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Characteristics of Religious Terrorism

The specificity and level of modern civilization are characterized by the existence of acute global problems affecting the destinies of not only individuals and social groups but also entire humanity. Therefore, in the modern world, the most serious conflicts that require immediate resolution emerge with increased frequency. Moreover, they are capable of escalating into all-consuming civil strife. One such phenomenon is religious terrorism which has become a serious global problem of modern times. The religious basis of action has always been a serious defense of terrorists who justify their crimes both inside the country and outside it. In the 21st century, the internationalization of religious terrorism occurs due to the processes of globalization and the erosion of state borders. The nature of this type of terrorism constantly becomes more complicated, the sophistication of its methods increases, while the inhumanity of terrorist acts grows, becoming more and more extensive and violent. The widespread character of religious terrorism is seen in the events in Syria, Iraq, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain. One thing remains unchanged – the power of faith in the ‘righteousness’ of a terrorist act justifies any sacrifice. This millennia-old influence of faith is more powerful than all digital inventions of humankind. The analysis of the characteristics of religious terrorism makes it possible to form a doctrine of its prevention through the ideological response of the state to the actors of terrorist activity.

Understanding Religious Terrorism

To date, there is no single definition of religious terrorism. One group of the representatives of political and philosophical thought defines this phenomenon as a form of political terrorism, while other researchers believe that this type of terrorism is predominantly characteristic of Islam (Gregg 37). However, both groups rightly claim that the typical feature of religious terrorism is the conduct of violent actions that threaten the health as well as personal and property freedoms of citizens (Gregg 38). Nevertheless, the crux of the problem lies in the fact that under this approach, the concept of religious terrorism is purely descriptive and viewed as an integral part of a political one. Moreover, until now, in scientific circles, there is no holistic view of the ontological nature of the phenomenon of religious terrorism. For example, the clarification of the parameters of its territorial distribution is possible within the framework of the geopolitical approach (Gregg 41). At the same time, the poli civilization approach is aimed at clarifying the causes of religious terrorism, while the psychological one focuses on the outcome of the phenomenon itself, or its destructive potential specifically (Gregg 41). Finally, the legal approach studies the normative nature of terrorism and provides a justification for the partial regulation of this problem within the legal sphere (Gregg 42). Each of the above approaches fixes one of the important components of terrorism as a phenomenon, but its ontological essence remains unknown. Undoubtedly, its origin lies in political and social processes. Therefore, the causes of religious terrorism should be sought in the system of political, economic, social, and religious relations, while its essence is hidden in human psychology.

Religious terrorism has a deep history, but within the framework of the world community, this concept has been identified as an independent phenomenon relatively recently. For the first time, the concept of ‘religious terrorism’ was isolated from the general semantics of terrorism at the international conference on the struggle against terrorism “Europe 2000”, held in France in January, 1998 (Post 249). Of particular concern is the fact that unlike traditional terrorists, religious ones, as a rule, do not have political goals, do not show interest in holding negotiations with the authorities, and do not expect to satisfy their material claims. Religious terrorists use violence for purposes that, in their opinion, are determined by the Lord; if secular terrorists see themselves as a part of a system that they must change, religious ones take themselves out of the bounds of the system, assuming the final destruction of this world (Gregg 47). At the same time, the objects of their attacks are blurred geographically, ethnically, and socially; therefore, they are more extensive. Thus, their enemies are those who do not belong to a given religion or confession.

Controversy in the Perception of Religious Terrorism

The interest of the international community in religious terrorism is presupposed by the magnitude of this phenomenon. According to experts, this type of terrorism develops much more dynamically than any other (Juergensmeyer). The assessments of some experts reveal a certain one-sidedness of the perception of religious terrorism. The latter has been mostly associated with the Al-Qaida group for the last three decades, whose ferocity and the ability to develop, spread, and strengthen make it one of the most serious threats to modern civilization (Juergensmeyer). Such a perception is caused mainly by the events of September 11, 2001, for which this terrorist organization has taken responsibility (Juergensmeyer). Furthermore, even in Norway, the threat assessment report in 2013 concluded that extreme Islamism was still the most serious terrorist threat for the nation (Mossin). However, this argument could be countered by the fact that in Norway, there was a manifestation of religious terrorism but not within the framework of Islam. The manifesto and actions of Anders Breivik have been interpreted and recognized by the court as terrorist ones as well, and religion is considered to be the main reason for the legitimization of his actions, which makes it possible to call his act an example of religious terrorist activity (Mossin). Thus, despite the absence of a unified definition of the term ‘religious terrorism’, it should be concluded that this type possibly has universal manifestations in all existing religions.

