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Discounting Religion in the Explanation of Homegrown Terrorism


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

Politicians, public officials, and scholars have been scrupulous, for the most part, in denying any direct causal relationship between Islam and terrorism, and more generally between being religious per se and being a terrorist. They are justifiably concerned about the negative implications of such an association for the peaceful Islamic populations of their countries. But the connection persists because so many terrorists continue to provide religious justifications for their actions, especially in the context of one of the most perplexing and challenging forms of terrorism – suicide bombings. We are confronted with hundreds, if not thousands, of videotaped testimonials by bombers offering justifications of their actions that are saturated with religious rhetoric. The ambiguities of this broader situation are reflected in the scholarly debate about the significance of religious beliefs as a primary motivator for terrorist. As a sociologist of religion who is now engaged in terrorism studies, I have noted a marked reticence to treat religion as an independent variable in assessments of the causality of terrorism. The scientific study of social phenomenon must take into consideration the systematic and differential analysis of the reciprocal effects of multiple variables. Yet the study of jihadi terrorism, and especially the so-called homegrown variety, usually fails to do so.

More often than not the causal role of religion is acknowledged, or at least implied, and then explicitly or implicitly discounted. There is a pervasive and unquestioned inclination to minimize the significance of the religious pronouncements of homegrown jihadists, by either categorizing them as nothing more than propaganda, treating them as merely the surface manifestation of deeper irrational impulses, or explaining them away in favor of other social, economic, and political grievances that are thought to be more plausible. But this interpretive prejudice will not stand up to scrutiny and it is counterproductive to understanding and reducing the threat posed by al Qaeda and Islamic State inspired terrorism.

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