Archive for August, 2015

Psychology and Sociology of Religious Fanaticism

A Five Part Series

Part II

Michael A. Sheehan stated in 2000, “A number of terrorist groups have portrayed their causes in religious and cultural terms. This is often a transparent tactic designed to conceal political goals, generate popular support and silence opposition.”

Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

Conflict in Iraq and Syria has seen ISIS seize vast territory. Charting the group’s rise, Peter Welby says that future dangers lie in the appeal to Islamists worldwide of their claims to a caliphate.

The resounding successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the summer of 2014 were shocking. Cities fell to ISIS forces a fraction of the size of their defenders; soldiers were ordered to abandon their posts; and those soldiers who were captured were massacred. Buoyed by its advance, the group declared a caliphate, a move that has split the jihadi world despite long being the aspiration of such organizations.

Reeling from its string of defeats, it took until March 2015 for Iraqi forces to start their counter-attack in earnest. But unprecedented as these advances were in scale, they fit into a pattern that the group has set since its foundation.

ISIS can trace its roots back to 2002, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – a Jordanian who was to gain notoriety in the Iraqi insurgency from 2003-6 – founded a jihadi organization called Tawhid wal-Jihad in the north of Iraq. Zarqawi had been linked with al-Qaeda while in Afghanistan in the late ’90s, but was not a member of the group and disagreed with the tactic of focusing on the ‘far enemy’ (the West) as opposed to the ‘near enemy’ (rulers in the Islamic world).

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi’s organization grew more active and affiliated itself to al-Qaeda in 2004, becoming al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Despite the tactical differences, this made a useful alliance of convenience: Zarqawi’s organisation gained the recruiting and resourcing benefits of being part of a global and credible jihadi organisation, while al-Qaeda gained an affiliate in Iraq, already by that stage the global center of jihad.

Zarqawi’s AQI was an influential actor in Iraq’s descent into chaos between 2003 and 2007. It had an explicit policy of stoking sectarian violence with the aim of rallying the Sunni community around Sunni jihadi groups, a tactic that ISIS is replicating now. This gained criticism from al-Qaeda’s leaders, who felt that the indiscriminate and brutal violence risked alienating their supporters. However, it continued to support Zarqawi in public until he was killed in an airstrike in 2006.

In late 2006 AQI joined with eight other Islamist insurgent groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), without permission from the al-Qaeda leadership. The name chosen for this new group indicated its ambitions: it was more than a mere jihadi group, but an embryonic caliphate, governed by Islamic law, to which all Muslims within its territory owed allegiance.

As the US surge took hold in 2007 and the so-called ‘Anbar Awakening’ or sahwa – the cooptation of Sunni tribes in Anbar province in the fight against the insurgency – diminished the group’s support base, the notion of the Islamic State’s ‘territory’ was a tenuous one. Successive ISI leaders were killed in airstrikes, and the group’s capacity to launch attacks was severely diminished. But the accession in 2010 of its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, coincided with a change in the external pressures the group faced. The USA withdrew its forces in 2011 and the promised integration of the Anbar militias into the armed forces was abandoned, removing a significant counter to insurgent activity. Absent American restraint, Prime Minister Maliki gave vent to his more sectarian impulses, creating grievances that the Islamic State was quick to exploit. Moreover, the start of the Syrian civil war created a fertile new cause and battlefield for the group’s recruitment, and molded it into the military force it has become.

The Syrian war also facilitated the Islamic State’s final break with al-Qaeda. Since 2006, the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda had been ambiguous, possibly deliberately so: the mutual benefits that had first prompted Zarqawi to affiliate to the organization remained.

In 2011 Baghdadi created a Syrian subsidiary, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), under Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, in order to gain a toehold in the war. In 2013, with JN showing unwelcome signs of independence, he announced their reabsorption into the expanded Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – ‘al-Sham’ being the Arabic name for Greater Syria, with connotations of earlier caliphates. However, Jolani appealed to al-Qaeda’s central command, which ruled in his favor, ordering Baghdadi to confine his group to Iraq.

