Making Sense—and Nonsense—of ‘Religious Terrorism’


by Simon Frankel Pratt

One does not have to engage all that deeply with popular and academic conversations on terrorism before religion shows up. These days, and especially in the media, such conversations mainly consider one religion in particular, but this hasn’t always been so. A few decades ago, before Islamist militancy became such a preoccupation—of commentators and of militants—the sectarian dimensions of the conflict in Northern Ireland might have been held up as a case study in ‘religious terrorism’. Several more decades before that, Jewish nationalist violence in Mandatory Palestine may have served. But for all the attention that it has received, the relationship between religion and terrorism is often stated in the most confused of ways. It bears clarifying, and that it what I hope to do here.

One of the more problematic attempts to study that relationship is also quite oft-cited and well-known. Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God [1] investigates the supposed phenomenon of ‘religious terrorism’, defined as ‘public acts of violence …for which religion has provided the motivation, the justification, the organization, and the world view’ (7). Surveying a range of terrorist acts, groups, persons, and causes, in admirable empirical detail, Juergensmeyer comes to a strange conclusion: ‘In examining recent acts of religious terrorism…I have come to see these acts as forms of public performance rather than aspects of political strategy’ (xi). Yet this statement makes little sense for two reasons, one conceptual and the other empirical.

To propose this dichotomy between symbolic, performative action on the one hand and strategic action on the other is to misunderstand what terrorism is all about. To define it in the most general of senses, terrorism is the dramatic use of violence in order to influence the political behaviour of an audience. Terrorism is all about performances and symbolism; the individual people killed or maimed by terrorists are targeted in order to produce a reaction in onlookers, who are moved—to fear, to hate, or even to inspiration—by the display. If an act of violence is not a public performance, then it is not an act of terrorism.

Moreover, most cases of ‘religious terrorism’ Juergensmeyer examines show, as a matter of well-established record, a clear strategic character. The IRA is the subject of countless strategic analyses while Hamas’s pragmatic orientation has been the subject of both journalistic and academic commentary, to mention two such examples. [2] In fact, both such groups are also, for all their religious convictions (which, in the case of the IRA, were never that strong), mainly interested in national liberation. That religious divides track with—or are constructed into—salient political ones is an important feature of these cases, but doesn’t imply that primacy of the former over the latter. In other words, the groups or persons that we might treat as exemplars of ‘religious terrorism’ are no less strategic than their secular counter-parts, and their actions are no more symbolic.

Where does this leave us? One option is to simply dissolve the problem. This is the approach taken by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence. [3] Cavanaugh offers a critique of Juergensmeyer somewhat similar to my own, but goes so far as to suggest that the problem with the category ‘religious terrorism’ in fact lies in the very notion of religion itself. Cavanaugh, building off of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, denies that religion even exists outside of the peculiar Western context in which distinct religious and secular institutional spheres emerged. Cavanaugh (and Smith) offer a strong case in defence of this view, but what if we still want to keep ‘religion’ as a category that transcends ‘the West’ and its historical configurations?

It is a simple fact that our discourses around terrorism make reference to religious dimensions. Rather than rubbish them wholesale, I prefer to draw upon sociological theories of religion and culture to try to come up with a useful approach. There are two questions I want to address here: does ‘religious terrorism’ really exist, and if not, what really is the relationship between these two things? I think answering them will provide some clarity.

In answer to the first, ‘religious terrorism’ probably does not exist, at least not as something distinct from ‘secular terrorism’. As I mentioned, explicitly religious organisations such as Hamas make use of terrorism in the pursuit of secular or at least ‘worldly’ ends. Even al-Qa’ida uses terrorism for these prosaic reasons, seeking the withdrawal of Western powers from Muslim communities and the overthrow of inadequately pious native leaders. Nor is it clear to me that Marxist-Leninist terrorists such as the Red Army Faction were any less ‘religious’ than al-Qa’ida is: both are doctrinaire organisations seeking widespread, permanent social transformation through the use of symbolic violence. Both are guided by constellations of ‘uniquely motivating’ values and metaphysical assumptions, complete with eschatologies. The fact that some terrorists defer to divine authority and prophesy, as opposed to, say, what they take to be the scientifically demonstrable laws of history, does not mean that the former engage in different form of terrorism than the latter.

But, as I have said, I still think it worthwhile to pay attention to ‘religion’ in some cases. Again, as a fact of discourse, we refer to as ‘religious’ some terrorism-using organisations on the basis of their explicit and clearly important engagement with certain theological traditions. Arguments presented in terms of scripture may play a role in ‘de-radicalisation’, while disagreements within groups may hinge over interpretations of texts or the authority of certain persons to offer such interpretation. Temples and their associated schools, as concrete institutional spaces, may be sites for recruitment, radicalisation, or contention of views that orient terrorist violence or legitimise its use. Theological discourses privilege certain kinds of claims over others; to invoke Gadamer, they have a horizon of interpretive possibility, and this will shape the outcome of contention and socialisation processes occurring in and through certain institutional fields. In other words, the sorts of things we tend to call ‘religious’, ordinarily, are much more important for understanding some terrorist groups than others. Religious terrorism may not exist as such, but the category of ‘religion’ remains a helpful one for studying terrorism in context.

This leaves us with a clearer way to look at the relationship between religion and terrorism. On the one hand, we cannot distinguish some particular variety of terrorism as distinctly ‘religious’. On the other hand, we can recognise that religious dimensions, as sets of texts, discourses, and social spaces, are implicated in some cases of terrorism more than in others. Terrorism, as a political strategy, requires recruits, resources, a guiding ideology, a message, and a place where all these things can come together. Once upon a time, we might have looked at the fringes of leftist student movements to see how this might occur; now we look at the Taliban or ISIS.

[1] Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The global rise of religious violence. University of California Press.

[2] See, by way of respective examples, Neumann, Peter. 2005. “The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Case of the IRA.” Journal of Strategic Studies 28(6): 941–975; Mishal, Shaul and Avraham Sela. 2006. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] Cavanaugh, William T. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular ideology and the roots of modern conflict. Oxford University Press.

Simon Frankel Pratt is a PhD candidate in political science (international relations) at the University of Toronto, and his research focuses on norms, practices of state violence, and the War on Terror. His interest in the sociology of religion stems from a broader interest in social theory, methodology, and the study of armed conflict.

This entry was posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *