There’s a question that seems to get thrown around a lot that I actually find very difficult to answer: why is there no Christian terrorism?
Obviously this is an oversimplification – plenty of violent communities claim a Christian root for their actions, most importantly in the US the Klan and white supremacy movements, which consider their political actions to be religiously sanctioned.
But it’s still the case that Islamic religiously-conservative movements tend to be more heavily invested and involved in politics than their Christian equivalents. The entrance of the so-called Christian Right into politics only began in the 1970s, and there are still plenty of groups within the Christian Fundamentalist and Evangelical movements which believe that Christians should stay out of politics. Obviously the understanding of Muslim groups is very different, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qayda have always had a political element to their actions.
I think two factors influence this fact. The first is the Evangelical Christian concept of premillennial dispensationalism. The other is the Muslim concept of khilafa.
Premillennial dispensationalism is the belief that the End of Times and the millennium, the thousand-year period of peace under Christ’s rule, will be preceded by the Tribulation, a seven-year period of suffer. In general, premillennialism tends to argue for the downfall of the world as a signal for the End, whereas postmillennialism is the opposite, holding that the millennium will precede the Tribulation, and that the world should improve in anticipation of the End. Thus many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe that the wickedness they see in the world is a sign of the imminence of the End – in some sense, it would be wrong, but also simply pointless, to try to stop it. Traditionally, premillennialism has led to isolationism among the Fundamentalist and Evangelical communities, the ‘community on the hill’ arrangement, watching the world crumble around them.
The construction in Islam is very different, and dates from the earliest construction of Islam and the idea of khilafa, or divinely-appointed authority, that part of God’s plan lies in His appointment of leaders. The concept arises out of the Qur’anic vision of the Prophets, most importantly Moses, and how their communities were saved through their allegiance to God’s Prophet. In the Medieval period, this concept led to debates of succession and inheritance of rule. In the modern period, it tends to focus more on the system of rule, how governments should be formed and how leaders should be selected in order for the community to remain righteous before God.
Thus Islam has a political element already inherent in its theological structure, even from within the first community. It’s for this reason that many of the extremists groups that first developed in the nineteenth century were making arguments about political and government structure as much as they were about ritual practice or moral behaviour. There just doesn’t seem to be any comparable strand of thought in Christian history, as extremist groups in Christianity seem to move towards either isolationism or pacifism instead.