The alliance between al-Qaeda and ISIS was no longer convenient. ISIS could now claim a history and a support base that established its credibility, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership was weak. An ISIS spokesman declared that al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was sinful, and Jolani nothing less than a traitor. Shortly afterwards, Zawahiri announced that ISIS had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.

In subsequent fighting in Syria, much of it with other rebels including JN and other jihadi groups, ISIS has gained and held significant amounts of territory. It captured the city of Raqqa from other rebels in early 2014, using it since as a base to launch attacks in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the group exploited botched Iraqi military operations in Fallujah in January 2014 to gain control of the city. Control of sparsely populated transport corridors allowed them to advance rapidly in the kind of surprise attacks that delivered them Mosul, among other cities, in June of the same year.

However, 2015 has brought setbacks for the group, with Kurdish forces comprising mainly the Popular Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq, emerging as key opponents. A hard-fought four month battle for the city of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border, culminated in victory for the YPG in January 2015 – though ISIS has maintained a presence nearby. In Iraq, the Peshmerga were able to dislodge ISIS from key areas around Mount Sinjar in December 2014. Furthermore, Iraqi security forces, aided by Shia militias supported by Iran, in March 2015 launched the first major government offensive against ISIS since June 2014, in Tikrit.

Regardless of these defeats, ISIS’ development since 2013 changed the nature of the group. It is no longer a mere terrorist group, but an army that can hold and administer territory. It governs according to harshly interpreted principles of Islamic law, including the imposition of dhimmi pacts on minorities – guaranteeing protection in exchange for the payment of a tax and the acceptance of second-class citizenship. Minorities, including Shia Muslims, have been subject to severe human rights abuses, including massacres and forced conversion, and the persecution of minorities in northern Iraq has been particularly brutal.

ISIS has also provoked shock and condemnation worldwide for its brutal execution of foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers, as well as captured combatants from opposing forces. While the quality of its governance is questionable – a 2006 paper produced by the group stated that improving the quality of the people’s religion was more important than improving the quality of their lives – it can broadly coerce the consent of the people it governs.

Meanwhile, a further danger lies in the group’s appeal beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. While other jihadi groups, both in these countries and elsewhere, seek to establish an Islamic caliphate, ISIS claims to be one. Baghdadi has declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim,” and goes by the title “Commander of the Faithful.” In the language of his speeches and in his titles, he lays claim to a form of authority from the earliest days of Islam. This combined with the supposedly just cause of the fight against Assad in Syria has proved to be a powerful draw to young Islamists across the world, spread by means of an adept use of social media, and slickly presented propaganda such as the monthly magazine Dabiq. Some of these recruits will eventually return to their homes, taking with them their experiences as members of the most brutal jihadi group in the conflict.

The danger is not limited to individuals attracted to ISIS’ flag. In November, Baghdadi demanded that all Islamist and jihadi movements across the world be dissolved or absorbed into his ‘caliphate’. Many groups have taken up the call. While some were previously unknown, others, including Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt have long been prominent actors in their own countries’ conflicts.

In September 2014, an international coalition led by the US began a military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, supported by more than a dozen European and Arab states. Extensive airstrikes have supported the operations of Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces in making strategic gains.

A focus on ISIS should not underestimate the unpredictable nature of this conflict: sudden changes in fortune have been a hallmark of the Syrian civil war, and in Iraq the concerted action of Shia militias and the military – not to mention Iranian interests – may yet turn the tide. Moreover, as the development of ISIS shows, jihadi groups can fracture suddenly and dramatically.

However, ISIS is bolstered by state-of-the-art equipment seized from Iraqi bases and resources from oil fields in its territory; it’s also reported that ISIS has extensive assets. The Iraqi army also melted before them in June 2014. Because of these factors ISIS will not be defeated without a hard fight.

