Religious and Non-Religious Extremism

by Mark Movsesian

I thank Professors Guiora and Cliteur for their thoughtful interventions. As I see it, the basic distinction Prof. Guiora draws is between terrorism motivated by religious convictions – “religious terrorism” – and terrorism motivated by non-religious convictions – “non-religious terrorism.” Despite their arguments, though, I fear I am still not persuaded that this distinction is very helpful.

For instance, Prof. Guiora asserts that we should focus on religious terrorism for a practical reason: although non-religious terrorism was important in the past, terrorism today is of the religious variety. He’s right that much contemporary terrorism is religious in nature, maybe even most. But he minimizes the endurance of non-religious terrorism. I’ve already mentioned the Shining Path in Peru. Other examples include ETA in Spain, N17 and its splinter groups in Greece, the New People’s Army in the Philippines and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. None of these groups fits within the category of “religious terrorism,” and, while they are not as effective as they were, one can’t dismiss them as unimportant or merely relics. The Tamil Tigers, the group that invented suicide bombing, were defeated by the Sri Lankan military only last year.

As I understand him, Prof. Cliteur agrees with Prof. Guiora that religious terrorism is distinct from non-religious terrorism – and distinctly dangerous – because religion motivates violence in a way non-religion does not. Although important elements of the three monotheistic faiths encourage violence, he writes, atheism and secularism, in themselves, do not. It’s certainly true that some religious ideologies encourage violence, as I said in my last post. But some non-religious ideologies encourage violence as well, at least if one is to judge by the understanding of the movements that espouse them. Besides, does it really make a difference, practically speaking, if a group believes it must eliminate its opponents in order to instantiate God’s rule on earth rather than to achieve a workers’ paradise or a “homeland for our own kind”? In each case, the group is a threat to civil society that must be contained. For this reason, I would prefer a treatment of extremism full-stop, rather than extremism in the name of religion.

Finally, about extreme religious expression. Prof. Guiora gives the chilling example of the rabbis who incited the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by reciting a pulsa denura outside his home. Prof. Guiora knows much more about the Israeli context than I, but let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose, instead of conducting a religious ritual, a group of ultra-nationalist Israelis gathered outside Rabin’s house with signs depicting him as a traitor and calling for his death. Isn’t it possible that some impressionable person could have been incited by these signs to murder the prime minister? Would that have been any less chilling? Again, what does the religious motive really add?

Perhaps we can discuss Prof. Guiora’s policy prescriptions in more detail in the next go-round. For now, I should just point out that any attempt to single out extreme religious expression, rather than extreme expression itself, would face serious problems under the American Constitution.

One Response

  1. I want to thank Prof. Movesian for his interesting response to my contribution to this site. I think that the distinction that he makes between “religious” and “non-religious” extremism is better than the initial distinction between “religious” and “secular” or “atheist” extremism. The reason why “secular terrorism” sseem to me a misnomer, is because it suggests there is something in the ideology of secularism that incites to violence. And that is not true.
    Movesian continues with the contention that non-religious ideologies also incite to violence. That is true. But at the same time it is not entirely relevant for the point that religious terrorism has a specific nature that has to be analyzed and understood as something special. Of course, both religious and non-religious terrorism pose a threat to civil society that has to be contained, as Prof. Movesian rightly contends. But I do not focus on the judicial reaction to terrorism, but on a scholarly understanding of its nature. Let me try to make this clear with the following example. Both Stalin and Ayatollah Khomeini are fanatics that killed their opponents. Both operated on the basis of an ideology. Because of that similarity one may be tempted to say: “Well, let’s try to understand their fanaticist ideology.” My reaction would be that by operating in that manner we are working on too high a level of abstraction. The Islamist type of ideology is crucially different from marxism-leninism (although both pose a security threat). Islamist ideology is based on a divine command theory of ethics and politics that is difficult to harmonize with the principles of liberal democracy. It does not, from the nature of its ideology, acknowledge the value of national traditions (which is another problem, analyzed by Bassam Tibi). Analyzing these elements seems to be crucially important because the three monotheistic faiths are present in our culture and we have to understand what elements in those faiths can (in a radicalized form) pose problems for liberal democracies. I agree fully with Prof. Movesian that extremism in general has to be says “treated” (so also Tamil Tigers, ETA etc.), but every effective treatment presupposes the acknowledgement that the type of religious extremism we are confronted nowadays is different from the type of extremism of the RAF, ETA, Tamil Tigers etc.

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