Bad Religion

Is religious terrorism a unique threat?

The rise of the Islamic State has raised concerns about religiously-motivated terrorism. It has even caused many to claim that terrorists who are driven by religious ideologies are more dangerous and more difficult to rehabilitate than secular terrorists. This is because religious terrorism is seen as being motivated by transcendent, utopian, even eschatological views, rather than limited social and political objectives. For this reason it has been argued that contemporary Islamic terrorists are not ‘mere’ radicals, but the vanguard of a millenarian movement with ambitions for global dominance. However, human motivation is a mystery. Only the most self-aware of us truly understand why we make the choices we make. This raises questions about the efficacy of categorising political violence in accordance with the motivations of the perpetrators.

What’s the big idea?

Religious terrorism does look like a unique category of political violence. However, it is easy to overstate the difference between religion and ideology. History has demonstrated that political ideals can provoke the same intensity of fervour as religious doctrines. Many of the young communists of the interwar period held their views with a passion that could only be compared to religious zeal. The literature of the time reveals that for many young people, who had lived through the First World War and the Great Depression, communism took the place of the religion of their parents and allowed them to forge a seperate identity. The poetry of John Cornford and the writings of John Sommerfield, two young communists who became foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War, shows just how politics can become a pseudo-religion. In the same way, religion can be said to serve an instrumental purpose to young Muslims seeking to rebel against secularism. Therefore, the operative question is not what views these people hold, but what purpose the views serve in their lives.

The religion-violence nexus

One fundamental difficulty with the idea that religious terrorism is a discrete category of political violence is that it assumes that ideas provide the necessary impetus for physical violence. However, there is little understanding of the actual mechanics through which ideas lead to violence. There is, on the other hand, interesting empirical work which indicates that it may not be ideas that lead to violence, but violence which leads to ideas. Manni Crone has argued that ideology is more commonly used as ex post rationalisation of violent acts. Her contention is that people who choose to engage in violence produce the necessary worldview to justify their actions. Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen drew similar conclusions in her study of jihadi counterculture. Her study also revealed that the notoriety of jihadism attracts recruits who are seeking action and adventure. These studies could provide an explanation for the fact that many jihadists have only a limited understanding of Islamic doctrines.

Manni Crone conducted an analysis of the individuals who perpetrated terror attacks in Europe between January 2012 and January 2015 and found that 80% of them had criminal backgrounds and approximately 60% had been in prison. Crone argues that the question should not be why some people turn to violence, but why they choose to engage in violent acts in the name of an ideology. The answer, she posits, could be the combination of a fascination with war, weapons and violence and a sense of a just cause. Rather than being brainwashed by radicalisers, people with a desire to participate in violent acts may seek out role models who have prior experience with terrorism.

This work has important implications for de-radicalisation policy. For one thing – if we can’t show how ideas cause violence, targeting ‘dangerous’ ideas through censorship and counter-narratives may not be an effective counterterrorism tactic.