Secular-Non Secular Terrorism

Terrorism became an obsession the morning of September 11, 2001, when a clique of dreamers lead by the ringleader Muhammad Atta, crashed two planes into the hallmark of World Trade. Since then this avant-garde concept has been in the limelight of academicians, policy-framers, national government agenda, Interpol to media, society and everyday life. This gruesome concept was not a gift of the 21st century; instead it is a primordial concept which began in its full-fledged form in 1970 with the Palestinian raids in contestedIsrael. To begin a discourse on the aforementioned topic I would firstly like to discuss the definition of terrorism which has eluded many.

TERRORISM: The United States Department of Defence defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”[1] Our very own Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act 2008 defines a terrorist act in Section 15 as – Whoever does any act with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people or any section of the people in India or in any foreign country,—(a) by using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances or inflammable substances or firearms or other lethal weapons or poisonous or noxious gases or other chemicals or by any other substances (whether biological radioactive, nuclear or otherwise) of a hazardous nature or by any other means of whatever nature to cause or likely to cause—

(i) death of, or injuries to, any person or persons; or

(ii) loss of, or damage to, or destruction of, property; or

(iii) disruption of any supplies or services essential to the life of the community inIndia or in any foreign country; or

(iv) damage or destruction of any property in India or in a foreign country used or intended to be used for the defence of India or in connection with any other purposes of the Government of India, any State Government or any of their agencies; or

(b) overawes by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force or attempts to do so or causes death of any public functionary or attempts to cause death of any public functionary; or

(c) detains, kidnaps or abducts any person and threatens to kill or injure such person or does any other act in order to compel the Government of India, any State Government or the Government of a foreign country or any other person to do or abstain from doing any act,

commits a terrorist act.

Explanation.—For the purpose of this section, public functionary means the constitutional authorities and any other functionary notified in the Official Gazette by the Central Government as a public functionary.”[2]

After stating the formal definitions charted out by governments, the definition of terrorism that I learnt has the following features:

  • Firstly theOxforddictionary does not explain the intricacies of the definition thereby implying that the definition is dynamic and a constant one does not exist.
  • There must be a constant political motive.
  • The act of terrorism must be in continuity and should produce continuous fear in the minds of the terrorized.
  • The terrorist act must motivate and demotivate the terrorizer and the terrorized respectively.

Not all forms of terrorism are same with respect to means and ends. Terrorism can be secular as well as non-secular. Both the types have different motives, aims, ideologies, and means. Let us discuss these two forms:

As per my understanding, secular terrorism is where the perpetrators of violence have a socio-economic goal. Their aim is to make a political statement and bring forth their demands to the adversarial party. Bruce Hoffman, author of the widely acclaimed book Inside Terrorism states- secular terrorists, even if they have the capacity to do so, rarely attempt indiscriminate killing on a massive scale because such tactics are not consonant with their political aims and therefore are regarded as counterproductive, if not immoral. Secular terrorists attempt to appeal to a constituency variously composed of actual and potential sympathizers; members of the communities they purport to ‘defend’ or the aggrieved people for whom they claim to speak.[3]  I shall explain this with the help of a wrestling match to emphasize the point of difference in secular terrorism. In a physical fight between let’s say two men, one man wins if he is efficiently able to defeat the other man by getting himself hurt in the least possible way. He allows himself to be hurt only uptil the point where more harm might result in a fatal injury. So here both the parties are in a bargaining position. But what if one of the parties did not care about his life and his aim was to cause as much injury to the other party even if it meant forsaking his life. This is where non-secular or what is commonly termed as religious terrorism comes into the foray. The earlier point where both the parties are in a bargaining position is the main feature of secular terrorism and where religion or cause as in the latter form is the main motivation is non-secular terrorism. But I know you must be wondering that this absolute statement is in itself filled with paradoxes when secular terrorism starts adopting the means of non-secular terrorism as in the case of suicide bombings adopted by the LTTE.