Components of Religious Terrorism

When describing the status of religious terrorism, one should specifically mention its functional components such as ideology, fanaticism, radicalism, and extremism. Consequently, terrorism links these components into a single whole. Their dialectical interaction in the process of the formation of religious terrorism, and their theoretical (ideology) and practical (implementation mechanisms) unity should also be emphasized.


The formation of religious ideology occurs based on the irrational perception of reality, replacing actual realism. The political ideology of religious terrorism implies a break with recognized humanistic Christian, Hindu, Islamic, or other traditions (Obi and Chidimma 22). The ideological basis includes mechanisms that allow the involvement of oppositional groups of religiously-oriented layers of the population in terrorist activities. That the method of the ideological indoctrination of religious adherents into terrorists has practically not changed since the Middle Ages. At the time, possible terrorists were the representatives of the poor youth who were trained in special camps with the use of various psychedelic practices (Nacos). The main ideological function is control over the behavior of potential terrorists who must even die to achieve their goal.


The second element of religious terrorism is fanaticism which is based on religious belief. Such a belief, to the extreme of its expression, implies intolerance towards other faiths. From this perspective, fanaticism manifests itself as a passionate devotion to some religious political idea that is the basis of the entire life and worldview of a fanatic. Religious fanaticism is addressed to the real world that needs active correction since, as fanatics believe, it is a deviation from the true divine establishment (Ferguson and Binks 2). Therefore, such faith is aimed at the real world and not a transcendental one, as required by traditional religion (Ferguson and Binks 2). Consequently, the political ideology of religious terrorism lies in the possibility of realizing the transcendental here and now. At the same time, the understanding of fanaticism as a specific behavior, including aggressiveness and the desire to destroy existing society, provides an opportunity for researchers to treat it as an illusory destructive way of social action. This action is based on the ideology of people with fanatical mental frames who unite into an organization. Consequently, fanaticism is a one-sided form of religious activity that is characterized by the fanatic’s vocation to transform the world in accordance with their views as well as the establishment of a practical and immediate transformation of the world in accordance with their faith and ideology.

Radicalism and Extremism

Radicalism and extremism are the fundamental mechanisms of religious terrorism. At its heart, radicalism puts the content side of political and religious ideas and suggests radical ways of its implementation. Moreover, this mechanism serves in the qualitative transformation of religious processes into political ones occurs (Juergensmeyer). Radicalism affirms its intransigence to civil secular society and believes in the creation of a theocratic state whose legal norms should be based on religion. Extremism, in turn, appeals to feelings and faith. In ideological terms, extremism is a religious extreme that rejects all dissent, striving to strengthen political and religious views as much as possible (Gregg 39). Thus, extremism is the continuation of the development of the ideas of radicalism. Its main signs are armed violence, the unquestioning execution of all orders, and the absence of a compromise.

Features of Modern Religious Terrorism

Five major features of modern religious terrorism can be outlined. The first of them is the ideological basis that provides opportunities for the active use of terrorist forms and methods of struggle in different socio-political conditions and regions. The concepts of Islamic extremism are the most common ones, which is explained by the spread of Islam on the territory of countries all over the world and its ability to influence the most diverse, especially marginal, segments of the population. One should also mention the presence of sharp contradictions between Islamic states, or their influential political circles, with the West they consider to be the main embodiment of evil in the modern world, viewing it as the main threat to Islam, its culture, and the independent existence of Islamic states in the conditions the increasing globalization (Juergensmeyer). This factor has caused the emergence of Islamic terrorism outside the Middle East and North Africa and its transformation into a global factor of international terrorism. Other areas of religious terrorism (Christian, Jewish, and so on) are more local in nature, but they are also capable of posing a threat to national security. Such a threat is seen in the activities of American extremist groups of ‘white domination’ and the emergence of Irish and Spanish religious extremist organizations (Juergensmeyer). The emergence of new religions creates a potential for conflicts and a favorable environment for the formation and activation of religious and terrorist activities in many countries of the world, including banned international organizations Anand-da Marga, Aum-Senrique, and others (Juergensmeyer). This feature distinguishes religious terrorism from other forms of intended violence.

