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Religious Terrorism

A Short Primer on Religion and Terrorism

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The world's great religions all have both peaceful and violent messages from which believers can choose. Religious terrorists and violent extremists share the decision to interpret religion to justify violence, whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, or Sikh.

Buddhism and Terrorism

Buddhism is a religion or approach to an enlightened life based on the teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama twenty five centuries ago in northern India. The edict not to kill or inflict pain on others is integral to Buddhist thought. Periodically, however, Buddist monks have encouraged violence or initiated it. The primary example in the 20th and 21st century is in Sri Lanka, where Sinhala Buddhist groups have committed and encouraged violence against local Christians and Tamils. The leader of Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that committed a lethal sarin gas attack in the mid-1990s, drew on Buddhist as well as Hindu ideas to justify his beliefs.

Christianity and Terrorism

Christianity is a monotheistic religion centered on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, whose resurrection, as understood by Christians, provided salvation for all mankind. Christianity's teachings, like those of other religions, contain messages of love and peace, and those that can be used to justify violence. The fifteenth century Spanish inquisition is sometimes considered an early form of state terrorism. These Church-sanctioned tribunals aimed to root out Jews and Muslims who had not converted to Catholicism, often through severe torture. Today in the United States, reconstruction theology and the Christian Identity movement have provided justification for attacks on abortion providers.

Hinduism and Terrorism

Hinduism, the world's third largest religion after Christianity and Islam, and the oldest, takes many forms in practice among its adherents. Hinduism valorizes non-violence as a virtue, but advocates war when it is necessary in the face of injustice. A fellow Hindu assassinated Mohandas Ghandi, whose non-violent resistance helped bring about Indian independence, in 1948. Violence between Hindus and Muslims in India has been endemic since then. However, the role of nationalism is inextricable from Hindu violence in this context.

Islam and Terrorism

Adherents of Islam describe themselves as believing in the same Abrahamic God as Jews and Christians, whose instructions to humankind were perfected when delivered to the last prophet, Muhammad. Like those of Judaisim and Christianity, Islam's texts offer both peaceful and warring messages. Many consider the 11th century "hashishiyin," to be Islam's first terrorists. These members of a Shiite sect assassinated their Saljuq enemies. In the late 20th century, groups motivated by religious and nationalist goals committed attacks, such as the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and suicide bombings in Israel. In the early 21st century, al-Qaeda "internationalized" jihad to attack targets in Europe and the Uniteed States.

Judaism and Terrorism

Judaism began around 2000 BCE when, according to Jews, God established a special covenant with Abraham. The monotheistic religion focuses on the importance of action as an expression of belief. Judaism's central tenets involve a respect for life's sanctity, but like other religions, its texts can be used to justify violence. Some consider the Sicarii, who used murder by dagger to protest Roman rule in first century Judea, to be the first Jewish terrorists. In the 1940s, Zionist militants such as Lehi (known also as the Stern Gang) carried out terrorist attacks against the British in Palestine. In the late 20th century, militant messianic Zionists use religious claims to the historical land of Israel to justify acts of violence.
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