Terror in the Name of God: Unearthing the Puzzling Link between Religion and Terrorism

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Based on extensive fieldwork carried out in the hotbeds of religious violence and in-depth interviews with those who commit violence in the name of religion, Mark Juergensmeyer, in his book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, seeks to understand the perplexing relationship between religion and violence. The author argues that religious terrorism stems neither from political ideology nor a mutant form of religion; instead, the source of religious violence could be traced to the “deepest levels of religious imagination.”1 Thus, a search to understand the ambient cultures that foment religious terrorism leads Juergensmeyer to focus primarily on the ideas and communal supports that motivate these acts.2

What separates acts of terrorism committed by religious groups from those of secular groups is the idea of a cosmic war, where transcendent moralism justifies violent actions performed with ritual intensity.3 This cultural approach adopted by the author, which he describes as an epistemic worldview analysis, allows him to investigate the distinctive worldviews and moral justifications that propel religious violence while forcing him to rely on other sources to examine the political and networking facets of religious violence.4

Chapters in part one of the book are dedicated to understanding the cultures of violence. The author travels to the hotspots of religious violence across the globe and engages in conversations with the purveyors of religious violence. Investigating violent Christian groups, Juergensmeyer finds that in justifying violence in the name of religion, Christian extremists like Anders Breivik resort to symbolic re-enactments of holy wars to wage a defensive war against the incursion of multiculturalism.5 Others like Michael Bray rely on obscure branches of Christian theology — the Reconstruction Theology, e.g. — to justify their attacks on abortion clinics.6 In Israel, conversations with Zionist militant ideologues reveal that more than xenophobia against Arabs, religious hatred for the secular Israeli state leads them to sanction violence against both the Arabs and the secular state by invoking a rabbinical authority.7

In Iraq, the author encounters the apocalyptic ideology of the Islamic State propagated at the imprimatur of Islamic scholar al-Baghdadi that attempts to remould the world by strictly enforcing the Islamic code.8 The conversations with Mahmud Abouhalima, convicted of the World Trade Centre bombing, and Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in cahoots with suicide bombers, unveil a similar contempt for the secular global order harboured by Christian and Zionist extremists.9 The author encounters images of violent warfare in Hindu and Sikh mythology, allowing extremists like Maya Kodnani and Simarjit Singh Mann to exploit them. Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana glorify war for the cause of righteousness, while warfare remains a core iconographical feature of Sikhism.10 The ‘defensive war’ rhetoric of Al-Qaeda finds its equivalence in the rhetoric of the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu who justifies violence on the pretext of defending the Buddhist identity of Myanmar against Muslim incursions.11 The apocalyptical vision of the Islamic State finds its echo in that of the Buddhist Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out a chemical attack on a Japanese subway station. The attack was launched in the hope of proving the claim of its leader Shoko Asahara that an apocalyptic war was imminent.12

Chapters in part two shift attention towards exploring the logic of religious violence. Juergensmeyer argues that to make sense of the theatrical forms of violence, we cannot always look for their strategic values; instead, terrorist acts manifest themselves in the spectrum with ‘strategic’ values on one end and ‘symbolic’ values on the other.13 Similar to a religious rite, a public performance of violence offers its victims as sacrifices and imbues its perpetrators with a sense of empowerment.14 Close scrutiny of the sites where these violent rituals are performed reveals that they all represent symbols of government power; they all are central to the existence of a society.15 Moreover, these terror events are performed on days considered hallowed by their audiences — holidays, anniversaries — and a craving for global attention has transformed the organisational networks of terror groups from local into transnational ventures.16

By elevating their struggles to the sacred plane, terror groups invoke the idea of a cosmic war between good and evil, between faith and dearth of faith that gives terrorist acts moral justification.17 Furthermore, Juergensmeyer observes that religious parlances and holy scriptures often strip violent acts of their horrors by sacred sanitisation — through symbolisation.18 He lays out three scenarios that lead to the symbiosis of these symbolic images with real-world violence — thus varnishing a this-worldly confrontation with the veneer of cosmic war: the perception of a struggle as tied to basic identity and dignity; the determination that the struggle must be won; and the belief that the fate of the struggle will be determined by divine authority.19

