The Roots of Terrorism: Religion

Research is consistent that there are many causes of terrorism that seem to be reinforced by historical and political phenomena, economic and social grievances, as well as ideological and religious factors (Spindlove & Simonsen, 2013; Tan, 2008). The religion factor, in particular, has been cited as a central driving force to recent acts of terrorism targeting the United States and other Western interests (Liu & Woodward, 2013). Indeed, the seminal events of 11 September 2001 and responses to them demonstrate how religious-motivated terrorism has been one of the most powerful forces shaping global history and international relations. The present paper provides evidence to demonstrate how the religion motivator has had the greatest impact on terrorism throughout history, before recommending a course of action to mitigate this motivator and identifying the greatest hurdles to the selected course of action.

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Why Religion is the most influential in Spawning Terrorist Activity

Although many scholars have presented the argument that religion per se is not a direct cause of terrorism (Liu & Woodward, 2013), this paper argues that it is the most significant in initiating terrorist activity due to a number of reasons. First, historical accounts demonstrate how terrorist groups such as the Wahhabi and Al-Qaeda have used religion as a tool to spread their ideology with the view to legitimizing violence, winning recruits to their cause, and mobilizing them for action (Tan, 2008). Here, it is important to note that religion, more than anything else, has served as the most effective recruitment tool to terrorist activities as people can find justification for terrorism through appeals to religion. The second reason revolves around the fact that religion has always been used by people as a means of dealing with their frustrations and personal predicaments “in a way that address their particular inadequacies by making them part of a more powerful movement and promising ultimate victory” (Cinar, 2009, p. 111). This way, the religious factor acts as a source of power that enables individuals to deal with their social, political or economic frustrations through terrorism.

The third reason concerns the issue of fundamentalism or radicalization, whereby it is evident that religion has served as an effective tool to radicalize unsuspecting and vulnerable people throughout history. The presence of deep fundamental economic, social and political injustices that have caused the alienation of millions of people globally causes some of these people to become susceptible to join terrorist organizations through appeals to religion (Tan, 2008). Indeed, most Muslim-oriented terrorist groups continue to use the perception of existential threat that is most likely elicited by the injustices or violence inflicted on innocent Muslims at national or international levels to radicalize people through appeals to the Islam religion (Liu & Woodward, 2013; Spindlove & Simonsen, 2013). The last reason deals with the “self-categorization of the world into two groups: infidels and believers” (Liu & Woodward, 2013, p. 81). This world view has been used to spawn terrorist activity through its capacity to provide radicalized Muslims with a collective identity to mount a struggle against the demonized Westerners.

Course of Action

Based on the reasons given above, it is clear that a narrow counter-terrorism approach that uses military action against countries or regions deemed to support terrorism is counter-productive and cannot accomplish the desired outcomes. Given the particular conditions that drive people to use religion to justify terrorist activities, a comprehensive course of action encompassing political, economic, social and psychological measures must be put in place with the sole objective of tackling the primary roots of alienation and rebellion that drive people to join terrorism cells through appeals to religion (Tan, 2008). Western countries, in particular, need to take a proactive position in addressing the political, economic, social, and cultural problems that make young, unsuspecting people to be recruited into terrorism through appeals to religion. When the hearts and minds of this group of the population are won over by addressing the primary roots of alienation and rebellion, terrorism will die a natural death as radicalized terrorists will no longer be able to use religion to recruit followers to their cause.

Greatest Impediments to Selected Course of Action

The selected course of action is likely to lack popular support in Western countries because many people may view it as being too soft on terrorism. This impediment is backed up by the claim that most people in countries targeted by terrorism support the capturing or killing of terrorists, as opposed to addressing the problems that make people to become terrorists (Tan, 2008). Another impediment relates to lack of political goodwill among the ruling class in the Western world. Since the selected course of action entails using huge financial and material resources to address the primary roots of alienation and rebellion, it may be practically impossible to persuade Western political leaders to fund such a project. Third, it is important to note that religious-oriented indoctrination is so entrenched that it defies easy resolution (Tan, 2008). As such, it may be difficult to deal with the issue of religion-motivated terrorism even in the presence of goodwill from Western countries and other interested stakeholders. Lastly, it is likely that most terrorism hotbeds may refuse to buy into the course of action considering the fact that those who lead terrorist activities there view themselves as a group of pure and clean believers engaged in a holy war with infidels (Westerners).

Prediction of the Selected Cause

Religion, in my view, will remain the most important cause of terrorism throughout the immediate future. This prediction is anchored on two facts: First, it is clear that all contemporary terrorism activities going on around the world are embedded in religion or religious fundamentalism. The Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Al-Shabaab, and other terrorist organizations are fueled and sustained by radical Islamic ideologies that go against the very teachings of Islam. These groups are able to use online platforms to spread their radical Islamic ideologies and recruit unsuspecting people to their Jihad cause. Although there are other terrorists that are unrelated to the Islam religion, it is clear that extreme religious interpretations of the Quran through the holy war, blind obedience, and absolute truth claims will continue to play a significant role in fuelling terrorism activities into the future (Venkatraman, 2007). Another justification of the prediction is based on the fact that nearly all the other root causes of terrorism mentioned by Spindlove and Simonsen (2013) are actualized through appeal to religion. In this paper, it has been illuminated how politically or economically disenfranchised populations use religion as a source of power to recruit others into terrorist activities. The central importance of religion in people’s lives, therefore, will be instrumental in determining terrorism trajectories into the future.


This paper has not only provided evidence to demonstrate how religion has had the greatest impact on terrorism, but also recommended a course of action to address this motivator and identified some impediments that may derail the successful implementation of the selected cause. Although the impediments identified in this paper may require concerted efforts to address, it is clear that the United States need a comprehensive course of action that encompasses political, economic, social and psychological domains if it is to succeed in addressing the reasons that make religion to be the most important cause of terrorism.

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Cinar, B. (2009). The root causes of terrorism. METU Studies in Development, 36(2), 93-119. Web.

Liu, J.H., & Woodward, M. (2013). Towards an indigenous psychology of religious terrorism with global implications: Introduction to AJSP’s special issue on Islamist terrorism in Indonesia. Asia Journal of Social Psychology, 16(2), 79-82. Web.

Spindlove, J.R., & Simonsen, C.E. (2013). Terrorism today: The past, the players, the future (5th ed.). NJ: Pearson Education.

Tan, A.T.H. (2008). Terrorism, insurgency, and religious fundamentalism in Southeast Asia. Defense Studies, 8(3), 311-325. Web.

Venkatraman, A. (2007). Religious basis for Islamic terrorism: The Quran and its interpretations. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30(3), 229-248. Web.

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