The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050

Why Muslims Are Rising Fastest and the Unaffiliated Are Shrinking as a Share of the World’s Population

The religious profile of the world is rapidly changing, driven primarily by differences in fertility rates and the size of youth populations among the world’s major religions, as well as by people switching faiths. Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current trends continue, by 2050:

  • The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
  • Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.
  • The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
  • In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
  • India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
  • In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.
  • Four out of every ten Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are among the global religious trends highlighted in new demographic projections by the Pew Research Center. The projections take into account the current size and geographic distribution of the world’s major religions, age differences, fertility and mortality rates, international migration and patterns in conversion.

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Psychology and Sociology of Religious Fanaticism

A Five Part Series

Part I


“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” ― Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements


Part I of this five-part series will include an introduction to the overall context of religious fanaticism and religious terrorism. It will also include a description of what religious fanaticism and terrorism are. Examples will include fanaticism and terrorism from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well as more locally grown groups within the United States.

Part II of this five-part series will focus on one of the most terrifying groups in the 21st Century—ISIS. The interplay between ISIS as religious fanaticism and as a geopolitical force is described. In addition I will present: The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.

In Part III of this Blog Jihad will be defined, and Islamic scriptures from the Quran will be evaluated. This will be accomplished by an evaluation of statements connected to the religion of Islam presented by supporters and opponents of Islam. It will be up to the reader to see what side one comes down on as far as the meaning of Jihad and the Quran, and whether the religion of Islam itself promotes violence and hatred or, by scripture, is really a peace-loving body of beliefs.

     Part IV of this Blog will present statistics on educational attainment, literacy rates, and unemployment among those in the Islamic world. The purpose is not to pick on the religion of Islam, but only to comparatively show that the people of other religions such as Christianity and Judaism have achieved higher educational levels, higher literacy rates, and higher employment rates than those in the Muslim world. The significance of these variables is that they have a tremendous impact on economic success and development around the world.

The historical neglect of education in the Muslim world has had a direct impact on the quality of life among its people, and therefore has increased their susceptibility to extremism, religious fanaticism, and violence.

These variables speak volumes as to those geopolitical events that factor into why the Muslim world is so ripe for exploitation and the radicalization of religion thought and the promotion of violence and terrorism. And, there are historical reasons for all of it.

Social scientists studying these modern day events of fanaticism and religious terrorism tend to look for the root causes of these things and probably would like to have a crystal ball as to what is going to happen in the future. That explanation will come in the final segment—Part V.

Part V will present estimates or predictions of the changing demographics of major religions through 2050. Finally, I will present the psychological and sociological work of one of the most insightful scholars and authors of the 20th Century—Eric Hoffer.

He wrote The True Believer. His cogent analysis from The True Believer will be described in detail. The content of Hoffer’s book will serve as an explanation for why individuals become involved in religious fanaticism, terrorism or other causes of a geopolitical nature.



The world we live in has always known extremism and violence. In general, the major motive for violence and extremism has disproportionately been about territory and scarce (or rich) resources. But ideology fostered within the context of religion has been a part of it.

Historically, dictators, tyrants, and demi-gods of every racial and ethnic group have been involved in exploiting human and physical resources in every country and in every land worldwide.

Most of the history books we read in high school and college were shaped around conflict, and wars that followed between countries, nations, or territories.

For better or worse, what has shaped our world views on these matters and our personal moral codes has been culture. Culture can be defined as inculcated learned behavior patterns in small social groups, the primary one being the family; but also the community (however defined) and larger social entities like government, at the local, regional, or nation-state levels.

The cohesion that holds together all the learned culture patterns is, of course, based on values that are socially conditioned through reward and punishment.

When values become ingrained in the individual, they seem to force such conditioned individuals into making collective or individual “value judgments” about others who do not share their particular views on religious doctrine. And value judgments, in turn, become the food for local, regional, national or worldwide conflict.

World religions have always played a major role over the millennia in impacting the geopolitical basis for conflict. And extremist values and value judgments have turned their perverse interpretation of religious doctrine for their own personal uses, in order to justify their conduct and generation of conflict.

