Is Religion an Accelerant of Terrorism?

On balance, religion does act as an accelerant to conflict that often leads to terrorism. This is because through selective interpretation, some people are pushed beyond peaceful means and toward dreadful acts of violence. Although religion is not the root cause for terrorism, and is regularly a force for good, a study of key ‘terrorist’ groups and their affiliated religions shows that it is one of many factors that can drive a person or group to committing such acts.

This essay will examine the characteristics of terrorism carried out in the name of religions such as Islam, Christianity, and other new religions and in each case discuss common factors in each that give reason to suggest that whilst religion can act as an accelerant to violence, the other factors involved alongside religion are the driving causes. These include political factors, social factors and others such as charismatic leadership or bad living standards. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious extremism has become the main driver for terrorism in recent years, with 18,000 casualties in 2013.[1] Two-thirds of these were attributed to four Islamic groups, in Daesh, Boko Haram, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.[2] Therefore, in this essay a focus on Islam will be presented because statistics imply that groups with an Islamic affiliation produce the most casualties. For example, Palestinian organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, whom claim Sunni and Shiite faith respectively, are groups that profess strong religious bonds, yet the circumstances and environment in which they operate lends greater reasoning as to why they resort to violence and terrorist tendencies.

The religion of Islam can be used to drive a peaceful actor towards violence. In many cases of Islamist terrorism, religion is one of multiple factors in the “explosive brew” of politics, culture and psychology.[3] Nonetheless, it is a factor that does contribute to violence that can lead to terrorism. Firstly, religion is an accelerant because of its “socialisation” effect. This means that when societies of one religious following are grouped together and share the same core norms, value and beliefs, they foster resentment quicker and are susceptible to charismatic leaders that “preach a perverted kind of religion.”[4] In what Georgetown University theologian Ariel Glucklich calls ‘the Prozac effect’, he believes that religious violence “comes from a kind of desire or love for one’s own group” and that “religious violence [is] buried somewhere in the positive aspects of religion”.[5] Thus, he contends the reason for Islamic terrorism is a social one and “not doctrinal”.[6] Hence, religion is an accelerant to violence by creating such subcultures where religious, social, and political sentiment is fostered and members increase their solidarity. For example, the situation of the Palestinian people displays such a socialisation effect, with over 1 million Muslims living in the isolated Gaza Strip.[7] This has given rise to religious dissident groups such as Hamas in the Gaza strip, or Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon whom both call for the destruction of Israel.[8] Here, a religious motive held by the people was articulated by the ‘spiritual leader’ of Hezbollah Sheik Fadlallah who said Islam must “defend itself in order to preserve its existence and its liberty” by “undertaking preventative operations when it is in danger.”[9] According to author of ‘Terrorism in the Name of Religion’ (1996) Magnus Ranstorp, this is further complicated as political problems are often directly involved with religious matters because “religion and politics cannot be separated in Islam”.[10] Further to this, according to David Rapoport, fundamentalist Islam seen in these situations provides a voice for community dissatisfaction.[11]

Secondly, Islam can act as an accelerant to violence because its sacred texts such as the Quran and Hadith contains both violent aspects and imagery. It can act as an accelerant to violence because some leaders of terrorist organisations are able to exploit and manipulate them by taking selective phrases from the text or interpreting the meaning in a way to seem to encourage and legitimise violence. For example, despite peaceful aspects of Jihad, some focus purely on ‘conversion by the sword’ notions found within it. Thereby they selectively use the Quran to justify their predispositions.[12] Furthermore, portrayal of the ‘infidel’ and ‘apostate’ motivates violence against these people on behalf of the religion from some of those within it. As such, religious terrorist groups such as Daesh are “keen to indoctrinate the population” as from selecting certain passages from the Quran they are able to create additional supporters and justify their actions.[13] Mark Juergensmeyer acknowledges as the “line between symbol and actual violence is thin” when it comes to actions against those such as Jews and infidels.[14] For example, Fazlur Rahman, the emir of Jihad Movement in Bangladesh said that the Prophet Muhammad claimed to “have been sent with the sword between [his] hand to ensure that no one but God is worshipped”.[15] As such, it is clear that there are strong violent undercurrents that run through the religion. These ideas have been infiltrated into the core messages of terrorist groups such as in the Hamas covenant that recites: “oh Muslim, here is a Jew hiding! Come and kill him.”[16] Additionally, there is evidence of symbolism that lionises Martydom, which acts as encouragement to followers to perform acts of Terror in the name of a warped version of Islam.[17] Accordingly, through manipulation and selective literalism, parts of Islam can give justification to terrorist acts in the eyes of the beholder.

