Religion has never been the direct source of terrorism, yet present-day reality has transformed it into a cross-border incubator of terrorism. In the 19th century, terrorism was essentially secularist, and in the 20th century, terrorist campaigns have been carried out in response to nationalistic, leftist, and Marxist ideologies. However, ancient political violence before the emergence of modernism was never short of religious influence, and this is where some scholars spotted the beginning of the surge in terrorism; a telling example is the Jewish Sicarii Zealots who attacked Romans and Jews in 1st-century Palestine and the Persian Order of Assassins in the Middle East in the Middle Ages. In recent times, some terrorist organizations have hidden behind the façade of religion such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, religious right-wing organizations in the American Anglican Church and in India as in nationalist “Hindutva” and right-wing extremist organizations in Israel which launched terrorist attacks such as the 1994 bombardment of Muslims at prayer in Hebron Mosque. In Japan, Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult and terrorist organization, carried out the deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995. In Western Europe and North America, right-wing extremism is also religion-motivated.
In Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism, Nilay Saiya, associate professor of political science at Nanyang Technological University, has explored all these issues in an attempt to acquit religion of the responsibility for what is called religious terrorism. Saiya methodologically reconstructs the concept of religious terrorism to refer to terrorist organizations which utilize the façade of religion with no serious consideration for the motto. The terrorism carried out by these organizations can, essence, be attributed to the behaviour of the culprits, whether individuals or states, not to religion itself.
Weapon of Peace
Published by Cambridge University Press, the book consists of five chapters and an introduction which explains the relationship between religious terrorism and religious freedom. Chapter One explores religious terrorism and its reasons, asserting that religion in itself does not trigger off terrorism and that when coupled with political instigation, it can be a catalyst towards terrorist behaviour.
The next three chapters present a statistical analysis of the relationship between religious repression and religious terrorism, with cogent, objective case studies from various countries rather than narrow-mindedly concentrating on one single area. The writer offers some alternative interpretations of religious terrorism, concluding that religious freedom must be given particular importance in American foreign policy.
Nilay Saiya’s analysis of the relationship between terrorism and religious repression depends on a historical and contemporary reading of case studies and big data, out of which he concludes that religious repression is conducive to extremism and violence and that safeguarding religious liberty is morally and strategically indispensable.
There has been a steady upsurge in the number of religion-related terrorist attacks in the last three decades. According to the writer, the best solution to combat violent religious extremism is for countries to permit religious liberty.
The book examines the dialectic of religious liberty and religion-motivated terrorism, posing a number of questions: What lies behind this upsurge in religiously-motivated terrorism? Is it better to combat terrorism while imposing more religious restrictions? Will combatting terrorism be more fruitful under religious liberty? Will respect of religious liberty help countries to prevent religion-motivated terrorism or will that impede them in their efforts in this direction?
In the name of national security, some activists claim that avoiding terrorism entails the imposition of some restrictions to liberty specially religious liberty. They believe that these liberties deter governments from making full use of all possible weapons in the fight against terrorism and that, meanwhile, they foster the proliferation of terrorist organizations that launch terrorist attacks and gain new recruits under the umbrella of liberty. At heart, they know that tightening religious restrictions is not the best thing to do, but under the circumstances, they admit that in combatting terrorism, countries cannot afford to be generous with religious liberty. They criticize restrictions imposed by liberal countries in combatting terrorism such as torture, surveillance, and violation of laws, arguing that removing these restrictions would be more effectual as these restrictions would, in their viewpoint, mitigate involvement in terrorist activities. In brief, they maintain that countries less exposed to terrorism possess a greater ability to censor society and to impose further restrictions on movement and information media.