To clear the conundrum, non-secular terrorism has the backing of religion as its main force. The best example of this form of terrorism is Islamic Terrorism. To shed light on their means and ends let us take a detour to the history of its inception. Islamic clerics often cite that Islam was born to rid the earth of its ‘infidels’. Prophet Mohammad advocated that Islam was the saviour of earth and the dominant form of worship at that point of time i.e. Paganism was antithetical to God. As we all know apart from Paganism, the dominant forms of worship were Christianity and Judaism. Islam, as interpreted by Islamic clerics advocated that Islam would be foremost and Christians and Jews could lead their respective lives being subservient to it. But over the times the interpretation became somewhat screwed with treating the aforementioned as belonging to a heathen clique. This concept flowered passionately into what we see as today’s primordial reason behind the motivation of terrorism. The main tool used by the fundamentalists is to brainwash the future Muslim generation in a way that they start believing that there will be no happiness on Earth until the West is totally exterminated and the rule of the forgotten Caliphate is established. This is substantiated by the atrocities committed by the western nations on several occasions which range from colonialism, exploitation, mujaheedin to nurturing Islamic terrorists to fight their private wars. They believe that the root cause of all evil is the west with no sense of sensitivity or morality; only concerned with capital. When the examples glued perfectly with the reasons for jihad the result of violence, destruction, annihilation was inevitable. Muhammad Atta considered Jihad the most charismatic concept of the century. When such inspirational and motivational speeches were made, emphasizing how God rewarded his followers if they put an end to the ‘non-believers, galvanized the Muslims to become fundamentalists and take to arms. They embraced death as matter- of-fact, not because they had to serve a population but because that was the only way out. Their mission does not have any mercy for members of their community also. It’s seriously extreme and brutal. The paradox is they are fighting for their community by adopting means which is killing a majority of their men, women and children. They thus do not spare anyone alike- believer or non-believers. These fanatics have one frame of mind that is to exterminate the entire body of the west from the face of the planet by using means which are deathly and destructive in the most diabolic form.

Now, if we consider Secular terrorism, the means and ends is completely different. I shall explain this with the example of the vilest and fanatical individual the world saw in the first half of the 20th century- Adolf Hitler. His propaganda was infused by an ideology called Nazism which highlighted that Aryans were the only pure forms of humans and all the other humans (which included Jews, Poles, gypsies, handicapped, homosexuals, and democratic socialists) were incapable of living a qualitative life. The ‘impure’ population was in a way competing with the ‘pure’ population’, thus attracting Darwin’s postulate of survival of the fittest. So the best way to reduce the competition was to eradicate strategically the impure forms simply because of the horrid logic that the latter was not worth survival. An important addition, cunning Hitler believed Germans to be the real descendants of the primitive Aryans. So with this ideology he set off to pull off the killing of over 50 million people which included 6 million Jews. So here what we can see is that Hitler is not forsaking the life of his Nazi SS sergeants to achieve that cruel aim, instead capitalising on the killing of the life of the ‘impure’ population. If it had been non-secular terrorism, the ringleader would have said to achieve the killing of as many adversaries as possible even if it meant to give up on ones life; in that case the life lost would be worthy and holy enough to deem it to be the life of a martyr. If it would have been secular terrorism, sanctioning the suicide of their own kinsmen would have been the last resort. Suicide bombings did become a part of secular terrorism with the LTTE where at least 30% of the women agreed to forgo their lives. But the essential difference is that this act was being accomplished to gain back a territory which they considered to have legitimate authority over. But then again if we look at from the Islamic fundamentalist point of view Palestinian war was to gain back the territory assigned to the Jews to build anIsrael. So, what is basically the difference between the two when both want in some way a territory and use suicide as their weapons?

The answer might seem blurring but both forms of terrorism are not really separate entities as they overlap to a large extent. But an aspect that can be articulated is that if we look at from the severity point of view Religious terrorism has a greater destructive capability and secular form is a subset within this type.

The conclusion that I arrived at are as follows:

  • Secular terrorism is perpetrated to bring about the fulfilment of a socio-economic goal leaving scope for dialogue and discourse, whereas Non-secular terrorism has a transcendental dimension to it. The latter is extreme and considers death and destruction as the only possible way out.
  • A difference exists as per my understanding for a theoretical basis. To say secular terrorism is motivated by ideology and non-secular terrorism by religion is to serve a futile academic purpose. Religion in the first place took birth because of a certain ideology with respect to belief, so in a way religion is also a certain form of ideology. Both are subsets of terrorism, to create a difference between the two is to give one substantial amount of publicity and leave the other without recognition of its thrills.
  • There is hardly any difference between both the forms as both have begun using suicide as their ace weapon and even if they desire to be doing this for their respective communities, they do not pardon anyone who come across as hurdles in their ‘superior cause’.
  • Scholars who have studied terrorism might point a flaw in my argument by explicitly stating that both cases substantially differ. In the religious form, the fundamentalists die because they are willing to embrace death without any qualms, whereas in the secular form it’s almost like joining a political cause; the risk of loss of life is involved which is taken unquestioningly. I agree to this point, but then the amount of overlapping that takes place is considerable and I have explained this with the LTTE example. In a way both forms are two sides of the same coin. Both advocate a cause and have set out violent means to reach that end, period.

The help of classifying both forms of terrorism serves academic and policy purpose as then their frame of minds could be deeply studied so as to find out measures to overcome the preachers of destruction. I think the difference only serves this purpose so as to give an insight to their side of the story and for better understanding of the sensation of terrorism.



[1] “What is terrorism”, Sourced from: <> (Visited on Dec 8, 2009).

[2] “Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act 2008”, Sourced from:


[3] Austin Cline, “Religious v. Secular Terrorism”, Sourced from: <>

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