Terrorism, Already a Horror, Is Poisoned Further by Religion

Published on LinkedIn Pulse October 21, 2014  

By Brian E. Frydenborg- LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter(you can follow me there at @bfry1981) April 20, 2014 (published October 21)

“Go, now, attack Amalek, and put under the ban everything he has. Do not spare him; kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

1 Samuel 15:3

When discussing religion and terrorism, I find myself most drawn to the arguments of Christopher Hitchens. He does not make the claim that religion is the root of all evil, just that it “poisons everything.”[1] At least when it comes to terrorism, I think it apt to say that religion “poisons” an already noxious phenomenon and makes it far worse.

Entire papers can be written on what “terrorism” actually is, but for simplicity’s sake let us use what is the fairly standard definition: violent acts carried out by non-state actors with some larger motivation besides just simple murder. Of course, on its simplest level, terrorism is murder, pure and simple. And yet, a suicide bomber who blows himself up in a rival sect’s or religion’s house of worship cannot be said to have the same motivations as a man who kills his wife for cheating on him. Defining religion, especially for some of the academically inclined, can also prove to be problematic. And yet when most people talk about religion, they will not usually have to explain the term “religion,” it is just understood, just as most adherents of a particular faith will have an answer as to what it means to be an adherent of that particular faith even if they have little or no understanding of the complex theology behind this faith. So we will leave semantic debates to the religion scholars and start with a simple definition most people would agree upon, that “[r]eligions are belief systems that suppose the existence of supernatural entities capable of effecting changes in the natural world and typically serve as gatekeepers to life after death.”[2]

Even without terrorism in the mix, religion can encourage more extreme violence in unique—and uniquely powerful—ways. It has been found through repeated studies that “religious fundamentalists, who are most committed to unwavering obedience to the values of their faith, tend to be high in prejudice, ethnocentrism, and support for violent solutions to international conflicts.”

Even without terrorism in the mix, religion can encourage more extreme violence in unique—and uniquely powerful—ways. It has been found through repeated studies that “religious fundamentalists, who are most committed to unwavering obedience to the values of their faith, tend to be high in prejudice, ethnocentrism, and support for violent solutions to international conflicts.” Studies also show that “exposing American Christians to verses from the Bible that condone or glorify violence increased their aggressive behavior [even] in the laboratory,” and that “Christian fundamentalists were especially supportive of extreme military policies under all conditions but one.”[3] This is not to suggest that religion is incapable of inspiring good in people, just that it most certainly also capable of inspiring the very worst in humanity, regardless of the fact that many would argue that the interpretations of those inclined to violence are not the “correct” interpretations of whatever religion it is that they are discussing.

When thrown together, terrorism and religion seem to mutually reinforce a negative intensity in each other. As one relatively recent study of suicide terrorism notes, today “[m]ost suicide attacks today are perpetrated by terrorist groups that adhere to a radical Salafi [Muslim] jihadist ideology.” And, while religion is not the singular cause per se, this religious “[i]deology plays an important role, however, in helping reduce the suicide attacker’s reservations to perpetrate the acts of killing and dying. It helps the suicide bomber justify his or her actions and to disengage morally from his act and his victims.” Even in the case of a group like the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, which has engaged in particularly deadly suicide bombings against the mainly Buddhist government of Sri Lanka for decades and that does not proclaim religion as the primary influence on its organization and in its struggle, religion still plays a large role in both the organization and in the deadly violence between factions in Sri Lanka.[4] Thus, here we can see that religion makes terrorism worse.[5]

Even in the mid-1990s, Bruce Hoffman, noted terrorism expert, was able to discuss the higher lethality from religiously motivated terrorism as compared to non-religiously motivated terrorism. The events of the past two decades would only reinforce what was then already apparent to him. As Hoffman notes, “[f]or the religious terrorist, violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty, executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative. Religion, therefore, functions as a legitimising force, sanctioning, if not encouraging, wide-scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents,” and this contributes to the “higher levels of lethality” in “terrorism motivated by a religious imperative.”[6] Referring to the failed attempt by religiously motivated terrorists to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993, Hoffman notes that none of the big-name secular terrorists of the previous decade ever had as their goal to bring down an entire high-rise office building packed with civilians.

Another relatively recent study looks at a broad range of terrorist attacks that occurred between 1998 and 2005. It found that “[r]eligious and ethnonationalist organizations kill more than religious organizations (though the difference between the two is not conclusively different from zero), which kill more than leftist, ethnonationlist, and all others, regardless of size or connections,” that overall, “[r]eligious groups kill much more than nonreligious groups,” and that “[e]ight of the 10 most lethal groups (and 15 of the top 20)…are all classified as religious or religious and ethnonationalist in orientation.”[7]

If you just think a bit about terrorism in the modern era, you can draw your own clear conclusions without needing to rely on sophisticated academic studies to understand something meaningful about the relationship between religion and terrorism. During the Cold War, much of the major terrorism of the world consisted of small and relatively less lethal attacks by the Irish Republican Army, with a car bomb here and there; of attacks and hostage-taking by leftist groups in Europe; of the fairly secular PLO hijacking a plane here or there, or some occasional shootings. Contrast that with the suicide bombings of Hezbollah (translation: “Party of God”), Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Tamil Tigers, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. While these groups are each unique and different from each other, they nevertheless have some common denominators involving religion. In particular, the bombings of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates leave nothing sacred, as mosques, churches, funerals, weddings, girls’ schools, and religious processions have been the intended targets of their violence for a decade now, and after the 9/11 attacks, constitute some of the most lethal terrorist attacks in human history, attacks which have killed tens of thousands since 9/11 alone. As religion becomes more front and center in the sectarian conflicts of the post-Cold War era, the lethality of terror attacks has only increased, not decreased, the targets and carnage more horrific, not less. Religion did not inherently create the carnage in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places. But these studies make it clear that religion has definitely made these attacks worse. And studies or no studies, anyone can simply read the news headlines from past decades and compare them to stories from the last decade, and it will easily be understood that the current, more religiously motivated terrorism is deadlier in its body count and considers not even houses or worship or children as off limits in terms of their being designated, deliberate targets.

As religion becomes more front and center in the sectarian conflicts of the post-Cold War era, the lethality of terror attacks has only increased, not decreased, the targets and carnage more horrific, not less.

Thus, while religion may or may not poison everything, we should at least be able to agree with Mr. Hitchens that religion does, in fact, poison terrorism.

*****

[1] Hitchens, Christopher, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (New York: Twelve Hachette Book Group, 2009), passim.

[2] Vail, K. E., Z. K. Rothschild, D. R. Weise, S. Solomon, T. Pyszczynski, and J. Greenberg, “A Terror Management Analysis 0f The Psychological Functions Of Religion,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 1 (2010): 84-94, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89-90.

[4] Roberts, Michael, “Saivite Symbols, Sacrifice, and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis49, no. 1 (2005): 67-93, passim.

[5] Moghadam, Assaf, “Motives For Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, And The Spread Of Suicide Attacks,” International Security 33, no. 3 (2009): 46-78, 76.

[6] Hoffman, Bruce, “Holy Terror: An Act of Divine Duty” The World Today 52, no. 3 (March, 1996): 79-81, 79.

[7] Asal, Victor, and R. Karl Rethemeyer, “The Nature Of The Beast: Organizational Structures And The Lethality Of Terrorist Attacks,” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 02 (2008): 437-449, 446.

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