ATbar Impact of Religion on Terrorist Behavior
Loading Search Engine

Impact of Religion on Terrorist Behavior

28/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

This workshop focused on the links which exist between religion and terrorism: seeking to explain them in greater depth while dispelling the notion that terrorism is the realm of the insane. The importance of religion and its influence on the practices of terrorist groups were studied, notably through the analysis of Islamic beheadings. Religious conflicts in general were also covered, as were the trends of religious terrorism. The links between radicalization and ideology were also addressed, with Dr. Hirsch-Hoefler highlighting the role of organizations as a link between both. Finally, means of combatting this were also discussed, including the possibility of empowering more moderate factions within Islam (such as Sufism). 

Chair: Prof. Ron Hassner
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, United States of America

Dr. Michael Barak
Researcher and Project Manager,  International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC Herzliya, Israel

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Fighel
Senior Researcher & Head of the Terrorism Prosecution Desk, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC Herzliya, Israel

Dr. Jonathan Fine
Research Fellow, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and Academic Advisor, Raphael Recanati International School, Program in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel

Prof. Jonathan Fox
Professor, Bar Ilan University, Israel

Dr. Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler
Senior Researcher & Head of the Right-Wing Extremism and Hate Crime Desk, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), & Assistant Professor, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, IDC Herzliya, Israel


Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Fighel
Studying the role of religion in terrorism, Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Fighel uses the example of beheadings in Islamic terrorism as a means of highlighting the internal logic of such acts, stressing that those who undertake these acts do not do so out of barbarism or insanity. Since the 1989 Afghan war, beheadings have become a greater phenomenon within radical Islam and reached a pinnacle when Zarqawi revived this practice in Iraq. Although beheadings have no precedence in Islamic history or theology, they are not simply a fabricated practice. For one, justifications for beheadings can be found within the teachings of the Saudi Wahhabi or Salafist doctrine. Indeed, beheadings occur regularly in Saudi Arabia and it is thus possible, for the jihadists undertaking such practices, to find justifications for this in Saudi religious teachings. Col. (Ret.) Fighel also stresses the existence of justifications for beheadings within Shia Islam. He thus stresses the importance of ideology, notably when studying radicalization, as it forms the conceptual ground on which specific actions are then justified. 

Prof. Jonathan Fox
Prof. Jonathan Fox starts by defining religious conflicts, claiming that these can fall under two categories: conflicts over religious issues (although he admits that no conflict can be completely religious in this sense, and points to ISIS’ dislike of Shias as being a partially ethnic concern) and conflicts between groups which belong to different religions. He then analyzes the causes of religious conflicts; these can be started by issues that do not relate directly to religion, but that can be perceived as threats to religion. In all these cases, religious legitimacy is particularly important and can be employed in order to justify one’s course of action. As such, Prof. Fox stresses that religions have commonly been employed to legitimize conflicts that had nothing to do with religion per se. Certain conflicts can also become religious once religious institutions have become involved (provides the example of the Algerian civil war). Prof. Fox then observes why religion is so commonplace in conflicts involving the use of terrorism. In answer to this he points to the inability to compromise over religious goals, and the inability to achieve religious goals peacefully as these goals may be radical and asymmetric power relations. In terms of data, he points to the rise of religiously motivated violent conflict in the world: this rise began in 1977 (around the time of the Iranian revolution) and a majority of conflicts became religiously motivated in 2002. 

Dr. Jonathan Fine
Dr. Jonathan Fine stresses that the role of religion must be taken seriously and points to the fact that many have misunderstood differences between religious and secular agendas. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, we can see great expansions and increase of religious groups compared to secular ones.  When seeking to explain this phenomenon, many western scholars point to the collapse of the USSR, to religion’s ability to offer alternatives, to globalization, and to the weakening of authority.  Yet, according to Dr. Fine, all such explanations downplay the role of ideologies in general. Rather than seeing religion as a means, Dr. Fine’s research highlights its importance as an end in itself.  Having established this, he expands upon the importance of understanding the mindset of religious violence, which involves a greater understanding of the importance provided to specific texts as well as of mechanisms of interpretation. This is all the more important as the way in which a terrorist group defines and views its enemies is likely to have an impact on the strategies which it adopts. Dr. Jonathan Fine points to the target selection of groups such as the IRA and ETA as examples of the fact that, while such groups did kill civilians, they did not do so to the same extent as religious groups. According to him, this has to do with the way in which religious terrorist groups define and understand their enemies. 

Dr. Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler
Dr. Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler observes the link between ideology and radical activism, paying particular attention to the existence of an element which may tie these various elements together. To do so, she looks at the case of Israeli settlers. In observing the role of religion in the creation of radicals, she stresses that religion provides a sense of belonging to individuals and influences the strategies implemented by groups (as strategies must correspond to one’s identity). Effectively, she argues that both ideological and organizational factors play a key role in fostering radical activism, with the informal structure in which individuals are found mediating between ideology and radicalization: individuals tend not to radicalize alone but as part of a group.  Overall then, while ideology is undoubtedly important, Dr. Hirsch-Hoefler’s research finds that in-and-of itself it only has a minor impact. It remains to be answered, then, whether people who are already radicals tend to join similar groups or whether these groups are the ones having a radicalizing influence. 

Dr. Michael Barak
Dr. Michael Barak questions whether Sufism could be a preferable alternative to Salafism. Initially, Dr. Barak explains the ways in which Salafism has become a contemporary threat: he stresses that the Arab Spring has accelerated the strengthening of Salafists, that many such group seek to transform the status quo through the use of violence and that, through social networks, cyberspace and the influence of local preachers, many Muslims in the west are undergoing radicalization processes.  Next, Dr. Michael Barak provides a description of Sufism: a branch of Islam which accounts for 200 million members throughout the world, is organized as a global network and generally despises Salafists. Importantly, Sufism is generally understood as being a stabilizing factor within societies and may, as such, prove to be a crucial ally against Salafism. Mr. Barak then studies two examples of prominent Sufi individuals who have challenged Salafist theology. He argues for the support of Sufi leaders as a means of promoting religious tolerance and diminishing radicalization within Muslim communities.