Religion and violence 10 years after Sept. 11: Divining the connections

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks seemed to confirm suspicions of some that there is an inherent connection between religion and violence. The 9/11 plotters cited Islam as their inspiration – case closed. But that explanation was considered too simple then, and more than a decade later the debate on this controversial topic continues.

Pointing the finger of blame solely at Islam is misguided, experts say.

Faith fuels violence in other religions, they argue, and history shows that most religious traditions have problematic records when it comes to using beliefs to justify wars and pogroms and crusades.

For some atheists and secularists, the problem is religion of any variety. “Religion poisons everything,” as the late atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens put it.

Yet that argument ignores many other influences behind violence and terrorism, scholars say, such as culture, politics and injustice, to name a few.

Others note that faith-based violence is a perversion of a tradition’s genuine religious teachings rather than a legitimate expression of the faith, and that religion is and has always been a potent force for promoting virtue and peace and the general welfare.

After the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, ReligionLink provides resources and a list of experts for reporters writing on this volatile topic.


  • “Anders Breivik returns to scene of massacre for photo re-enactment”

    Read an article about the massacre in Norway in July 2011 by anti-Islamic extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who claimed to be a Christian crusader even as he rejected central Christian beliefs, which highlighted the phenomenon of right-wing violence.

  • “U.S. Hate Groups Top 1,000”

    The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and domestic terrorism, in February 2011 released an annual report showing “explosive growth” in the number of active hate groups in the United States and in the number of antigovernment “Patriot” movements. These groups often have a religious element to their agendas.

  • “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States”

    In August 2011 the Obama administration released a new “counter-radicalization” policy titled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”

Many experts say the popular uprisings of the “Arab Spring” that continue to transform the Middle East show Muslim societies are rejecting violence and embracing democracy.

Why it matters

For many, the Sept. 11 attacks were a swift and tragic reminder of the tremendous role religion plays in the world, and how faith is intertwined with politics, culture and other fields – for good and ill.

While the attackers cited religion as a justification for the attacks, for example, religious faith and traditions also served as a balm for victims and their families and a motivation to seek justice and reconciliation.

Understanding the religious forces at work in the post-9/11 world will be crucial to shaping domestic and global politics in the next decade and beyond, experts say, and will be important for the future of religion itself.

Resources and articles

  • “‘Terrorists in Love’: The Psychology of Extremism”

    Read an October 5, 2011 NPR story about a controversial book by Ken Ballen, Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals. Ballen spent five years interviewing more than 100 Islamic extremists to learn what motivated them to carry out violent attacks against the United States and others they considered enemies of Islam.

  • “Most Muslim Americans See No Justification for Violence”

    A Gallup Poll published in August 2011 showed the views of members of different religious communities to the question of whether terrorist violence is ever justified. Nearly nine in 10 Muslim Americans said violent attacks on civilians are never justified, the highest level of disapproval among the groups surveyed.

  • “Low Bar Set in U.S. Counterradicalization Strategy”

    Read an Aug. 4, 2011, essay by Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, that criticizes the White House’s August policy paper on preventing violent extremism in the United States. Husain argues that the White House does not focus sufficiently on the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism, and offers several strategies.

  • “Threat of Homegrown Islamic Terrorism”

    Read a December 2010 background paper from the Council on Foreign Relations on the “Threat of Homegrown Islamist Terrorism.”

  • “Why Is It So Hard to Find a Suicide Bomber These Days?”

    Read an essay in the September/October 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine by Charles Kurzman titled “Why Is It So Hard to Find a Suicide Bomber These Days?” Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, is author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists. He argues that experts should consider why so few Muslims have joined al-Qaeda’s jihad.

  • “Threat of Right-Wing Extremism in U.S. Debated by Feds, Analysts”

    Right-wing extremist violence — against Muslims, Jews, abortion clinics and providers, and the government, for example — is sometimes perpetrated by suspects using Christianity as a justification or motivation. Suspect groups and individuals have drawn scrutiny from the FBI, but the extent and risk of the threat remains a matter of debate, as a July 28, 2011, Huffington Post story explains.

  • “After Norway and before 9/11 anniversary, U.S. answers questions about homegrown threats”

    Read an Aug. 9, 2011, JTA story about the threat of homegrown “domestic terrorism.”

  • “Moral Outrage and Moral Repair: Reflections on 9/11 and its Afterlife”

    At an April conference at Fordham University in New York, called “Moral Outrage and Moral Repair: Reflections on 9/11 and its Afterlife,” many speakers explored the connections between violence and religion. Transcripts of their presentations are available on the website.

  • “The Terrorist Mind: An Update”

    Read a January 9, 2010 New York Times story exploring research on what motivates terrorists.

