Religion, Democracy and Terrorism

Nilay Saiya


One of the most important policy-relevant questions terrorism researchers have attempted to address is the relationship between democracy and terrorism. Some extol the virtues of democracy in combating or discouraging terrorism. Others claim that the vulnerabilities inherent in democracy make terrorist activity easier to carry out. This essay suggests that both schools of thought may be correct: democracies suffer disproportionately from certain manifestations of terrorism but not others. Specifically, I show that religious terrorists—those who prescribe for themselves religious aims and identities—are more likely to target authoritarian states, while non-religious terrorists tend to attack liberal democracies. The reason for this is two-fold: (i) religious terrorists are not as deterred by systemic repression as their secular counterparts and (ii) authoritarian countries breed religious extremism by radicalizing religious actors, weakening moderates and increasing support for extremism by making religion a point of cohesion against the state. States that provide religious security for their citizens, on the other hand—the common understanding that religious identity (including beliefs and practices) of groups and individuals in society is inviolable–undercut the narrative propounded by religious militants that their faith is under attack, thus dampening the impetus towards violence. Religiously secure countries also allow for the development of cross-cutting cleavages other than those rooted in religion. For this reason, secular terrorism is more likely to occur in liberal countries than in repressive ones.

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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