Leaving aside problems around the definition of the term 'terrorism' this article focuses on the more specific concept 'religious terrorism' and assesses its validity and some of the effects of its usage. The authors argue that 'religious terrorism' is both conceptually suspect as well as empirically problematic. They highlight claims about religious terrorism – that it is has ‘radically different value systems’ (from Bruce Hoffman); aims at the destruction of large sections of the population (from Walter Laqueur); and has ‘an anti-modern political agenda’ (from Mark Juergensmeyer) – and query whether these really are distinguishable from many examples of secular terrorism.
In querying these claims they question the theoretical validity of the religious/secular distinction, with the conclusion - that the distinction is a modern-European construction – that is broadly accurate (whilst understandably brief). The problems that arise from the religious/secular distinction – that religious characteristics are often indistinguishable from secular ones, and that the European tendency to see religion as private means that it is inherently seen as troublesome when public – are then carried over into a discussion of religion in the political sphere.
The authors go onto highlight problems with evaluating empirical evidence of religious terrorism, and indeed the causal link between religion and violence, questioning the extent to which beliefs and personal religiosity can really be shown to lead to violence. Finally, they note the problem of value-laden labelling, whereby religious viewpoints are privileged or demonised according to the political aims of the labeller. For example, stressing the religious character of a group could delegitimise potential political engagement, or could serve to mask other, non-religious, reasons for their complaints.
Whilst the authors conclude with some suggestions for how researching this field, the article is best used as a short but useful introduction to some of the problems with the concept ‘religious terrorism’ and assumptions made about religion and violence.