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Does religion cause terrorism?

This page in brief

Terrorism, including suicide bombing, mass shootings and other indiscriminate killing, is a sad feature of modern life. The perpetrators often seem to be religious ‘fanatics’. But the evidence about the causes may surprise you.

The experts say that religion, along with many other factors, can provide some support for terrorism, but that religion is rarely the most significant cause. Terrorism may serve religious, ideological, nationalist, ethnic or personal goals, and terrorists may be personally motivated by a sense of humiliation, perceived injustice, or socioeconomic deprivation

It’s a common charge these days.

People say religion causes terrorism:

  • Nobel Prize winning Physicist and atheist Stephen Weinberg said: “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
  • This atheist certainly seems to thinks so: “we see religion regularly used for war, mass murder, terrorism, and even genocide”

Are there any facts on the subject?

As you might expect, a lot of attention has been given to better understanding terrorism in recent years. I have searched out a number of references, mostly by experts from a range of disciplines (see references at the end).

Here is a summary of what the experts say.

1. Terrorism is multi-faceted, complex, and changing.

Terrorism is different to war and violent crime

Terrorism must be distinguished from warfare on the one hand and from violent crime on the other. Terrorism can be seen as a form of insurgency, which is a violent uprising or rebellion against a government or other authority.

It can take the form of deadly violence against people of the same nation, ethicity and religion (like the Oklahoma bombing by Tomothy McVeigh) or it can cross national, ethnic and religious boundaries (like the World Trade centre or the recent Paris and Brussels attacks).

Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.

The changing face of terrorism

The twentieth century was a time of great unrest, with two World Wars, many other conflicts, about 150 civil wars (the majority in the second half of the century), and the growth of guerilla warfare and terrorism.

Terrorism was used as a tactic by Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to create a climate of fear and to encourage adherence to the national ideology (Terrorism files), but was also used by dissident groups to achieve ideological and political ends. Murder, threats, kidnapping and bombing were all used.

From about 1980 onwards, and increasing after 2000, terrorism began to change. Religious motivations became more important and suicide attacks became more frequent.

2. Terrorism has multiple causes and motivations

Terrorism may serve religious, ideological, nationalist, ethnic or personal goals, or several at once.

Terrorists may be personally motivated by a sense of humiliation, perceived injustice, or socioeconomic deprivation, and may be reinforced by seeking a sense of identity or belonging in a close group. Religion may play a part in these motivations.

Researchers have found different causes and motivations in different situations, so it is simplistic to identify any one cause.

3. Religion has not been the major cause of terrorism

What the experts say

Terrorism in much of the twentieth century was aimed at achieving political or nationalistic goals, and was rarely caused by religious differences.

Amy Zalman PhD (Middle Eastern Studies), president of the World Future Society:

People choose terrorism when they are trying to right what they perceive to be a social or political or historical wrong—when they have been stripped of their land or rights, or denied these.

Also from Amy Zalman:

Credible researchers agree that “religion” neither causes nor explains suicide terrorism. ….. religious rhetoric may help persuade attackers that their cause is either necessary or noble, and that glorifies or renames suicide as martyrdom, but it does not explain why suicide attackers choose that particular tactic.

The textbook Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward lists a whole swag of the major identified causes of terrorism, and they are almost exclusively political in nature. It says:

Suicide terrorism is not caused by religion. ….. Suicide terrorists are motivated mainly by political goals ….. Their ‘martyrdom’ is, however, frequently legitimized and glorified by reference to religious ideas and values. ….. Extremist ideologies of a secular or religious nature are at least an intermediate cause of terrorism, although people usually adopt such extremist ideologies as a consequence of more fundamental political or personal reasons.

An example of the complexities is the Sri Lankan civil war, which was one of the most significant sources of terrorism, including suicide attacks, in the twentieth century. Here ethnic and religious differences led to efforts to establish a Tamil state, but the Tamil Tigers were neo-Marxist and most experts consider the fighting to be secular not religious.

Religion is generally non-violent

Several researchers note that most religions, in themselves, are non-violent, and terrorists are atypical.

Britsh security organisation MI5 concluded (according to The Guardian):

Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. …. a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.

Eli Berman and David Laitin summarise research findings:

Psychological research indicates that suicide attackers are [not] motivated primarily by theology. …. Psychiatrist Ariel Merari interviewed failed suicide terrorists and the families of suicide terrorists. He found …. that none mentioned religiosity or promises of rewards in the afterlife as their main motivating force…. most radical religious Muslims, Christians and Jews are nonviolent and apolitical.