While world religions have their own problems with pretending supernatural hypotheses that substitute for reality (truth has always been what we agree it is—nothing more and nothing less) such unsubstantiated religious beliefs becomes easy prey to the subversive  actions of extremists, terrorists, and fanatic groups or individuals promoting gratuitous violence all in the name of some cause or belief.


Religious fanaticism is a worldwide phenomenon. The purpose of this Blog is to put the spotlight on religious fanaticism in order to impart some understanding as to what factors, both psychological and sociological, are involved. But first one needs to understand the religious landscape worldwide.

The World Fact book gives the population as 7,095,217,980 (July 2013 est.) and the distribution of religions as Christian 31.50% (of which Roman Catholic 16.85%, Protestant 6.15%, Orthodox 3.96%, Anglican 1.26%), Muslim 23.20% (of which Sunni 75-90%, Shia 10-20%, Ahmadi 1%), Hindu 13.8%, Buddhist 6.77%,Sikh 0.35%, Jewish 0.22%, Baha’i 0.11%, other religions 10.95%, non-religious 9.66%, atheists 2.01% (2010 est.).

Religious Fanaticism

Religious fanaticism is uncritical zeal with an obsessive enthusiasm related to one’s own, or one’s groups, devotion to a religion.

Lloyd Steffen who wrote “Holy War, Just War: Exploring the Moral Meaning of Religious Violence, 2007”gives several features associated with religious fanaticism or extremism:

  • “Spiritual needs”… human beings have a spiritual longing for understanding and meaning, and given the mystery of existence, that spiritual quest can only be fulfilled through some kind of relationship with ultimacy, whether or not that takes the form as a “transcendent other.” Religion has power to meet this need for meaning and transcendent relationship.
  • Attractiveness… it presents itself in such a way that those who find their way into it come to express themselves in ways consistent with the particular vision of ultimacy at the heart of this religious form.
  • A “live option”… it is present to the moral consciousness as a live option that addresses spiritual need and satisfies human longing for meaning, power, and belonging.

Ever since Christianity was established, some of those in authority have sought to expand and control the church, often through the fanatical use of force. Grant Shafer who wrote “Hell, Martyrdom, and War: Violence in Early Christianity, 2004” says, “Jesus of Nazareth is best known as a preacher of nonviolence. The start of Christian fanatic rule came with the Roman Emperor Constantine as Catholicism.

Harold J. Ellen’s who wrote, “The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Vol. 3. Westport: Prager’s , 2004” says, “When Christianity came to power in the empire of Constantine, it proceeded almost too viciously to repress all non-Christians and all Christians who did not line up with official Orthodox ideology, policy, and practice.”

An example of Christians who didn’t line up with Orthodox ideology is the Donatists who “refused to accept repentant clergy who had formerly given way to apostasy when persecuted.”

Fanatic Christian activity, as Catholicism, continued into the middle Ages with the Crusades. These wars were attempts by the Catholics, sanctioned by the Pope, to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. Charles Selengut, in his book Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence, said:

“The Crusades – were very much holy war waged to maintain Christianity’s theological and social control- On their way to conquering the Holy Land from the Muslims by force of arms, the crusaders destroyed dozens of Jewish communities and killed thousands because the Jews would not accept the Christian faith. Jews had to be killed in the religious campaign because their very existence challenged the sole truth espoused by the Christian Church.”

Shafer adds that, “When the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they killed Muslims, Jews, and native Christians indiscriminately.” Another prominent form of fanaticism came a few centuries later with the Spanish Inquisition.

The Inquisition was the monarchy’s way of making sure their people stayed within Catholic Christianity. Selengut said, “The inquisitions were attempts at self-protection and targeted primarily ‘internal enemies’ of the church”.

The driving force of the Inquisition was the Inquisitors, who were responsible for spreading the truth of Christianity. Selengut continues, saying:

“The inquisitors generally saw themselves as educators helping people maintain correct beliefs by pointing out errors in knowledge and judgment. . . .Punishment and death came only to those who refused to admit their errors. . . .During the Spanish Inquisitions of the fifteenth century, the clear distinction between confession and innocence and remaining in error became muddled. . . .The investigators had to invent all sorts of techniques; including torture, to ascertain whether . . . new converts’ beliefs were genuine.”