In contrast, there are those like the author of this book who argue that repression of religious liberty is an important factor in the proliferation and propagation of terrorism. Religion has part and parcel of the human experience and of man’s identity since the dawn of history, and it is only logical that repressing his basic liberties would lead up to adverse outcomes such as higher levels of violence. This would lead religious-related terrorists to circumvent the hurdles impeding terrorist activities in many parts of the world. In essence, repression of religious liberty inhibits people from realizing their basic human beliefs in their own sublime endeavour towards the ideal. If you deter man from pursuing this quest which leans on religion and worship, you are undermining the ability of peoples to vote, to form political parties, and to achieve economic equity; you are also imposing more essential restrictions on those human rights related to man’s freedom to believe in whatever the reason d’etre of their existence and in their outlook on and understanding of absolute facts.
Nilay Saiya confirms that combatting terrorism along the foregoing terms is quite risky as it involves also losing the support of moderate individuals and people in general. In combatting terrorism, this support is of vital importance. On the other hand, losing it precipitates the occurrence of terrorist attacks and grants terrorists the opportunity to promote terrorism as the only possible means of change and to negatively affect advocates of the state.
Issuing mainly from reality rather than from the theoretical text, this book is not based on a given religious scripture, nor does it defend or refute any religion. It does not concern itself with the claims of any terrorist group or associate terrorist attacks with religious texts. Rather, it is inspired by the fact that religion-related terrorism has now become a daily occurrence, ranging from ISIS, the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, to the attacks of Buddhists against Muslims in Burma and Hindus in Sri Lanka and the Indian State of Gujarat, the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Central Africa, Jehovah’s Army in Uganda, the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, lone-wolf attacks in Europe and the Americas, to Jewish groups in Israel. This means that extremists belonging to different religions have increasingly committed terrorist attacks in the last thirty decades.
This has challenged and put the whole world on the alert in recent times. According to statistics about the upsurge in international terrorism, the year preceding the 9/11 attacks in 2001 witnessed 225 religion-motivated terrorist attacks. By 2014, the number increased tenfold, reaching 2237 attacks, while the number of terrorist, religion-motivated groups also rose. In 2001, the number of religious groups was estimated by the US State Department to be just seven foreign terrorist organizations threatening the national security of the USA, while in 2016 the number rose to forty-five.
Reasons for Increasing Number
Why has there been that upsurge in religion-motivated terrorism? According to the writer, there are three global trends accounting for that increase:
First Trend: Global Resurgence of Religion
Contemporary scholarship has shown that religion has gained momentum all over the world and that it is more politically engaged today than it has ever been. Secularist processes like modernization, globalization, and democratization which predicted the ultimate demise of religion ended up in smoke. On the contrary, owing to the failure of secular projects in some developing countries, the major world religions have acquired a newfound relevance in the modern age. Almost 85% of the global population subscribes to some form of religious belief. Therefore, the eminent sociologist Peter Berger, who was once a staunch supporter of secularist theses, has announced that the world has become more, rather than less, religious as was only expected; for him, it is “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever”.
Second Trend: Imposing Religious Restrictions
This trend involves the concurrent attempts to restrict religious practice in the face of this resurgence. Successive reports by the nonpartisan Pew Research Centre have shown that at least three-quarters of people live in countries characterized by “high” or “very high” religious restrictions. The same reports also revealed that only 1% of the global population lives in countries where religious liberty is increasing. Jonathan Fox, professor of religion and politics and director of the Religion and the State Project, has also confirmed these findings by maintaining that, out of thirty types of religious restrictions, twenty-eight are more common today than they were in 1990. High religious restrictions can be found almost everywhere and in every religion. Religious repression can also be found in Christian Russia, Buddhist Burma and Laos, Hindu India and Nepal, Muslim Pakistan, and Jewish Israel.
Third Trend: Resistance
This is the outcome of the first two trends (religious resurgence and religious restrictions). It is most probable that religious believers would resist such restrictions, or at least lend support to those who do so. This can be in the form of peaceful resistance, but it can also be violent reaction and can amount to tearing countries apart and threatening the security of neighbours.
