Towards a Definition of Terrorism 1

Terrorism is a term that has been much bandied about in recent times in the world media. This paper was presented by the author, who is Director of the International Relations Department of the I.P.O., at the International Conference on Terrorism called by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Geneva, from June 22-26, 1987. It is an attempt to define terrorism and to put it in a broad perspective.

Resolution 20/5-P (1.5) of the Fifth Islamic Summit supported the idea of an international conference to be convened under the aegis of the United Nations in order to discuss the subject of international terrorism and to differentiate it from the struggle of peoples for their acknowledged national causes and the liberation of their territories. This means that we should, at this meeting, take into consideration the following steps:

(i) To refer, first of all, to Islamic sources in order to set the major criteria, to identify the principles according to which the humanity aims and actions is to be assessed, and to make such principles the basis of our judgement in the various cases.

(ii) To examine genuine human nature unblemished by any considerations of narrow interests, in order to identify human rules that can be put forth at the international level as a general human criterion For this purpose, the results of our studies must cover the various fields of the international scene and constitute a general action framework.

(iii) From these Islamic and human principles, we deduce a general comprehensive and exclusive definition, i.e. encompassing all the real attributes of terrorism and excluding the alleged criteria of terrorism which cannot be treated as such by lofty principles.

(iv) Then, we should apply the criteria set forth to all the national and international instances of alleged terrorism. We should examine each of them closely in the light of the results, then put forward an appropriate and precise judgement which is free from any ambiguity or connivance and to confer on each act its true adjective. In the light of this introduction, we shall confine our study to the following points:

First Point

It goes without saying that every international bloc, every State or indeed every community has enemies and opponents that seek to eliminate it, and, as the conflict becomes violent, each party tries to undermine the reputation of the other by attributing to it repulsive epithets, such as “anarchist”, “criminal”, “outlaw”, “inhuman”, “terrorist”, and the like. We may even find that each of the two parties indulges in such allegations in order to carry out a plan which involves the deprival of the other party of its rights on the pretext of collaborating with the enemy or plotting against lawful interests.

To materialize this process, each party uses its international influence in order to win other parties over to its side either in action or in terms of support in international fora. The issue thus assumes a public character and the victory in a case is a matter of pressure, influence and the power of persuasion rather than a matter of sound logic.

Accordingly, feelings are influenced and sentiments are exploited for the implementation of such plans motivated by self-interest, under the banner of “anti-terrorism” for instance. To be sure, terrorism is humanly reprehensible (if we disregard its motives and objectives), and no one in his senses would accept any threat to human dignity, freedom, property, honour, security, work, etc. This feeling is instinctive, genuine and incontestable.

Second Point

If we consider the meaning of the word “terrorism” on the one hand, and its fallout and traces left on human life on the other, we note that terrorism may be carried out on different levels. There is a terrorism which threatens security, honour, property and the like; there is a cultural terrorism which tears human identity apart, and leads to the abyss of perdition and aimlessness; there is an information terrorism which deprives man of his freedom to breathe in an unpolluted atmosphere. We can cite other types of terrorism such as economic terrorism, scientific terrorism, diplomatic terrorism, military terrorism, etc.

There exists, however, a division based on the type of perpetrators, which must be taken into account. It is the division into official and unofficial terrorism. Official terrorism - which is the more dangerous - consists of all acts that are supported by an internationally recognized quarter or State, whether by the army of that State or individual elements or in the form of an operation for the benefit of the said quarter. Opposing this type of terrorism is unofficial terrorism.

Third Point

We may focus, in any act or conduct, on two determining factors:

1. The motives of the perpetrator.

2. The human acceptability of the act itself.

These are not inseparable aspects. The personal motives of the perpetrator may look humane to him but not so to the public. Conversely, the perpetrator may have no human purpose in mind or may indeed have a purpose that he perceives to be inhumane but is considered from the public point of view to be a humane act.

Therefore, viewpoints may differ in the judgement whether such an act is good or evil (usuli jurisprudents have done a great deal of valuable research on the rational basis of differentiating between good and evil deeds, but this is not the place to go into it). What must be stated here is that neither of the factors, taken separately, is sufficient to determine the acceptability or the reprehensibility of an act or to judge such an act positively or negatively. A positive assessment in regard to both factors must be carried out in order to judge and act.

Consequently, we have to ensure objectivity in our investigation in order to find a criterion for identifying the acceptability and humanity of an act from the standpoints of both Islam and mankind in general. As regards the Islamic standpoint, we have to refer to the principles, concepts and judgements which relate to the question of terrorism - in its literal sense - to give a general definition of condemnable terrorism, i.e. the terrorism that is rejected by Islam as contrary to the process of the human being's perfection determined by God Almighty for mankind through human nature and prescribed through revelation.

When referring to Islamic teachings, we find that Islam is very rich in this field, and we notice that Islamic jurists have delved into the various aspects that relate to the subject. We have the judgements on al-baghy, i.e. armed revolt by a group against a just and legitimate government, intimidation of the general public, and pursuit of divisive political goals that damage national unity.

We also have the judgements on al-harabah, which is defined as “the use of weapons, on land or sea, by day or night, to intimidate people, in a city or elsewhere, by a male or female, strong or weak.” God Almighty declares in the Qur'an: “This is the recompense of those who fight against God and His Messenger, and spread corruption in the land. they shall be put to death, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the next awaits them a mighty chastisement” (1)

As may be noticed, the verse mentions the subject and the purpose, namely war against society and spreading of corruption in the land. It has also mentioned the severe punishment to be dealt out to the perpetrators, which points to Islam's concern for the subject. There are also the laws about theft and murder which can be mentioned in this regard. Likewise, we come across in Islamic texts terms which relate to the matter at hand, such as homicide (al-fatk), deceit (al-ghilah), and seditious conspiracy (al-'i'timar). There are also texts which stipulate utmost respect for covenants and treaties even if it is discovered later that they favour the other party. As long as he adheres to their provisions, these must be observed.

Continue in the next article: ( Towards a Definition of Terrorism 2 )



1. The Holy Quran 5:33