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Does Religion Cause Terrorism?


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

In the wake of any terrorist attack, the immediate questions are who and why – who would do such a thing, and why they would want to do it? When religion is a part of the picture, the questions are compounded. This is the case whether the perpetrators are the ISIS activists in the Paris attacks, partisans in the Syrian civil war, Christian abortion clinic bombers in the United States, or violent Israeli settlers whom Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called “Jewish terrorists” during the dismantlement of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank in August 2005.

One of the enduring questions is what religion has to do with this –
with them and what they did. Put simply, does religion cause terrorism? Could these violent acts be the fault of religion – the result of a dark strain of religious thinking that leads to absolutism and violence? Or has the innocence of religion been abused by wily political activists who twist religion’s essential message of peace for their own devious purposes? Is religion the problem or the victim?

Each case in which religion has been linked to violence is different. So one could be justified in saying there is no one simple answer. Yet this has not stopped the media commentators, public officials, and academics whose generalizations about religion’s role abound. Their positions may be found in the assumptions lurking behind policy choices and news media reports, and, in the case of the academics, within the causative theories about terrorism that they propose. Curiously, their positions are sometimes diametrically opposed. An example of the diversity of opinions may be found in two relatively recent and widely discussed books published in 2005, Robert A. Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and Hector Avalos’ Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

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