The book asserts that these three trends are inextricably intertwined. The major argument in this context is pretty clear: the attempts of countries to repress religion only produce the fanaticism and terrorism that these very countries seek to avoid. It is no coincidence then that most countries that represent a threat to domestic and international peace and security are the ones that witness some sort of religious persecution.
The author has examined the relationship between terrorist activities (a control variable) and religious liberty (an independent variable) by analyzing terrorist attacks in 174 countries between 1991 and 2012. He has made use of the data made available by the Global Terrorism Database, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He has linked the findings to the level of liberty in the foregoing countries by making use of the Government Regulation of Religious Index- GRI which measures states’ attempt to control religious individuals and groups through official policies and legislations. 196 states and regions have been studied by the index which ranges from 0 to 10, with 10 denoting the most horrible of restrictions on religious liberty. The author has divided these points into three categories; low (from zero to 3.3), average (from 3.3 to 6.6), and high (from 6.6 to 10).
The author has confirmed that analysis of the entire data has revealed that the most important variable is Government Regulation Index of Religion (GRI)whose effect is double the effect of the variable next in importance. When religious people find themselves marginalized because of any type of religious restriction, they will most probably seek to pursue the achievement of their purposes through violence. This does not happen mechanically; political institutions influence the tendency of religious groups and individuals towards violence. Extremist religious fundamentalism can be reinforced when governmental regulation of religion arbitrarily takes on political connotations, negatively affecting groups and individuals, as well as when religious persecution is severe. The more important variable in this context is governmental regulation of religion which is the key to understanding whether a certain state is exposed to religion-related terrorism or not. Religious repression conducive to terrorism becomes more effective in cases of larger populations, fragile regimes, and the hegemony of a political vision that regards religious groups as a threat to national security.
Data analysis has also revealed that countries which impose severe restrictions on religious liberty are much more exposed to religious terrorist attacks. Strict regulation of religion is concomitant with further increase in religious terrorist attacks in comparison to countries with less or moderate restrictions. Such attacks took place in countries imposing harsh restrictions and whose population exceed ten millions.
There are exceptions to this rule, though. If the regime has been stable for more than forty-seven years, and if the country has not been occupied by a foreign force, religious terrorist attacks would have taken place at a rate of just 28.57% as in China and Egypt for some definite years. The findings present countless ways through which we can merge various factors with severe religious restrictions to predict the occurrence of terrorist attacks. Existent evidence confirms that religious restrictions are a major pre-requisite for the prediction of the occurrence of terrorist attacks. There are actually few cases of oppressive regimes that managed for a long time to avert such attacks.
Moderately tolerant countries whose population is less than ten millions had to suffer from terrorist attacks only when inhabited by more than four religious minorities, under a regime that is less than one year old. Once the population exceeded ten millions, terrorist attacks occurred as in European countries which hosted more than eight religious minorities. The same happened in Asia and the Middle East. Data analysis of this type of countries shows that the percentage of terrorist attacks decreases to around 90% in comparison to countries with severe levels of religious restrictions.
Countries with moderate religious restrictions, small populations, and a few religious minorities do not suffer from religious terrorist attacks. This applies temporarily to a number of countries such as Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Cambodia, Djibouti, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates. It is true that these countries do not enjoy the best kind of religious liberty, but because they have a small population and enjoy religious homogeneity they suffer from no religious terrorism.
Likewise, countries with low religious restrictions have seen no religious-related terrorist attacks in the set period of study such as Argentine, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Guiana, Honduras, Italy, Madagascar, Mozambique, New Zealand, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, and South Africa. In the case of a large population and less stable regimes, religious restrictions can be a real problem as temporarily evidenced in Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and Turkey.
The data analysis concludes that GRI, the index that predicts the start of religious terrorism, is the more important variable. When this index is lower in the case of less religious restrictions, other variables become insignificant in the interpretation of the absence of religious terrorism. With few exceptions, religious terrorism increases dramatically with the increase in the level of religious restrictions. The analysis has also revealed that the wealth of a given country has nothing to do with religious terrorism, a fact that challenges the common belief that religious terrorism has to do with poverty rather than with any other factor.
