Violence done in the name of religion is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to just one faith tradition. The causes of religiously motivated violence, however, have taken on new importance in the modern age, particularly with its connection to recent acts of terrorism and social violence, such as the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, the persecution of Muslims by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, the emergence of Hindu nationalism in India, and the Christian Identity movement in the United States, to name but a few examples. This article aims to provide an overview of literature that investigates the causes of religiously motivated violence and a possible means of mitigating these acts done in the name of faith. It focuses primarily on contemporary examples of religiously motivated violence, but also includes important historic cases that provide insights into the conditions under which leaders and followers engage in violence in the name of faith and, in historic cases, how religiously motivated violence came to an end. Specifically, the article draws on a wide array of literature across academic disciplines to better understand the social, political, economic, and ideological conditions that fuel interpretations of religions calling for violence in the name faith, the willingness of adherents to answer the call to violence, and—with historic cases—the conditions under which violence was abandoned. For example, literature on fundamentalism and religious nationalism stresses the role that secularization plays in fueling a religious backlash that encourages adherents to get back to the “fundamentals” of the faith. Social movements often capitalize on the different resources that religions bring to organizing and coordinating mass movements, such as religious leaders, networks of congregations, material resources such as money and buildings, and moral codes that create perseverance in the face of adversity. Within these examples, violence is not a fore drawn conclusion, and examples can be found of leaders and groups that react to these perceived threats nonviolently (the Amish in the United States, Gandhi in India). However, the article pays particular attention to theories and examples where religious reactions to social, political, and ideological threats become violent in defense of or in promotion of the faith. Within this approach, consideration is given to a wide array of religious traditions, not just the biggest or most prevalent examples of religiously motivated violence to date. Much attention is paid in the early 21st century to violence and terrorism done in the name of Islam. However, religiously motivated violence also exists within modern-day Christianity, Judaism, and even Hinduism and Buddhism, two religions commonly perceived as nonviolent. Moreover, historic examples shed light on the conditions under which violent movements arose within specific religions and the conditions under which they were abandoned. The article is divided into four broad categories. The first section includes primary documents and databases. The second grouping provides theories of religiously motivated violence, including the conditions that create “apocalyptic warriors,” fundamentalists’ backlash against secularism and globalization, religious nationalism and its bid to make states and governments organized around religion, religion and social movements, and religion and ethnic conflict. The third category outlines specific topics in religiously motivated violence, including contested sacred space, religious terrorism, suicide operations, new religious movements and violence, and the concept of “just war.” And the fourth section investigates religiously motivated violence within specific religions, including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
Primary Sources and Databases
Often perpetrators of religiously motivated violence believe that they are changing the world and write extensively to explain their motivations and actions. These documents, while not always available in a concise format during an activist’s lifetime, are frequently compiled after their death and become an excellent source for understanding the conditions under which leaders call for violence in the name of religion. Sandhu 1999 and Kahane 2012 are volumes attributed to such writings and speeches. Bergesen 2008 is an edited volume of Qutb’s writings. And Lawrence 2005 and Ibrahim 2007 are compiled volumes of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda affiliates and their various essays. Databases also offer important primary documents for understanding groups, their motivations for violence, and various tactics they employ. The Suicide Attack Database provides a universal list of suicide bombings from 1982 to the present. The Harmony Program Database posts primary al-Qaeda and affiliate documents. And Religioscope offers a variety of documents from groups that espouse violence in the name of their religion. Books that compile primary sources from religious activists offer an abbreviated and annotative means of researching the ideas and writings of various militant activists. Daschke and Ashcroft 2005 compiles primary sources from new religious movements, whereas Lawrence 2005, Ibrahim 2007, Bergesen 2008, and Euben and Zaman 2009 are compilations of militant Islamists and their ideas.
Bergesen, Albert J. The Sayyid Qutb Reader: Selected Writings on Politics, Religion and Society. New York: Routledge, 2008.
This reader offers a brief overview of Qutb’s life and divides up Qutb’s prolific writings into categories ranging from politics to society, to the treatment of the earth.
Daschke, Dereck, and Michael Ashcroft, ed. New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
This volume compiles primary sources from a number of new religious movements ranging from nonviolent groups, like the Jehovah’s Witness, to violent movements like Heaven’s Gate and Branch Davidians.
Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammed Qasim Zaman, eds. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
This volume includes primary documents from historic and contemporary Muslim thinkers, including those that have advocated jihad and violence in the name of Islam.
This database, maintained by the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point, New York, compiles primary documents captured from al-Qaeda and affiliated movements.
Ibrahim, Rayomnd. The al Qaeda Reader: Essential Texts of Osama Bin Laden’s Terrorist Organization. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
Ibrahim includes statements from leaders within al-Qaeda and organizes these statements based on specific themes, countries, and groups being addressed, and al-Qaeda’s overall ideology.
Kahane, Meir. Beyond Words: Selected Writings. Vols. 1–3. Jerusalem: Institute for Publication of Writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, 2012.
This three-volume series contains the writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League in the United States and the Kach party in Israel.
Lawrence, Bruce. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2005.
This reader offers a comprehensive look at Bin Laden’s statements, communiqués, and interviews, including annotations and commentary to help guide the reader on the texts’ various meanings.
Religioscope, a database maintained in France, offers historic and contemporary interviews and documents from religious activists around the globe, translated into English and French.
Sandhu, Ranbir Singh. Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale. Dublin, OH: Sikh Educational & Religious Foundation, 1999.
A compilation of the ideas of the leader of the Khalistan movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
Suicide Attack Database. Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
This database aims to have a universal list of suicide bombings from 1982 to the present, with a “total of 4,814 attacks in over 40 countries,” as of September 2015.
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