The second feature of religious terrorism is the increased social danger of terroristic acts. The main strategic goals of religious terrorism are unclear since terrorists use a complex religious phraseology. Often, the formulation of goals presupposes the conduct of a holy war, the destruction of the world’s evil, religious cleansing, the implementation of Islamic revolutions, the formation of theocratic states of caliphates, and so on (Post 252). At the same time, the tasks of religious terrorists often go beyond the goals, having more radical destruction and transformation of social relations and institutions as their basis.

The third feature of religious terrorism is the unlimited use of violence or readiness for it. One of the dangerous manifestations of the relationship between religion and terrorism is that the speculative use of religious ideology in the system of this terrorism ensures the legitimization of violence by religious prescriptions (Obi and Chidimma 23). The use of violence in the activities of religious terrorists and their structures is viewed by them as a divine duty or sacred action. The same factor is a prerequisite for large-scale and bloody terrorist acts, including using weapons of mass destruction, for example, the chemical attack in Damascus in 2013 (Juergensmeyer). Therefore, the divine explanation of the motives for the use of violence makes religious terrorism the most vicious form of terrorist activity.

The fourth feature is the presence of an organization. The ideological basis of terrorism determines its characteristic features. They include the creation of structures using forms and names of religious organizations, and the desire to ensure their legal status through official registration in the relevant state bodies, which facilitates contacts with state and public organizations and citizens (Mossin). Among these features are the implementation of a diverse ideological and subversive impact on selected objects, the use of organizational forms of humanitarian agencies, and the participation in various kinds of international exchange (Mossin). The support point for the activities of such organizations is the creation of organizational structures with the official goal of offering religious and formal education, and so on. Another feature of the organization of religious terrorism, primarily of Islamist structures, is the use of a network principle for the creation and deployment of forces and facilities of these organizations, which involves the formation of small and independent structural units (Mossin). This principle ensures the secrecy and security of their activities. According to experts, the most widespread practice is used by a number of large Islamic extremist organizations, especially Al-Qaeda, as well as extremist structures of the Protestant movements such as Christian Patriotism and Civil Militia (Juergensmeyer, n.d.). The organizational structure of religious terrorism makes it more widespread and continuous as compared to other forms of terrorist activity.

Finally, the fifth feature is the misuse of religious terrorism by governmental authorities. State support for such a type of terrorism is a common practice in the activities of a number of foreign states that seek to use the terrorist forms and methods of struggle to realize their foreign policy goals. The application of the structures of religious terrorism in this aspect is, at least in modern conditions, the prevailing practice of certain states in realizing their foreign policy (Sinai 101). This principle hides the desire of some states to perform a military intervention in the internal affairs of independent states in order to avoid condemnation of such actions by the world community. According to some researchers, recently, this policy has been used by the USA and other Western countries against Syria, which implies the division of terrorists into bad and good terrorists, sponsoring terrorist organizations (Sinai 102). The practice of state support for terrorist organizations is seen as an activation of the factor of international terrorism, thus undermining international, regional, and national security, which is a blatant violation of international law.

Causes of Religious Terrorism

The causes of religious terrorism include political, economic, social, and spiritual ones. Political reasons include the aggravation of national, regional, religious, and other conflicts throughout the world, which entails the formation of long-term hotbeds of social tension, the expanding influence of ethnic groups and religious trends that seek to exploit extremist ideas and actions in selfish interests for the partition of property and the seizure of power (Post 256). Another group of political reasons is the emergence of a large number of new criminal, military, extremist, and terrorist actors that often operate under religious names and cover themselves with appropriate terminology (Post 257). The success of such organizations, as well as the impunity of their activities, provides an opportunity for the further dissemination of the ideas of religious terrorism as well as its activation.

The second group of reasons includes economic factors that presuppose the conflicting needs of various disparate groups of humanity, such as peoples, nationalities, classes, groups, and strata, that can breed religious terrorism as a phenomenon of social life. The disunity in society is not accidental since it is a consequence of the objectively existing dissociation of human beings and consciousness (Ferguson and Binks 2). Different conditions for the existence of people and their individual characteristics inevitably lead to the division of humanity into separate groups on different grounds, specifically religious, social, or national ones. The sharp discrepancy between the level of economic development of different countries (the North and South, the West and the East) in the context of limited financial, material, technical, resource, and other opportunities lead to severe social consequences. The latter form migration waves that create conditions of difficulties with the installation of a new location tensions in society and contribute to the expansion of social support for extremism. Indicative in this regard was the action of civil disobedience in the summer of 2006 in France that was manifested in the arson of cars and the smashing of shop windows by Arab youths (Juergensmeyer). Therefore, economic factors can be considered one of the main reasons for the emergence of religious terrorism.

