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The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism edited by James R. Lewis

03 November 2017

Bernice Martin on the connections between religion and terrorism

THE Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism, edited by James R. Lewis, is a collection of authoritative essays presenting a range of often mutually contradictory approaches. Readers will find neither a simple key to the relations between terrorism and religion, nor a failsafe political programme. Instead, this book lays bare the complexities of the political and religious challenges that we face.

The chapters run from theoretical expositions through to case studies of regions and movements, plus two outlier chapters: an essay by Christopher Hartney on terrorism in a small selection of Hollywood films, and one by the editor and Nicole d’Amico on Falun Gong as a form of “spiritual terrorism” in China.

Running through the book are recurrent questions about the meaning of the terms “religion”, “terrorism”, and “secularity”; about the modern state’s use of violence, and the (largely post-colonial) resort to counter-violence by movements challenging the state or resisting foreign invasions; and the relevance of the religion/secular dichotomy beyond the boundaries of Christian culture.

Some of the “critical” theoretical positions are more or less sophisticated versions of the adage “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The obverse might be: “The security system of the imperial power is ‘state terrorism’ to its colonial and post-colonial subjects.”

Most of the chapters examining “Islamist” terrorism show how difficult it is in Muslim culture to draw a strict demarcation between “religion” (a colonial coinage, not an Islamic term) and “secular life”, since the two are interwoven in a way that is not true for the Christian distinction between “the Kingdom of God” and “the world”.

Mark Juergensmeyer argues that the primary cause of terrorist violence is economic and social tensions fuelling legitimate grievances that religion, at most, amplifies. William Cavanaugh emphasises the ambiguity of the religion/secular dichotomy as deployed in the West, showing that its ideological use involves tautological definitions that label as “religion” any movement — from millenarian Christian sects to Bolshevism or Nazism — initiating “righteous violence” on a cosmic eschatological blueprint, while “secular” designates “innocent” movements.

Tom Mills and David Miller discuss recent studies of radicalisation which find religion not guilty, but criticise the “secular” preconceptions of researchers who ignore their own evidence that religious practice increases immediately before individuals engage in terrorist activity. Other theoretical approaches include Rational Choice (Stephen Nemeth), René Girard’s linking of apocalypse and terrorism (Espen Dahl), Émile Durkheim’s ideas about sacrifice and suicide (Lorenz Graitl), and the role of the Devoted Actor (Scott Atran).

The empirical chapters cover the secular violence of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (James Lewis); al-Qaeda’s positioning of Islam against Western “unbelief” (Pieter Nanninga); performances of savagery by Islamic State (Pieter Nanninga); response to the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as demonstrating negative images of “the religious other” in French society (Per-Erik Nilsson); and the way in which the threat of Islamic State in Kyrgyzstan plays into geo-political rivalries in the area (Meerim Aitkulova).

This thought-provoking guide to thinking and research on this topic, is succinctly and, for the most part, accessibly written.


Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism

James R. Lewis, editor

Cambridge University Press £23.99


Church Times Bookshop £21.60




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