Juergensmeyer suggests that cosmic war provides the necessary background to make sense of the concept of sacrifice and why sacrificial victims — from widows in India to young Hezbollah martyrs in Lebanon — come from socially uncertain categories.20 Waging a cosmic war also requires identifying an enemy. Religious rivals or local authorities are often deemed the primary enemy, while governments are seen as the secondary enemy for their support for the former and for downplaying the idea of cosmic war.21 Because the United States, as a global hegemon, supports secular regimes globally, and because its cultural exports threaten local cultures, and considering how its capitalist culture runs the global economy, the country meets the eligibility criteria of a secondary enemy.22 This satanisation process enables those who undertake it to symbolically empower and de-humiliate themselves in a world they believe has gone awry.23

Instead of pinning all the blame on economic deprivation or social marginality for driving people towards violence, Juergensmeyer argues that a combination of factors — such as humiliation to personal integrity, the intensity with which it is experienced, the existence of relevant political and religious vocabulary — drives people, mostly marginalised men, towards violence.24 Moreover, a variant of rogue masculinity that links a crisis of sexuality with a dearth of faith in political institutions and a sense of spiritual loss begets coteries of cowboy monks that find symbolic empowerment in violent acts.25 However, as Juergensmeyer observes, these symbolic empowerments have rarely translated into concrete victories, and there are indications that proponents of religious terrorism remain content with the former and put little stock in achieving the latter.26

Juergensmeyer assumes a middle-of-the-road position between anti- and pro-religion positions vis-à-vis whether religion motivates terror acts. He argues that terrorist acts associated with religion are exclusively symbolic, conjuring up images of great encounters between existential foes on a transhistorical scale and bringing invocations of moral justification in their wake.27 Juergensmeyer believes that secular states today curtail the reach and prestige that religion once enjoyed; as a result, whenever a secular state suffers a legitimacy crisis, a nexus emerges between religion and violence.28 The paroxysms of religious terrorism are attempts at delegitimising secular authority and re-legitimising religious authority.29

Among the five shots at curing religious violence — destroying violence, terrifying terrorists, seeking accommodation, defusing cosmic war, and taking the moral ground — only the last two have proven effective where forged on a moral plane, the solutions presented adhere to the rules of law, commit to mutual respect between foes, and avoid any cosmic war rhetoric.30 Juergensmeyer concludes his book by suggesting that an end to religious violence may lie in the renewed application of religion, where a moderate religion co-exists with a secular authority that acknowledges religion’s role in elevating the spiritual and moral values of public life.31

This particular suggestion that the secular state needs to accommodate religion in the public space merits a reflection. Not all secular states deal with religion identically. Secular countries like France have gone to great lengths to suppress public expressions of any religious identity. There are also secular states like Norway and Finland, with largely secular citizens despite retaining a state church. With most of their citizens religious, countries like the United States and India have secular constitutions. Moreover, the understanding of secularism varies across all these countries.

Most importantly, the legitimacy of secular authority differs: some governments enjoy higher legitimacy in the eyes of their populations, others much lower. The source behind this variation, I believe, could be traced not to the level of religiosity of a given population but to the extent a government is perceived as just. In other words, most religious people are not necessarily opposed to the idea of a secular government. But when secular governments cannot or do not uphold justice, when they no longer offer this-worldly solutions to earthy problems, dismantle non-religious modes of expressing grievances and making demands — this leaves people with religion as the only alternative to make themselves heard.

More damagingly, this dearth of secular alternatives allows those who commit violence by invoking religious reasons to draw enough support from the populace to continue their struggle. The fact that Norway does not regularly have to deal with far-right terrorists like Anders Breivik is not only because Norway is less strict than France in imposing secularism but also because, thanks to its welfare-state model, Norway is much more equipped to solve the earthly problems of its citizens. Its secular authorities are considered just by enough Norwegians to thwart regular outbreaks of religious violence. In contrast, neo-liberal economies like the United Kingdom and the United States — and to a large extent, France — often fail to do justice to their most vulnerable citizens. Neo-liberal economic policies have caused the disintegration of trade unions.32 Trade unions were once vital secular spaces for projecting grievances and demanding redress.

I agree with Juergensmeyer that attempts to banish religion from the public sphere will not help the cause of thwarting religious violence. However, I also believe that any approach to accommodate religion with secular authority will fall short unless the government that undertakes it acts in the interests of all the people — not just any particular group. In the past, corrupt and unjust secular leaders like Zia-ul-Haq and Saddam Hussein have provided space to religious extremists to bolster their legitimacy, with disastrous consequences. The legitimacy of any earthly authority will always remain precarious. Sustaining legitimacy may require secular governments to accommodate a moderate version of religion. But such moderate version(s) must emerge organically without the state shaping its contours. The secular state must act just, treat its foes humanely, and keep secular channels open for expressing grievances in order to sustain its legitimacy. Moreover, what Juergensmeyer does not consider is the need for religious leaders, following the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu, to re-engage in social justice causes. Twenty-first-century religious leaders and secular politicians could seek inspiration from the alliances King and Tutu forged with secular leaders like Kennedy and Mandela to address societal injustices.

In conclusion, although Mark Juergensmeyer spends very few words in developing his suggestion of accommodating religion with secular authority, his detailed study that uncovers the puzzling link between religion and terrorism will be considered a seminal work in the study of religious terrorism.



Mark Juergensmeyer: 

Mark Juergensmeyer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Global Studies, Sociology, and affiliate of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the founding director of the Global and International Studies Program and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. He is an expert on religious violence, conflict resolution and South Asian religion and politics, and has published more than three hundred articles and thirty books, including When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press, 2022), God at War: A Meditation on Religion and Warfare (Oxford, 2021), and the co-authored God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society (University of California Press, 2015; co-authored with Dinah Griego and John Soboslai). His widely-read Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, fourth edition in 2017), is based on interviews with religious activists around the world–including Jihadi activists, ISIS supporters, leaders of Hamas, and abortion clinic bombers in the United States; an earlier edition was listed by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times as one of the best nonfiction books of the year.




1.Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, Fourth Edition: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Oakland, California, 2017), 5.

2 6.

3 Juergensmeyer, 9.

4 Juergensmeyer, 13.

5 21.

6 Juergensmeyer, 36.

7 Juergensmeyer, 55.

8 Juergensmeyer, 76.

9 Juergensmeyer, 86–94.

10 Juergensmeyer, 120–122.

11 Juergensmeyer, 133.

12 Juergensmeyer, 134.

13 155.

14 Juergensmeyer, 156–157.

15 Juergensmeyer, 165–166.

16 Juergensmeyer, 166–181.

17 Juergensmeyer, 186–194.

18 200.

19 Juergensmeyer, 200–202.

20 212–213.

21 Juergensmeyer, 219.

22 Juergensmeyer, 222–224.

23 Juergensmeyer, 227–229.

24 Juergensmeyer, 240.

25 Juergensmeyer, 254–255.

26 264–265.

27 268–270.

28 282.

29 Juergensmeyer, 283.

30 Juergensmeyer, 285–295.

31 Juergensmeyer, 301.

32 Todd E. Vachon, Michael Wallace, and Allen Hyde, ‘Union Decline in a Neoliberal Age: Globalization, Financialization, European Integration, and Union Density in 18 Affluent Democracies’, Socius 2 (January 2016): 2378023116656847, doi:10.1177/2378023116656847.

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