Lastly, radical Muslim leaders[18] have expanded notions within Islam and reinterpreted traditional ideas to justify the use of violence. They argue the Quran and Hadith are mainly about war, and glorify the rewards given to those who fight on behalf of Islam, such as a place in Paradise. [19] These messages contribute to violence by these groups. For example since the 2001 September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, 81% of terrorist groups utilising suicide terrorism have been Islamic.[20] The religious motivation is articulated by former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who said “we love this kind of death for Allah’s cause.”[21] Further to this, those motivated by religion may see only God as their audience, and thus they are less interested in public reactions to deadly violence.[22] When viewing violence as done on behalf of the divine, author Bruce Hoffman argues that terrorism assumes a “transcendent dimension, in which perpetrators often disregard moral or practical constraints that may affect others”.[23] Thus, when interpreted in a certain way, religion is shown to accelerate certain groups and individuals to violence that may result in terrorism.

Islam however, does not drive people directly to violence, and cannot be regarded in all cases as being an accelerant. Rather it is a combination of political, economic, social and other practical factors from where they live that drives religious terrorism.[24] “Religion is not the problem” agrees terrorism expert Mark Juergensmeyer, however, as stated above, it brings a “whole host” of justifications that act as an accelerant towards violence.[25] Instead, Juergensmeyer argues that terrorism is primarily caused by the amalgamation of certain circumstances.[26] In the cases of Hamas and Hezbollah it is observed violence becomes an instrument for communication when disenfranchised groups in these situations are unable to communicate in any other way.[27] Scholar Thomas Badey agrees, believing that terrorism does not “occur in a vacuum” but is rather a direct response to the “lack of ventilation mechanisms such as communication channels to perceived oppressors.”[28] In this situation, examples are evident in attacks such as that by Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel and its allies. For example, in 1994 Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish cultural centre, killing 85 people.[29] Likewise from February to March 1996, Hamas conducted a string of attacks killing 60 people, which resulted in changing the course of the Israeli election.[30]  This occurs as political violence becomes the sole alternative course of action for political change.[31] This ‘last choice’ option was illustrated by Hezbollah’s Sheik Fadlallah who said “violence…should be used only after trying all other means”.[32] Additionally, the co-founder of Hamas, Abdel Rantisi recalls that initially, Hamas took ‘every measure’ to stop massacres and suicide bombings.[33] It was not religion that pushed the group violence but rather key external events. For example, this included an Israeli attack on peaceful Palestinian protesters in 1990 as well as Dr Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslims in 1994.[34] Rantisi justifies their use of violence as he believed “if we did not respond this way…[the] Israeli’s would keep doing the same thing.[35] Further to this, violence is often a direct by-product of military conflict.[36] For example, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 served as a catalyst that propelled Hezbollah to existence. It is clear that the ethno-nationalist and political motivations have been dominant instead of religion, since the inception of this organisation.[37] In similar fashion Rantisi once claimed “we are not against Jews because they are Jews…[but] simply because of Israel’s stance toward Palestine.”[38] This demonstrates the lack of influence religion had in spurring on violence and terrorism and exemplifies the more rational political reasons. Thus, in many ways religious reasons are shown not to be an accelerant to violence, however from other perspectives the opposite is true.