The author has not adopted an authoritative, absolute language in reaching findings from the data analysis regarding the relationship between religious liberty and terrorism. There are five precautions closely associated with these findings:
- The book has nowhere argued that countries enjoying religious liberty never suffer from religious terrorism or that countries with high religious restrictions continuously breed terrorism. It all depends on the nature of repression and the available political avenues. One cogent argument is that the more despotic and brutal countries like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and contemporary North Korea have been the best in suppressing terrorist endeavours as they have been decisive in repressing all possible, communal, terrorist work. Under these conditions, religious persecution becomes so severe and large-scale that religious groups fail to practice their beliefs, let alone get involved in violence. However, the basic relationship between religious repression and religious terrorism remains constant as most countries would not find it appropriate to adopt the same model explained above. In most cases, random large-scale religious repression exacerbates the attempt to keep normal citizens peaceful and, meanwhile, grants militant resistance the impetus for changing the status quo. If terrorism represents a threat to both religiously restricted and liberal countries, it is undoubtedly more probable in religiously restricted countries.
- One manifestation of religious repression is the way states restrict religion, though there are other ways in this direction. What is more important is the imposition of religious restrictions on the communal level. Domineering religious groups paradoxically tend to be the most vociferous in championing these religious restrictions; they call upon their followers and on political leaders to deprive others of religious liberty or even to ostracize them as their rivals. The author deliberately avoids talking about the reasons why socio-religious restrictions foment terrorism as this for him is a methodological principle. Those restrictions usually stem from extremist organizations (including religious groups). Therefore, the author chose to postpone discussion of this issue, leaving it to another independent study dealing with socio-religious organizations and terrorism.
- The author has never downplayed the importance of ideas in interpreting religious terrorism. Political theology, “the ideology adopted by a religious group regarding political authority”, implies that the way religious extremists interpret the political claims of their religions, the major scriptures, historical creeds, and contemporary contexts, can well motivate them to terrorist acts. Political theology can be observed in any country, and it is sometime put into effect in isolation of the level of religious liberty. However, these beliefs tend to be extremist and to flourish under repressive circumstances as religious activists are deprived of their independence and liberty while practicing their religion-based convictions. Political theology unifies these activists, justifying violence for them and making terrorism the most probable course of action.
- The writer does not claim that repressing religion can ever interpret religious terrorism. In fact, terrorism is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that may be triggered off by a number of factors such as economic disintegration, foreign invasion, oppression, and direct threat to normal life. In most cases, these factors combine with the denial of religious liberty to augment grievances and exacerbate conflict.
- In retaliation against terrorist attacks, states can be more repressive, and this explains in part the relationship between religious restrictions and terrorism. It is therefore an effective, interactive, and everlasting circle, with states fiercely suppressing religion, and religious groups resisting and hitting back. Terrorism is thus utilized as a pretext for more repression of religion. As the whirlpool of violence intensifies in oppressive states, historical evidence has shown that terrorism is the by-product of oppressive policies rather than the other way round. In turn, governments can exploit the visualized threat of terrorism as a tool for more repression.
The relationship between religious liberty and terrorism does not follow a dualistic linear pattern, which connotes that more religious liberty breeds less terrorism and that more religious repression breeds more terrorism. Some analysts would argue still that unrestricted religious liberty provides terrorists with an opportunity to deploy advocates and promulgate ideas.
Imposing religious restrictions to combat the terrorism of religious groups is an easy job that follows a dualistic circular pattern. The first pattern is when a given country represses religious liberty, which is retaliated against by religious groups, which drives this country to impose more repression of religious liberty. The second pattern is when religious groups, in countries that permit religious liberty, launch terrorist attacks, which drives the state to restrict these liberties, to be retaliated against by religious groups launching further terrorist attacks. In this way, religious liberty becomes more restricted and terrorism gains momentum at the same time.