But things may be changing

An article in The Guardian cites the 2014 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report, with graphs showing a slow rise in religious terrorism since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and a much steeper rise since 2011. This conclusion is obviously different to the studies referenced above.

However the GTI’s conclusion isn’t as clear as The Guardian says. It does show an increase in terrorism since 2011, and this increase is largely due to terrorism by Wahhabi Islamic groups (Taliban, ISIL, al-Qu’aida and Boko Haram) in 5 countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).

However the report notes that terrorism is associated with several important factors other than religion:

  • social hostilities between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups,
  • the presence of state sponsored violence such as extrajudicial killings, political terror and gross human rights abuses, and
  • higher levels of other forms of violence including organised conflict, violent demonstrations and violent crime.

Thus the causes of terrorism are confirmed as being complex. Religion plays a significant part in the five identified countries, but not so much elsewhere. The report concludes:

Religious ideology as the motivation for terrorism is only partly a global phenomenon. While it is predominant in Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA [Middle East & North Africa] and South Asia, in the rest of the world terrorism is more likely to be driven by political or nationalistic and separatist movements.

Scott Atran

The complexities of the causes of terrorism are well illustrated by the writings of Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has interviewed many terrorists and the communities they come from. He has made the following points:

  • The majority of Muslims oppose the use of violence. Violence is not central to Islam though it appears central to some new non-traditional forms of Islam. Indeed, it is when those who do practice religious ritual are expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs, that the move to violence is most likely.
  • Many jihadists are recruited out of poor, chaotic or disaffected circumstances, and escape from there seems to be a significant motive. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory.
  • A significant percentage of jihadists are converts and became terrorist recruits first and Muslims second. Many terrorists, not just the converts, didn’t grow up with a religious culture, and most of what they know about Islam comes from the propaganda of terrorist groups.
  • Thus religion is a secondary motivation for most terrorists. Atran says: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem.
  • The influence of a close-knit group of friends is more likely to lead youth into violence than religious belief. He says: although ideology is important, the best predictor (in the sense of a regression analysis) of willingness to commit an act of jihadi violence is if one belongs to an action-oriented social network.

Robert Pape

Robert Pape, political scientist at the University of Chicago and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, has apparently studied every one of 4,600 suicide attacks in the world since 1980. He says that religious fervor is not so much a motive but a tool for recruitment and a way of getting people to overcome their fear of death and unwillingness to killing innocent people.

What 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common, since 1980, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention, often specifically a military occupation, of territory that the terrorists view as their homeland or prize greatly.

4. There is no typical terrorist profile

Enemies, especially the media, often characterise terrorists as psychopaths, social misfits, uneducated and cruel, but studies show that this isn’t always true.

Personal qualities

Terrorists are no more likely than average to have a mental illness, and many terrorists and suicide bombers are gregarious, family-oriented, altruistic and mix well in their group. A psychopath lacks conscience and empathy, and is less likely to die for a cause.

Nevertheless, some researchers argue that terrorists generally, and suicide bombers in particular, have a psychological propensity to violence from their upbringing, and have unreal perceptions of reality.

Berman and Laitin argue that most terrorists belong to groups that provide strong social services to their community, particularly valuable if government services and law and order have broken down, another reason to suppose they are not psychopaths.

Some studies (e.g. Berman and Laintin) show that suicide bombers have better socioeconomic status and education than average in their community, but others (e.g. Oleson and Richardson) say exactly the opposite. Scott Atran says most jihadists are psychologically normal – around the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, jihadis were materially and educationally better off, but he has found recent ISIS recruits were poorly educated and materially poor.

Motivation

At we have seen, terrorists can have many different motivations, including a perception of injustice or humiliation, and an altruism to live and maybe die for their community.

But very few terrorists act alone; most form part of a close group which has an important role in developing motivation – giving terrorists an identity and sense of belonging, and reinforcing a ‘them and us’ mentality that can isolate its members from outsiders.

Oleson and Richardson say the determining factor is the social influence exerted by the terrorist group. If the group emphasises a feeling of impending catasprophe, the need for extreme action and the ideal of a utopian future, this may help promote terrorism as a means of achieving their goals.

5. Religion can support terrorism

If other factors are generally more important than religion in causing terrorism, religious groups can provide an environment that supports and motivates terrorism.

