Religion and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?

Religion and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims? March 21, 2017


[Paraphrased]  I remember being shocked years ago that some Irish terrorist acts were carried out in the name of Catholicism. What were the reactions to that, compared with the support or denial of Muslims toward violent jihad today?


The Guy can only sketch a few aspects of the religio-ethnic strife that has so roiled Ireland for centuries, or of the terror syndrome currently plaguing world Islam. Another preliminary point: Believers should realize that such bloodthirsty conflicts are a strong argument skeptics use to brand all religious faith as evil.

Neither Islam nor Catholicism is pacifist in principle. So for both religions the questions become under what circumstances the use of force is moral, and how it should be applied. Ranking authorities in both faiths have denounced terrorism, whether by the Irish Republican Army and related groups made up of Catholics, or by extremist minority Muslims in factions like the Islamic State or ISIS.

There’s similarity between the two situations in that religious identity has been fused with, and often submerged by, power politics and ethnic solidarity. There are also major differences, as follows:

Though sporadic killings still occur, fortunately the IRA’s death campaign ended through democratic negotiations with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. By contrast, terrorism by ISIS and similar Muslim factions in an ongoing, large, well-organized and seemingly ineradicable movement, especially where democracy is limited.

While the IRA campaign occurred in several northern Irish counties with occasional attacks elsewhere, Muslim-inspired terror is raging worldwide, and the scope of the bloodshed is far greater.

With Northern Ireland, the Sutton data base from the start of “the troubles” on July 14, 1969, [a date on which The Guy himself was traveling from Belfast to Dublin!] through December 31, 2001, lists killings of 2,057 IRA and related militants, 1,027 pro-British “loyalists,” and 368 security troops — a rate just above 100 per year.

By comparison, the Maplecroft company’s standard “Terrorism and Security Dashboard” recorded 18,668 terror-related deaths globally in the year ending July 1, 2014, and a total of 72,165 over the previous five years. Many but not all occurred in Muslim contexts and fellow Muslims were the majority of victims. The dashboard listed nations with the most “extreme risk” of murder in this order: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Lebanon, Libya.

The religiously crucial difference (contrary to the question) is that IRA operatives almost always spoke in terms of national rights and political gains, not the substance of the Catholicism that defined their ethnicity. By contrast, as Graeme Wood demonstrates in “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State” (Random House), Muslim radicals continually profess religious inspiration and claim precedents from Islam’s early history.

The indigenous Irish and British colonizers waged an ethnic-nationalist struggle long before the Protestant Reformation began to divide European Christendom 500 years ago this year. The resulting Catholic-vs.-Protestant fight in Europe concluded with the disastrous Thirty Years’ War, which ended 369 years ago. Modern agitation over Ireland echoes that earlier conflict.

In Ireland, most people remained religiously loyal to Rome. But in the counties that became Northern Ireland, Catholics were a minority amid Protestants and denominations became the central aspect of ethnic identity. When the “Irish Free State” became independent in 1922, the northern counties remained within Great Britain. The IRA, founded in 1919, opposed that arrangement, by violence when necessary. Its sustained campaign was answered by Protestant terrorism. Today’s non-violent IRA still pursues its hotly contested demand that Northern Ireland leave Britain and merge with the Republic of Ireland.

Caught in a difficult bind, the Catholic church in Ireland was generally ambivalent about nationalism and unification. But teaching on terror was sharply defined during the first papal visit to Ireland by John Paul II in September, 1979. An unusually emphatic papal sermon contended that “the tragic events” in Northern Ireland “do not have their source in the fact of belonging to different churches” so there was no “religious war” between Catholics and Protestants.

John Paul declared that Christians are united in a faith that forbids solutions “by the ways of hatred, of murdering of defenseless people, by the methods of terrorism. . . . Peace cannot be established by violence; peace can never flourish in a climate of terror, intimidation, and death. It is Jesus himself who said ‘all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ This is the word of God, and it commands this generation of violent men to desist from hatred and violence, and to repent.”

It is quite likely that the pope’s admonition helped foster the accord that eventually occurred.

Turning to Muslim dynamics, combat by individuals and factions has a long history, but the scale and implications of the current terrorism are unprecedented. Many terror groups operate, but the Islamic State is waging an especially fierce reign of terror, torture, persecution, and death. Islam has no central teaching office comparable with Catholicism’s pope, but Muslim authorities have repeatedly denounced these tactics.

One example is the Amman Message of 2005, issued by 200 scholars from 50 nations, which endorses human rights as defined by traditional authorities and denounces the insurgents’ freelance dictums in favor of terror (see A 2014 open letter to ISIS leaders was endorsed by 126 Sunni authorities from 37 nations (see

The latter declaration builds upon dozens of citations from the Quran, Hadith (authoritative accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), and Sharia (religious law). Among other things, the signers assert that Islam permits defensive warfare but killings of innocent and unarmed non-combatants are among the Quran’s “most abominable sins.” Attacks on non-Muslims, and combat that lacks legitimate purpose, method, and intention, are branded as “crimes.”

There is scant evidence that such efforts have mitigated violent extremism. Nor thus far have regimes in important sectors of the Muslim world been able to establish sufficient social stability, political legitimacy, and protection of the innocent against mayhem.

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