  • Nieman Report on Covering Islam

    The Nieman Report on Covering Islam provides a collection of report guides and articles covering the history, traditions, principles and practices of Islam. Contact Ann Marie Lipinski.

National sources

  • R. Scott Appleby

    R. Scott Appleby is professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame and John M. Regan Jr. director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He teaches courses in American religious history and comparative religious movements and is the co-editor of Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America (Indiana University Press, 1995).

    He is author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. He is also the former co-director of the Fundamentalism Project.

  • William T. Cavanaugh

    William T. Cavanaugh is a professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., who has written and researched extensively on the relationship between religion and violence. He is the author of The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (2009).

  • Carl W. Ernst

    Carl W. Ernst is a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He wrote Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World and edited Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. He is affiliated with the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

  • Ariel Glucklich

    Ariel Glucklich is an of professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He teaches a course in Hindu religious traditions and has written several books on Hindu dharma. He is the author of Dying for Heaven: Holy Pleasure and Suicide Bombers — Why the Best Qualities of Religion Are Also Its Most Dangerous.

  • Mohammed M. Hafez

    Mohammed M. Hafez is a visiting professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He wrote the book Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World, and is currently working on a book to be titled,”Suicide Bombers: Politics, Reason, and Faith in Extreme Violence.”

  • James W. Jones

    James W. Jones is an expert in the psychology of religion and teaches in the religion department at Rutgers University. He is the author of Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism.

  • Mark Juergensmeyer

    Mark Juergensmeyer is director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies and a professor of sociology and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, and his most recent book is Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, From Christian Militias to al Qaeda (2008).

  • Charles Kimball

    Charles Kimball is Presidential Professor and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, and his most recent book is When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (April 2011).

  • Charles Kurzman

    Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is the author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, in which he argues that there are far fewer Islamic terrorists than Americans think.

  • Bruce Lawrence

    Bruce Lawrence is professor emeritus of  religion at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is author of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He is an expert on comparative fundamentalism and Muslim networks.

  • Clark McCauley Jr.

    Clark McCauley Jr. is Rachel C. Hale Professor of Mathematics and the Sciences and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. His research focuses on the psychological foundations of ethnic conflict and genocide. At the April 2011 conference at Fordham, McCauley argued that “ideology and religion are more rationalization than cause of political violence.”

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Michael Barkun

    Michael Barkun is a professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America and Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement.

  • John Esposito

    John Esposito is founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown. He is an expert on global terrorism, Islam and democracy, and international interfaith relations. His publications include Islamaphobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and Islam: The Straight Path; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam; What Everyone Needs to Know About IslamWho Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think; and Women in Muslim Family Law.

  • Robert W. Hefner

    Robert W. Hefner is an anthropology professor and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. Since 1991 he has also directed the institute’s program on Islam and society. His many books include (as editor) Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World and (as co-editor) Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education.

  • James T. Johnson

    James T. Johnson is a distinguished professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey where he specializes in religious ethics, religion and society, and just war theory. He is considered one of the deans of contemporary just war theory and has written many articles and books on the topic.

In the South

  • Lee C. Camp

    Lee C. Camp is a professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., and author of Who is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam — and Themselves. Camp wrote an Aug. 25, 2011, column for the website Patheos titled “Is Christian Just War Just Like Jihad?,” which argues that Christian and Islamic views of warfare are closer than many believe.

  • Ralph W. Hood Jr.

    Ralph W. Hood Jr. is a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He writes and teaches on the psychology of religious fundamentalism.

  • Lester R. Kurtz

    Lester R. Kurtz is a professor of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University. He is an expert in Gandhian thought and  editor of the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace & Conflict and lectures around the world on violence, politics and peacemaking.

  • Ami Pedahzur

    Ami Pedahzur is a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written on political extremism and terrorism, in particular in Israel. His most recent book is Jewish Terrorism in Israel (2009).

  • David Schanzer

    David Schanzer is director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C. He is also a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University and an adjunct professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina.

  • Stuart A. Wright

    Stuart A. Wright is chair of the sociology department at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He has written numerous books and articles on religion and violence. He is an expert on government raids on small religious groups suspected of being extremists, like the Branch Davidians. He has studied the relationship between governments, law enforcement officials and new religious movements around the world.

In the Midwest

  • Mark S. Hamm

    Mark S. Hamm is a professor of criminology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute who specializes in terrorism, in particular right-wing extremism.

  • Liaquat Ali Khan

    Liaquat Ali Khan is a professor of law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. A native of Pakistan, he focuses his research on terrorism and conflict in Muslim societies. He has written extensively about Islamic law and in 2008 wrote an article for The American Muslim about Islamic perspectives on the economic meltdown.

In the West

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