The writer points out that many world leaders have done their best to combat extremism and terrorism, issuing in most cases from restrictions on religious liberty, absolutely repressing it at the expense of repressing non-violent groups, forcing people to shave their beards, removing religiously committed people from work at state institutions, and preventing them from practicing their religious rituals. A severe example of this is the performance of the extreme right-wing in Europe and the States in relation to minorities and migrants.
According to the writer, these practices are the wrong recipe for combating terrorism; they might even exacerbate it. His best advice is therefore that tolerance with religious beliefs is the best solution to the crisis of violence and religious extremism. Repression of religious liberty deprives society of the possible positive contribution of members of religious groups and would, meanwhile, bestow credibility on the discourse of extremists who claim that the state is unfair in dealing with civilians. Religious violence springs where religious repression breeds grievances in religious groups most victimized by it. When religious groups, belonging to the religious majority in a given community, violently target religious minorities, the regime which represses religion becomes directly responsible for the very antagonism it has been struggling to fight through repression. It is true that religion-motivated terrorist groups commit horrible crimes which instigate states to use force in retaliation within and outside their borders, including further restrictions on religious liberty. This technique has been analyzed by the writer through focusing on a comparative case study involving France and Japan. Based on this analysis, the writer concludes that France’s repressive policies towards Muslim citizens and its military approach to world crises have logically brought about terrorist attacks. On the contrary, combatting terrorism in Japan has been successful due to the state’s adoption of less strict measures in addition to respect of religious rights on the domestic front and caution in using force on the international front.
Gates of Extremism
Being objective, the writer has taken into consideration contrary viewpoints which argue that unrestricted religious liberty paves the road towards religious extremism. In a global world where extremist ideas can quickly be disseminated, religious extremists might benefit by an environment of religious liberty so that they can impose their own ideology upon others. Meanwhile, repression of religious groups can aggravate the fight against rebellion and against possible terrorist activity. This hypothesis leans on the claim that liberalism restricts governments and curbs their efforts to make full use of all their weaponry in the fight against terrorism. Most world leaders subscribe to this view, acquiescing to the fact that, in the name of national security, some liberties like religious liberty must be restricted as is the case in the middle east and North Africa, in Asia Minor, and in Europe where right-wing extremist parties have gained popularity as in the French National Rally, the Alternative for Germany in Germany, Freedom Party of Austria, and Golden Dawn in Greece. Donald Trump, the ex-president of the United States, called for surveillance of neighborhoods with Muslim majority and proposed the torture of members of the families of suspect terrorists. He also signed an executive action banning entry of citizens from seven Islamic countries. In view of religion-based terrorism today, it could be said that world leaders might be justified in adopting force; however, this book boldly challenges this perspective. It emphasizes the fact that such a repressive milieu which kills independent thinking fosters and breeds terrorism and creates an atmosphere of bias and injustice.
Those who claim that repression has led to success in crushing terrorist threats in Argentine, Sri Lanka, and Peru for example tend to forget that this has been directed mainly against secularist terrorist organizations such as Montoneros in Argentine, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka and Sendero Luminoso in Peru.
Liberty Combats Terrorism
According to the author, religious liberty can combat extremism and terrorism in many ways. Liberal thought and exchange of ideas would produce moderation that can challenge the arguments of religious extremists and assimilate and benefit by the contribution of all social groups and organizations to the establishment of educational, medical, and utilitarian institutions. Permitting these liberties helps extremists to work through legal channels, exchanging ideas and suggesting policies. Merging them into the political process and safeguarding their religious rights would thus refute their claim that violence is essential in the encounter with the status quo.
Easing religious restrictions and safeguarding religious liberty may also create peaceful competition whereby religious groups can positively contribute to the welfare of society; consequently, with the passage of time, extremist groups will no longer be politically or socially domineering and religious terrorism will largely diminish.