Lastly, the real messages put forth in Islamic texts compared with religious justifications used by terrorists is only perceived by a small minority of total believers.[39][40] It is not an accurate representation therefore, to say violence and terrorism is caused by Islam as a religion in its true sense. But rather they use a warped version of the religion, and are regularly forced to improvise their justifications by selecting specific sections among scriptures and doctrines.[41] For example, their interpretations of Jihad are religiously false. They violate basic Islamic rules of engagement, and their Jihad is not sanctioned, as required.[42] Those within the majority in Islam, and even many fundamentalists, do not approve of such violence and do not participate.[43] Additionally, it is often seen that those with a truer and deeper understanding of Islam are not violent. For example, terrorism expert David Schanzer studied 188 cases of Muslim Americans connected to terrorism activities, and found that non were raised with “traditional, intensive religious training.”[44] It was instead through the radicalisation process through which extreme fundamentalist views were adopted.[45]Thus, overall religion can act as an accelerant but only when taken in a certain way. Otherwise, it is shown that it does not accelerate violence.

Christianity is also a religion that in some respects acts as an accelerant towards violence. Christian groups have used their beliefs to justify racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.[46] In this way, according to Mark Juergensmeyer, they are able to “transform abstract political ideologies and objectives into a religious imperative”.[47] This means that they search for religious justifications that fit their predetermined political positions. White Christian supremacy movements and Christian identity are groups that are at least partially motivated by their religious values and justify their violent actions through appeals to scripture.[48] For example, attacks include the 1995 bombing of the OKC federal building by Timothy McVeigh, or the series of abortion clinic attacks throughout the 1990’s perpetrated by those such as Reverend Michael Bray.[49] Michael Bray was as much motivated by political reasons as by religious reasons. He saw a US government that was a repressive secular force that had a disregard for human life, as well as a society that was totally corrupt.[50] This was a strong reason for his anti-abortion crusades. He also looked past mainstream Christian thought towards Dominion theology (the reassertion of the dominion of god over all things).[51] This shows he went looking for a suitable narrative that fit his pre-existing beliefs. Christian writings can also be seen to contain underlying violent themes. In the Bible, for example Matthew 10:34 says “I have come not to bring peace but a sword”. Such sayings can accelerate violence if interpreted in the wrong way. Thus whilst mainly influence by political ideas, religion played a role in justifying and therefore accelerating violent terrorist acts.

In new religious movements, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult, founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara it is again seen that religion does play a role in accelerating violence. On March 20 1995 the cult conducted a sarin gas attack in Japan’s central subway system that killed 12 and wounded about 5,500 people.[52] On the religious side, spiritual imperatives played an important role in justifications for Aum’s violence.[53] From his religious thought, he believed it was necessary to destroy the government and then create a theocratic state in which he would save Japan.[54] Also, a key aspect of the religion was Asahara’s prophesy that an apocalyptic war was imminent and that this included a nerve gas attack.[55] Here it is proven religion had a connection to the violence as Asahara wanted to fulfil his own predictions.  Furthermore, it is clear that Shoko Asahara only chose aspects of other religions to combine into Aum that fit his political objectives. For example, although being heavily influence by Buddhism, the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) seems to be ignored.[56] Ultimately however, it was not religion, but personal humiliation and frustrations in pursuing more legitimate methods of change that drove Aum towards terrorism.[57] Firstly, Asahara experienced a history of rejection, from failing college entrance exams, to losing in a run for a seat in parliament.[58] Thus it is seen that political experiences developed religious ideology, and not the other way around. Secondly, Asahara chose violence for purely pragmatic reasons that were not motivated by religion. In order to deflect government and police attention, they conducted such attacks.[59] As such, a former member of Aum said that the reason for the attacks was that they “felt trapped by police …[and] wanted to go out with a bang.”[60] Thus, the Kasumigaseki subway station was chosen in a bid to undermine the government. Therefore, whilst religion did accelerate the move toward violence in a subtle and background manner, it is hard to see how it was religion that ultimately caused violence in this situation.

