification or encouragement for such vile acts, that violent Islamic radicals misuse and misinterpret the teachings of their religion. If so, we need not pay attention to their assertions and explanations of their motives and behavior. We should dismiss their emphatic insistence that they are carrying out God’s will.
This approach is exemplified by John Kerry’s warning at Davos that “it would be a mistake to link Islam to criminal conduct rooted in alienation, poverty, thrill-seeking and other factors.” In the same spirit, White House press secretary Josh Earnest suggested (referring to those who committed the recent murders in Paris) that “these are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed that “this makes it sound as if the Charlie Hebdo terrorists set out to commit a random act of violent extremism and only subsequently, when they realized that they needed some justification, reached for Islam.”
Also in the New York Times, bioethics lecturer Tom Koch warned against holding the terrorists responsible for their actions, emphasizing the socially determined nature of their conduct:
The tragedy [of the recent murders in Paris] lies . . . in the decades of military encroachment and colonial expansion that helped to radicalize a religious sect. It lies too, in our culture’s failure to integrate new members in an ethos that is inclusive and assures a political space for legitimate complaint. . . . Our tragedy is this collective fatal flaw, which insists on demonizing those we disagree with and turning them into mortal enemies. The question is whether we will react . . . breeding more terror [my emphasis] in our responses, or, instructed in its causes, search for resolution.