The social causes of religious terrorism can be nationalistic. Despite the difference in goals and affiliation with various religious movements, all adepts are united by a clear vision of the enemy’s image (Mossin). A natural continuation of nationalistic and religious ideas about the chosen people’s God-closeness is xenophobia – a sharply negative attitude toward aliens since they are to blame for all misfortunes and troubles of some people or religious groups (Mossin). The representative of the scientific direction of sociobiology, Mossin, interprets xenophobia as a fundamental natural phenomenon, associated with Darwin’s theory of life competition, or the survival of the strongest species. In his opinion, xenophobia becomes increasingly politically dangerous, as evidenced by two wars in Europe, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the threat of a new war (Mossin). For a part of the population, such religiously colored nationalism is the response to the rapidly changing world, to an imposed alien culture, an economy with ruthless market competition, and a policy with chaotic liberal orders.

Finally, among the spiritual causes are metaphysical, which imply the ratio of man and God, and cultural ones. Juergensmeyer believes that the spiritual corporation (priests) distorts the messages of prophets and takes all measures to create the so-called ‘historical’ Judaism and Christianity that have nothing in common with either the goals or the project that messengers brought to the world of God. Therefore, the “Revolution of the Prophets” (Juergensmeyer) is caused by the desire to destroy incompatible with the “project of God” (Juergensmeyer) modern traditions, established by the priests of all religions. At the same time, before the Enlightenment, people waged wars, killed Gentiles, built cathedrals, and sacrificed themselves in the name of God, since the Enlightenment, a person was able to pass to autonomy, from the sense given from the outside to the self-established meaning, from passive hope expectations for active hope of action (Gregg 49). There is an explosive mixture of suicidal religious fanaticism, neglecting human life, and modern technology. Therefore, these factors give rise to the phenomenon of religious terrorism.

Prevention of Religious Terrorism

One of the key areas in the fight against religious terrorism in the public sphere is its prevention through ideological influence on the part of state structures. Therefore, it is especially important to have such preventive work among young people since due to a number of different factors, the younger generation is most vulnerable in terms of exposure to the negative influence of various radical groups. Social and material uncertainty of young individuals, common maximalism in valuations and decisions, emotional immaturity, and substantial addiction to somebody else’s view are just some of the explanations that allow speaking about the opportunity for the easy distribution of fundamentalist ideas among young people (Nacos). Finally, it is much more profitable to prevent religious terrorism among young people than to eliminate the consequences of such a phenomenon.

One should propose the following actions that are aimed at reducing radical manifestations among the youth. The first suggestion is the complex measures that will help form a legal culture among them. In particular, this process could be facilitated by a significant expansion of the legal component in upbringing and education. Knowledge of their rights and freedoms will contribute to the development of the younger generation’s sense of respect for the rights and freedoms of others, including their lives, health, and dignity. The second proposal is the education of a tolerant worldview among young people as well as towards others regardless of their nationality, religion, social, property status, and other circumstances. The third suggestion is the improvement of the leisure and recreation of young people. Many of them fall into various radical religious organizations largely because of a lack of anything substantial to do and often the opportunity to spend their free time profitably. Next, it is important to raise the level of social and material security of youth, help find young professionals, and support housing programs for young people. The listed activities should be accessible to all young people since they will help improve their material situation. Thus, the ideology of the state response is able to eliminate the negative impact of radical religious groups and prevent the formation of religious terrorism.


The analysis of the characteristics of religious terrorism makes it possible to form a doctrine of its prevention through the ideological response of the state to the actors of religious terrorist activity. To date, there is no single approach to defining religious terrorism. Despite the belief that this type of terrorism is mostly characteristic of Islam religion, the analysis makes it clear that this phenomenon is distinctive for all religions of the world. The fundamental elements and mechanisms of the act of terrorism are religious worldview, political ideology, fanaticism, radicalism, and extremism as well as the violent realization of ideas. The main features of religious terrorism are a broad ideological basis, social danger, the use of violence or readiness for it, the presence of organizational structure, and, in some cases, state support. The causes of religious terrorism are political, economic, social, and spiritual ones. The young population is under the greatest threat of influence by religious fanatics whose propaganda is covered by the phenomenon of religious terrorism. Considering the characteristics of religious terrorism, one can see that the most effective method of combating it is the ideological preventive work with young people.