Religion can act as an accelerant to violence that can often lead to terrorism. In the 21st Century, Islam is the primary focus due to the prevalence of Muslim terrorist attacks. Within this religion, it is seen that aspects of the religion such as the socialisation effect, and text related manipulations by leaders act as a minor accelerant towards violence and terrorism. However, it is also clear that religion does not always act as an accelerant as peaceful aspects of the religion discourage violence, and primarily it is political and social problems as the key motivation, rather than religion. Much the same can be said about Christianity in which violence against political issues is justified by picking and choosing selections of holy text. With new religious movements such as Aum Shinrikyo, religion is again an underlying factor that members of the cult have used to justify their move towards violence and terrorism. In all these case studies, religion is proven to varying extents to be one of several complex factors that accelerate violence.  Thus it is vital to consider such motivations when assessing these actors. 

References

Arnett, George. “Religious extremism main cause of terrorism, according to report,” The Guardian, November 19, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/nov/18/religious-extremism-main-cause-of-terrorism-according-to-report.

Badey, Thomas. “The Role of Religion in International Terrorism,” Sociolingual Focus 35, no. 1 (2002): 81-86.

Gibson, David. “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” The Huffington Post, August 31, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/31/religion-terrorism_n_944143.html.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia Press University, 2006.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. Berkely: University of California Press, 2003.

Kalyvas, Stathis. “Is ISIS a Revolutionary Group and if Yes, What are the Implications?” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015): 42-47.

Lutz, James and Lutz, Brenda. Global Terrorism. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Masters, Jonathan and Laub, Zachary. “CFR Backgrounders – Hezbollah,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 3, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/lebanon/hezbollah-k-hizbollah-hizbullah/p9155#6.

Ranstorp, Magnus. “Terrorism in the name of religion,” Journal of International Affairs 50, no. 4 (1996): 41-62.


[1] George Arnett, “Religious extremism main cause of terrorism, according to report,” The Guardian, November 19, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/nov/18/religious-extremism-main-cause-of-terrorism-according-to-report.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” The Huffington Post, August 31, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/31/religion-terrorism_n_944143.html.

[4] David Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” The Huffington Post, August 31, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/31/religion-terrorism_n_944143.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God: The global rise of religious violence (Berkely: University of California Press, 2003), 42.

[8] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia Press University, 2006), 91-92.

[9] James Lutz and Brenda Lutz, Global Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2013), 73.

[10] Magnus Ranstorp, “Terrorism in the name of religion,” Journal of International Affairs 50, no. 4 (1996): 41.

[11] Thomas Badey, “The Role of Religion in International Terrorism,” Sociolingual Focus 35, no. 1 (2002): 81.

[12] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 76.

[13] Stathis Kalyvas, “Is ISIS a Revolutionary Group and if Yes, What are the Implications?” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015): 42.

[14] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 98.

[15] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 95.

[16] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 92.

[17] Ranstorp, Terrorism in the name of religion, 41.

[18] Such as Abul Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Faraj.

[19] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 46.

[20] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 131.

[21] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 135.

[22] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 81.

[23] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 88.

[24] Thomas Badey, “The Role of Religion in International Terrorism,” 83.

[25] David Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” 2011

[26] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 46.

[27] Thomas Badey, “The Role of Religion in International Terrorism,” 81.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Jonathan Masters and Zachary Laub, “CFR Backgrounders – Hezbollah,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 3, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/lebanon/hezbollah-k-hizbollah-hizbullah/p9155#6.

[30] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 87.

[31] Thomas Badey, “The Role of Religion in International Terrorism,” 84.

[32] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 91.

[33] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 41.

[34] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 42.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 82.

[38] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 41.

[39] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 46.

[40] Contrary to what they may portray, the main spiritual goal of Islam is peace and non-violence, with the Quran saying “slay not the life that God has made sacred”.

[41] David Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” 2011

[42] Lecture, August 22, 2016.

[43] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 76.

[44] David Gibson, “Does Religion Cause Terrorism? It’s Complicated,” 2011

[45] Ibid.

[46] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 74.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 10.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 4.

[51] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 8.

[52] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 64

[53] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 126.

[54] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 90.

[55] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 63.

[56] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 70.

[57] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 126.

[58] Lutz, Global Terrorism, 90.

[59] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 69.

[60] Juergensmeyer, Terror in the mind of God, 70.