It is a commonsense view that much terrorism today is caused by religious extremism. Media coverage of terrorist events and most political rhetoric and commentary would seem to confirm this viewpoint. However, in my most recent article co-written with Jeroen Gunning from Durham University entitled ‘What’s so “religious” about “religious terrorism”?’ (free to download here), we challenge this commonsense viewpoint and argue that current assumptions about the role of religion in causing terrorism are highly dubious, even dangerous. We conclude that the term ‘religious terrorism’ is fundamentally unhelpful and should be avoided. We base our conclusion on a number of key arguments.
First, we point out that it is actually very difficult to draw clear distinctions between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular’ or ‘political’, both conceptually and empirically. Scholars of religion still cannot agree on the fundamental characteristics of religion and whether they are unique among social groups. For example, if religion is characterized by the use of ritual and a belief in transcendent values, then there are a great many ‘secular’ groups and ideologies which have these characteristics. Certainly, it is extremely difficult to distinguish ethnicity and nationalism (both of which are imbued with transcendent symbolism and ritual) from religion. If we cannot even define religion or separate it clearly from the secular or political, then the term ‘religious terrorism’ becomes pretty meaningless.
Second, and related to this, we argue that in practice it is difficult to see what would really distinguish a ‘religious’ terrorist group from a ‘secular’ terrorist group. Is it their goals, their stated beliefs, their targets, or some other characteristic? If so, in reality, many of the groups which are argued to be ‘secular’ have religious elements (such as ETA’s historical roots in Catholicism and its religious symbolism), while many ‘religious’ groups display secular characteristics (such as al Qaeda’s strategic goals of driving the West out of the Arabian Peninsular, and its attacks on diplomatic and military targets). Even if we look at terrorist targets, can we so easily determine the role of religion? If a group attacks a synagogue or a mosque, is it because they are symbolic of a religiously-defined enemy, or simply because this is where people regularly gather and it is an inviting target? The point is simply that it is not clear how we might determine that it is a ‘religious’ impulse rather than a strategic or secular impulse which determines a group’s behavior, organization or goals.
Third, we review the empirical evidence and show that there are no consistent reasons for thinking that ‘religious terrorists’ are any different in their behavior, goals, organization, and the nature of their followers from their ‘secular’ counterparts. For example, if anyone thinks Hamas or al Qaeda are more fanatical than ‘secular’ groups, a quick study on Peru’s Shining Path, or the German RAF will quickly dispel that notion. Moreover, there are often understandable political or strategic reasons for supposedly ‘religious’ behavior. The reason why there is a concentration in terrorism in the Middle East, for example, is probably due to its strategic location, its oil, great power interference, the role of Israel and a long history of war, intervention, and political instability, rather than because it is populated by a great many Islamic countries. Similarly, the reason why Hamas organizes through Mosques is probably because the Mosque is the centre of social and political life in an Islamic society and is therefore the optimal way to build a movement. In the end, we show that it is incorrect and misleading to assume that religion causes terrorism in any meaningful or identifiable sense. Terrorism is a strategy of political violence employed by actors seeking to achieve a political goal like self-determination, the expulsion of an invader, the overthrow of a particular regime, the over-turning of laws, or a broader revolution leading to a new political order. Examine any terrorist group closely and you will find the strategic logic behind its actions and a set of short, medium and long-term political objectives.
We conclude the article by showing how our understanding of ‘religion’ and ‘religious terrorism’ is a product of history and the nature of social science. More importantly, we show how it has a series of negative consequences, not least of which is that we tend to misunderstand and misdiagnose the sources of contemporary violence and consequently then apply the wrong solutions to it. Assuming that religion causes terrorism, for example, automatically stigmatizes religious people and places them under suspicion, while simultaneously blinding us to the violence of our own ‘secular’ politics which generates resistance. A great many contemporary counter-terrorism measures, based on the misplaced belief that terrorism is caused by excessive religiosity, have proved to be both ineffective and intensely damaging to human rights and community trust.
In the end, we do not suggest that religion is totally unimportant or completely unrelated to terrorism, but simply that our current understandings are inadequate and we need to try to find alternative ways to study the role of beliefs and institutional structures, religious or otherwise, in producing political violence today.
All the arguments presented here are discussed in much more detail in our free to download article, ‘What’s so “religious” about “religious terrorism”?’