Since Osama bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998, radical jihad has increasingly become an internationally recognized term. Bin Laden’s concept, though, is very different from the actual meaning of the term. In the religious context, jihad most nearly means “working urgently for a certain godly objective, generally a positive one.”

The word jihad in Arabic means ‘struggle.’ The struggle can be a struggle of implementing the Islamic values in daily activities, a struggle with others to counter arguments against Islam, or self-defense when physically attacked because of belief in Islam.

According to Steffen, there are portions of the Qur’an where military jihad is used. As Steffen says, though, “Jihad in these uses is always defensive. Not only does ‘jihad’ not endorse acts of military aggression, but ‘jihad’ is invoked in Qur’anic passages to indicate how uses of force are always subject to restraint and qualification.” This kind of jihad differs greatly from the kind most commonly discussed today.

Thomas Farr, in an essay titled “Islam’s Way to Freedom”, says that, “Even though most Muslims reject violence, the extremists’ use of sacred texts lends their actions authenticity and recruiting power.” He goes on to say, “The radicals insist that their central claim—God’s desire for Islam’s triumph—requires no interpretation. According to them, true Muslims will pursue it by any means necessary, including dissimilation, civil coercion, and the killing of innocents.”

According to certain observers, this disregard for others and rampant use of violence is markedly different from the peaceful message that jihad is meant to employ. Although fanatic jihadists have committed many terroristic acts throughout the world, perhaps the best known are the September 11 attacks.

According to Ellen’s, the al-Qaeda members who took part in the terrorist attacks did so out of their belief that by doing it they would “enact a devastating blow against the evil of secularized and non-Muslim America. They were cleansing this world, God’s temple.” More will be said about the Muslim world, characteristics of Muslims, and a much different take on Jihad as expressed in the Quran.


Some researchers on ethnic terrorism distinguish between ethnic terrorism and religious terrorism, but admit that the distinction between these forms of terrorism is often blurred in practice. Daniel Bymen, in his study on “The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism”, argues that Jews operate far more as an ethnic group than as a community motivated by and organized according to religious doctrine. As good examples of Jewish terrorism based on ethnic, not religious grounds, or Zionist political violence, the author cites Jewish underground groups Irgun and Lehi, which operated against British law during the British Mandate of Palestine before the Israeli declaration in 1948.

     According to Mark Burgess, the 1st century Jewish political and religious movement called Zealotry was one of the first examples of the use of terrorism by Jews. They sought to incite the people of Judaea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from Israel by force of arms. The term Zealot, in Hebrew kanai, means one who is zealous on behalf of God.

     The most extremist groups of Zealots were called Sicarii who used violent stealth tactics against Romans. Under their cloaks they concealed sicae, or small daggers, from which they received their name. At popular assemblies, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they stabbed their enemies (Romans or Roman sympathizers, Herodian’s), lamenting ostentatiously after the deed to blend into the crowd to escape detection.

     In one account given in the Talmud, Sicarii destroyed the city’s food supply so that the people would be forced to fight against the Roman siege instead of negotiating peace. Sicarii also raided Jewish habitations and killed fellow Jews whom they considered apostates and collaborators.


Locally Grown Fanatic Groups

Meghan Hamilton (The Humanist.com) wrote on March 5, 2014 an interesting article on  five locally grown hate groups all tied to Christianity. The following is that article.

5 Dangerous “Christian Hate” Groups

By Meghan Hamilton • 5 March 2014

Kingdom Identity Ministries: “Conquer We Must, For Our Cause Is Just”

As defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a hate group is one that holds “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” According to the SPLC, there are 939 hate groups currently operating in the United States, many of which are religiously driven.

Some of these groups are led by people like James Wickstrom, a Christian minister and radio talk show host who often calls for the extermination of Jews in his sermons. Wickstrom has an extensive criminal history and has been preaching his hatred since the 1970s. Thomas Robb is another hate group ringleader.