From an international conference on terrorism:

Religion is seldom the only cause of terrorism. The scholars agreed that while religion has been a major factor in recent acts of terrorism, it is seldom the only one. ….. usually ‘political and economic grievances are primary causes or catalysts, and religion becomes a means to legitimate and mobilize’. …. Religion can contribute to a ‘culture of violence’. …… ‘religion is seldom the problem, but the role of religion can be problematic’

Researchers outline ways in which this occurs.

  1. An ideology may promote terrorism if it is:
    • polarised (“us vs them”),
    • absolutist (discourages questioning and critical thinking),
    • threat-oriented (sees the external world as a threat and feels persecuted), and
    • hateful.

    Generally religious belief doesn’t have these characteristics, but some forms of religion (and some non-religious ideaologies) may.

  2. Radical religious groups are more successful than most groups in retaining members, and so can maintain a more aggressive and potentially deadly program.
  3. If a religious group has cult-like organisation with a charismatic leader, this can assist in promoting violence if that is the emphasis of the leader.

Scott Atran says that radical Arab Sunni revivalism offers disaffected youth a vision of a better world, and a cause to live, and even die for. They come to believe a Caliphate is the way to help create a homeland where Muslims can pool their resources, be strong again, and live in dignity. Thus, the initial motivation is self respect and a better life, but the means to achieve this is radical Islam.

Berman and Haitin say:

So while mainstream religious beliefs preclude suicide, aspects of religion could be useful in recruiting a suicide attacker who was so inclined.

6. The rise of ISIS has multiple causes

The rise of ISIS and its terrorist acts, such as the recent Paris and Brussels killings, illustrate how difficult it is to pin down the religious and other causes of terrorism.

Religion clearly plays a part in the ISIS rhetoric and its apparent aims. Some observers say that ISIS is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Popular belief, reinforced by some of the media, sees it as Muslim to the core.

But with Muslims from both the Sunni and Shi’a factions condemning ISIS as “un-Islamic”, something more is going on.

Analysts believe the rise of ISIS is a direct result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies, which many saw as an unjustified external intrusion that threatened Muslim societies. The invasion took hundreds of thousands of lives (many of them civilians), destroyed the delicate sectarian balance of the region and understandably created animosity towards the west among many Muslims. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum, and the actions of the partisan Government set up after the invasion antagonised Sunni Iraqis. (See this summary for more details.)

This leads other observers to point out reasons to think the movement is more political than religious. Certainly assessments have shown that only a small percentage of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past seven years have been religiously motivated – the main causes were apparently nationalistic, being committed generally by separatist organisations.

It seems be true that the balance is shifting a little towards religiously motivated terrorism, at least from a western perspective. But it seems clear that treating the terrorist threat from ISIS as mainly religiously motivated, is likely to lead to less than optimal responses.

7. The politicians don’t seem to be listening to the research

It is a difficult issue to know how to respond to terrorism, and easy to over-react or to procrastinate. And politicians are always under pressure to respond to media demands and public expectations, even when they lead in counter-productive directions.

But it seems that western politicians tend to over-react, to want to be seen to be tough even when toughness will probably lead to worse outcomes.

As we have seen, the present terrorism threat was significantly caused by the western allies invading Iraq in 2003. A tough response to terrorism is the obvious choice, but in the light of the expert assessments summarised here, is probably the wrong choice, although it may be needed in some cases.

If the experts teach us anything, it surely is that we need to be more nuanced in our response to terrorism than acting like a Rocky or Schwarzenegger movie. The experts generally suggest more subtle responses that cut off the influence of terrorist groups and reduce their recruiting, rather than military responses that increase recruitment. Scott Atran argues that a military response is counter-productive, and more useful would be to offer disaffected youth alternative hope and pathways to realise their ideals.

Conclusion

It seems clear then that, until recently, religion has not been the major source of terrorism. Politics, inequality, injustice, and ethnic/national grievances have been the main causes. Religious extremists have been the source of some terrorism, and religious belief has sometimes provided support for terrorism primarily motivated by political causes.

However in the last 5 years, extremist Islamic groups with religious, political and territorial motivations, have so much increased terrorism in a few countries that they may have become the predominant source of terrorist attacks and deaths in those countries, and a noticeable source of global terrorism.

Yet even here, the causes seem to be a mixture of religious, political and a sense of injustice. The intrusion by western powers into the region was a major catalyst for this wave or terrorism.

It is too much of a generalisation, and generally inaccurate, to blame “religion” for terrorism.

I found this photo several years ago and I cannot now find a link to credit the photographer.

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References

Read more about the effects of religion on this website: