Department seminar: Alon Burstein, "Terrorizing God’s Enemies: The influence of religion on terror group activity"

Wed, 01/05/2019 - 14:15 to 15:45

Room 4326, Social Science

This project explores the influence of religious ideology on the activity of terror groups. Despite a substantial amount of research distinguishing secular and religious terrorism, the conceptualization of these groups remains overwhelmingly absolutist and static, with groups being essentialized as either “secular” or “religious” in order to allow for comparison. Drawing on advances made in the exploration of group mobilization and social movement theory more broadly, this study challenges these purely binary conceptualizations, and argues that just like any other ideological construct, the religiosity of groups must be placed along a spectrum and weighed against other constructs in order to understand its position within a group’s agenda. Utilizing this spectrum, it becomes possible to evaluate the dominance of religion in a group’s ideological position. This, in turn, allows for the analysis of how this relative dominance influences the violent and non-violent activity of terror groups, as well as enabling an exploration of groups’ movement along the spectrum – embracing more or less religious ideals into their ideology, as well as the factors that precipitate such ideological shifts.


The project begins by outlining the various approaches to the study of religious terrorism, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of theories that discount the influence of religiosity and those that do not. A social movement approach is then offered as a way to begin reconciling the opposing views, laying the foundation for utilizing frame-analysis to position groups along the spectrum of religiosity. Analysis consists of two major undertakings: first, the foundational ideological texts, manifestos, communiques and speeches of over 100 of the most violent terror groups over a 45-year period are located and analyzed, and the groups placed along a spectrum reflecting the relative dominance of religion in their founding principles. The groups’ location along the spectrum is then analyzed in relation to its activities over the 45-year period, exploring the connection between the dominance of religion in the group’s ideology and its terrorist activities. The second stage undertakes a focused comparison of the ideological development of two groups – the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Hamas. Drawing on the political process approach, analysis focuses on how each group drew closer to or further from a secular or religious ideological position, utilizing this process in order to generate a theory regarding the stimuli that encourage or forestall such changes. Combining both stages of analysis, a cohesive theory regarding how and why different levels of religiosity influence terror group activity is developed.