A Christian-Identity Church pastor and longtime leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Robb preaches the preservation and grand authority of the white race over all others. Both leaders are, unsurprisingly, anti-LGBTQ as well.

Kingdom Identity Ministries is one of the largest suppliers of so-called Christian Identity materials that present a racist interpretation of Christianity. Their products include training books, pamphlets, and Bible study courses. Their mission to preserve the white race encourages white women to reproduce only within their race and encourages the superiority of the white male as interpreted from the Bible.

America’s Promise Ministries is a congregation that relies strongly on the literal interpretation of the Bible. This church also insists that Jesus was white and believes that all greatness achieved in the United States is attributed to the work of the white race and none other. Several members of this congregation have committed violent acts of terrorism and murder, including abortion clinic bombings, bank robberies, and shootings.

There are extreme religious movements emerging in the United States that strongly oppose LGBTQ rights, minority rights, racial equality, and gender equality. Radical Traditional Catholicism, whose ideology has been rejected by the Vatican, is a traditionalist movement comprised of numerous people who have been exiled from the church. This group is one of the largest anti-Semite groups in the United States.

Although there are many religious Americans who are good at heart and genuinely believe and exemplify love and acceptance, there is no denying that fanatical religious belief can be a breeding ground for hate, violence, and bigotry. When the beliefs that define one’s entire world are threatened, ideologues will often do all that is necessary to preserve it.

It’s unfortunate that there are more groups in this category than I am able to talk about here. Hate is a product of conditioning, upbringing, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness. The solution must be teaching tolerance and acceptance wherever we can.

For more information about hate groups and to find great resources, please visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website at http://www.splcenter.org.

     Meghan Hamilton is the Development and Social Media Assistant for the American Humanist Association.

Another locally grown fanatical religious group was the Branch Davidians lead by charismatic leader, David Koresh.

Branch Davidians

The Waco siege was a siege of a property belonging to the religious group Branch Davidians by American federal and Texas state law enforcement and US military between February 28 and April 19, 1993. The Branch Davidians, a sect that separated in 1955 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was led by David Koresh and lived at Mount Carmel Center ranch in the community of Elk, Texas, nine miles (14 kilometers) east-northeast of Waco. The group was suspected of weapons violations and a search and arrest warrant was obtained by the ATF.

The incident began when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) attempted to raid the ranch. An intense gun battle erupted, resulting in the deaths of four agents and six Branch Davidians.

Upon the ATF’s failure to raid the compound, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the standoff lasting 51 days. Eventually, the FBI launched an assault and initiated a tear gas attack in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians out. During the attack, a fire engulfed Mount Carmel Center and 76 people, including David Koresh, died.

Much dispute remains as to the actual events of the siege. A particular controversy ensued over the origin in the fire; a government investigation concluded in 2000 that sect members themselves had started the fire. The events near Waco were cited as the primary motivation for the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing that took place exactly two years later in 1995.


Religious Terrorism

     Religious terrorism is terrorism carried out based on motivations and goals that have a predominantly religious character or influence.

In the modern age, after the decline of ideas such as the divine right of kings and with the rise of nationalism, terrorism has more often been based on anarchism, nihilism, and revolutionary politics. Since 1980, however, there has been an increase in terrorist activity motivated by religion.

Former United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said that terrorist acts in the name of religion and ethnic identity have become “one of the most important security challenges we face in the wake of the Cold War.”

Martyrdom, Suicide terrorism, self-sacrifice

Important symbolic acts such as the blood sacrifice link acts of violence to religion and terrorism. Suicide terrorism, self-sacrifice, or martyrdom has throughout history been organized and perpetrated by groups with both political and religious motivations.

The Christian tradition has a long history of heterodoxical and heretical groups which stressed self-immolative acts, and scholarship has linked this to some degree to modern political groups such as the Irish Republican army.

Suicide terrorism or martyrdom is efficient, inexpensive, easily organized, and extremely difficult to counter, delivering maximum damage for little cost. The shocking nature of a suicide attack also attracts public attention. Glorifying the culture of martyrdom benefits the terrorist organization and inspires more people to join the group. According to one commentator, retaliation against suicide attacks increases the group’s sense of victimization and commitment to adhere to doctrine and policy.