Religion-related wars in Europe have taught Europeans that imposition of religious homogeneity will only lead to sectarian violence. Therefore, the writer calls upon us to learn from this bitter experience which underscores the umbilical cord between religious persecution and religious terrorism, a fact that must motivate the actions of scholars, policy-makers, human rights activists, and everyone interested in terrorism, political violence, human rights, democracy, and international relations.
This book is categorized among the critical studies that seek to correct the errors of efforts to combat terrorism, especially associating terrorism with religion. Many books and studies have analyzed the different, sometimes contradictory orientations and curricula of the relationship between terrorism and religion. However, there is no unanimous agreement that religion is an important aspect of contemporary terrorism. A number of scholars criticized the interest in religion in the study of the terrorist phenomenon and called for paying attention to other factors. These scholars also argue that the interest in religion, especially Islam, in many studies of terrorism, is the result of political orientations.
Although Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) overlooked terrorism in his famous book The Clash of Civilizations, he gave particular attention to religious conflict, hypothesizing that conflicts between large civilizations, many of them defined by religion, will define the post-Cold War era. Many researchers have applied Huntington’s thesis to terrorism, arguing that religious terrorism by groups such as Al-Qaeda represents a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world, and have constructed a model from it that links religious belief to terrorism.
This trend linking terrorism to religion, specially Islam, received a lot of support after the 9/11 attacks, which led to reconsideration of domestic and international security policies. Decision makers took the unique threat of this type of terrorism seriously. The United States launched a campaign known as the “Global War on Terror” to eliminate al-Qaeda and related groups. This campaign included the invasion of Afghanistan one month after the September attacks, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subsequent occupation of it for ten years, the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and special operations in dozens of other countries.
This type of studies confirms that religion exacerbates terrorism and other forms of violence. Jonathan Fox underscores the significant impact of religious conflicts on the failure of the state and concludes that religious national groups contribute greatly to violent conflicts globally, and that religion-motivated conflicts have been increasing in number and intensity since the seventies of the last century.
Bernard Lewis (1916-2018), the godfather of neo-conservatives, has linked Islam with terrorism in his The Roots of Muslim Anger and has argued that the violence we witness today in Islamic countries has close affinities with specific elements of Islamic history. In this way, he became the most prominent theorist of Islamophobia. Despite the predominance of this view in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many serious studies challenged it, undermining its foundations, and refuting the claim that religion or Islam in particular leads to or is associated with terrorism. In Suicide Terrorism, Robert Pape argues that “Suicide terrorism is not motivated by Islam or any other religious creed. It is motivated, rather, by the military occupation of a region, and by the nationalist sentiments that arise from it.”
On his part, Jonathan Fox acknowledges the relationship between religion and violence; he analyzes the relationship between Muslim populations and violence and concludes that Muslims are no more violent than other religious groups. Fox has quantitatively examined the clash of civilizations, and he asserts that there is little evidence of a large-scale clash between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Some studies have dealt with the political process behind US counterterrorism efforts, which has led to an over-emphasis on religious terrorism.
In his The Unholy War, John Esposito underscores the threat of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, but he also says: “These groups are motivated by US foreign policy, not Islam.” According to the political analyst Jocelyne Cesari, Head of the Department of Religion and Politics at Birmingham University: “Western Europe and the United States viewed Islam with a security eye and called for a redirection of scholars’ attention away from religion (Islam in particular) towards the political process through which terrorism has become a major global concern after 9/11”.
Other studies have analyzed the relationship between state religious policies and the threat of terrorism. For example, Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, states that the interaction between the “political theology” of religious groups and the state’s attitude towards religion can explain whether religious groups are peaceful or violent in their interaction with the state.
The relationship between religious repression and religious hostilities has also been examined by other studies which concluded that repressive state policies increased religious unrest, including religious terrorism.