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The Role of Religion in al-Qaeda’s Violence


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

The role of religion in al-Qaeda’s violence has been strongly debated since the attacks of 11 September 2001. In public debates, religion has often been assigned an explanatory role. In scholarly literature on al-Qaeda, interpretations have diverged. In a study on suicide attacks from 2005, for example, Robert A. Pape downplays the role of religion in explaining al-Qaeda’s violence. ‘For al-Qaeda, religion matters’, he writes, ‘but mainly in the context of national resistance to foreign occupation’. Assaf Moghadam, in contrast, emphasised that al-Qaeda’s long-term mission is ‘fundamentally religious’, namely ‘to wage a cosmic struggle against an unholy alliance of Christians and Jews’. Others have offered variations on these arguments, for example by distinguishing between al-Qaeda’s ‘almost purely political’ immediate objectives and its ‘distinctively Islamic’ ultimate aims.

This chapter aims at providing a more nuanced understanding of the role of religion in al-Qaeda’s violence by relating the topic to insights from religious studies. In debates on the religious dimension of terrorism, several scholars in this field have argued that religion should not be isolated from other factors, such as politics. Only in particular contexts, they claim, can religion play a certain – though usually not a primary – role in terrorist attacks. Other scholars, foremost among them William T. Cavanaugh, have gone a step further by arguing that any attempt to attribute an independent role to something called ‘religion’ in explaining violence is inconsistent, as there is no coherent way to isolate religion from its (alleged) secular counterpart.

Based on the statements of the leaders of ‘al-Qaeda Central’ – the group around Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the period between 1996 and 2011 – this chapter argues that it is not very fruitful to ask whether religion, as an abstract category, has played a role in al-Qaeda’s violence. Instead, it claims that it is more interesting to examine why the question on the role of religion in jihadist violence has been so prevalent over the last one and a half decades.

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