This process serves to encourage martyrdom, and so suicide terrorism, self-sacrifice, or martyrdom represent “value for money.” Robert Pape, a political scientist who specializes in suicide terrorism, has made a case for secular motivations and reasons as being the foundations of most suicide attacks, which are often labelled as “religious.”


Terrorism activities worldwide are supported through not only the organized systems that teach holy war as the highest calling, but also through the legal, illegal, and often indirect methods financing these systems; these sometimes use organizations, including charities, as fronts to mobilize or channel sources and funds. Charities can involve the provision of aid to that in need, and oblations or charitable offerings are fundamental to nearly all religious systems, with sacrifice as a furtherance of the custom.

Criticism of the Concept

Robert Pape who wrote “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism [Random House, 2005]” compiled the first complete database of every documented suicide bombing from 1980-2003.

He argues that the news reports about suicide attacks are profoundly misleading — “There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions”. After studying 315 suicide attacks carried out over the last two decades, he concludes that suicide bombers’ actions stem from political conflict, not religion.

Terry Nardin who wrote “Review: Terror in the Mind of God, The Journal of Politics 63 (2) 683-684, May 2001, stated:

“A basic problem is whether religious terrorism really differs, in its character and causes, from political terrorism … defenders of religious terrorism typically reason by applying commonly acknowledged moral principles… But the use (or misuse) of moral arguments does not in fact distinguish religious from nonreligious terrorists, for the latter also rely upon such arguments to justify their acts… political terrorism can also be symbolic… alienation and dispossession… are important in other kinds of violence as well. In short, one wonders whether the expression ‘religious terrorism’ is more than a journalistic convenience.”

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer wrote,

“..Religion is not innocent. But it does not ordinarily lead to violence. That happens only with the coalescence of a peculiar set of circumstances – political, social, and ideological – when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social aspirations, personal pride, and movements for political change.” And…”Whether or not one uses ‘terrorist’ to describe violent acts depends on whether one thinks that the acts are warranted. To a large extent the use of the term depends on one’s world view: if the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear to be terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in ongoing battles, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.”

David Kupelian who wrote, “How Evil Works: Understanding and Overcoming the Destructive Forces That Transformed America, 2010” stated “Genocidal madness can’t be blamed on a particular philosophy or religion.”

Riaz Hassan who wrote, “Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombs and Strategy (Simon and Shuster, 2010) stated “It is politics more than religious fanaticism that has led terrorists to blow themselves up.”

However, the political scientists Robert Pape and Terry Nardin and social psychologists M. Brooke Rogers and colleagues, and the sociologist and religious studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer have all argued that religion should be considered only one incidental factor and that so-called “religious” terrorism is primarily geopolitical.


     According to Juergensmeyer, religion and violence have had a symbiotic relationship since before The Crusades and even since before the Bible. He defines religious terrorism as consisting of acts that terrify, the definition of which is provided by the witnesses – the ones terrified – and not by the party committing the act, accompanied by either a religious motivation, justification, organization, or world view. Religion is sometimes used in combination with other factors, and sometimes as the primary motivation. Religious Terrorism is intimately connected to current forces of geopolitics.

Bruce Hoffman who wrote “Inside Terrorism,” Columbia University Press (1999) has characterized modern religious terrorism as having three traits:

  • The perpetrators must use religious scriptures to justify or explain their violent acts or to gain recruits.
  • Clerical figures must be involved in leadership roles.
  • Perpetrators use apocalyptic images of destruction to justify the acts.

In Part II ahead, I will focus on one of the most terrifying groups in the 21st Century—ISIS. The interplay between ISIS as religious fanaticism, and as a geopolitical force, will be described. What connects these two elements of terrorism is, in fact, the conflicting current status of the ideology and religious “meaning” of Jihad. Also, I present information of a predictive nature as to The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.

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