Does Religious Liberty Encourage or Curb Faith-Based Terrorism?

By: Nilay Saiya and Anthony Scime

Does religious liberty encourage or curb faith-based terrorism? Like the wider literature on liberty and domestic violence, a theoretical case can be made to support either position. On the one hand, some authoritarian leaders contend that effectively averting terrorism may require their governments to limit or suspend freedoms like religious liberty in the name of national security. This logic rests on the assumption that liberalism shackles governments from using all of the weapons in their arsenal to optimize their counterterrorism strategies. In countries where this thinking prevails, the result is a perceived zero-sum game: Religious restrictions, as morally problematic as they might be, are seen as necessary to curtail religious violence. 

On the other hand, a second line of thinking holds that religiously free countries are secure because of (and not despite) their levels of tolerance. This view holds that restrictions on religious liberty exacerbate religious extremism, while respect for religious rights undermines extremist propensities and religiously motivated violence. Often embattled religious communities, perceiving their faith to be under attack, subscribe to a ubiquitous narrative of communal disillusionment, sometimes leading to violence against those perceived to be responsible for their marginalized and suppressed status. When religious groups find themselves ostracized through laws or violent suppression, they are more likely to pursue their aims through violence as well. At the same time, religious freedom encourages peaceful religious forms of activity by creating space for religious groups to practice their faith freely, bring their religiously-informed ideas to the public square, make positive contributions to society, and engage in debate through open channels of discourse, thus allowing diverse perspectives to be heard and depriving extremists the ability to win the battle for hearts and minds by default.

In a forthcoming article in Conflict Management and Peace Science, we apply this logic to the phenomenon of religious terrorism. While acknowledging that all forms of repression carry the possibility of violent backlash, we argue that religious repression constitutes an especially problematic violation of human rights. Governments that impede the quest for the divine do not simply undercut the ability of their people to vote, form political parties or pursue economic equality—although such limitations certainly have the potential to breed aggression—they restrain the more fundamental and intrinsic rights of people to think freely about the purpose of their existence, to live justly according to their understanding of ultimate truth, to bear witness to their faith-based commitments, to worship together with those of like mind, to carry out rituals and practices central to their faith, and to otherwise fulfill their sacred duties that spring from a power that is both prior to and higher than the state. People of faith are therefore likely to believe that restrictions on their religious liberty run counter to the will of God. It is one thing to restrict materialist conceptions of liberty; it is quite another to deny the timeless and inborn pursuit of purpose, meaning and destiny.

Regimes that hinder the knowledge or pursuit of the supernatural play with fire when they interfere with an individual’s innate aspiration for transcendent and eternal truth. This becomes all the more problematic in a world where religion is of increasing importance in peoples’ personal lives and becoming more politically assertive. As religion resurges, the issue of religious freedom necessarily becomes both inevitable and strategically important. Religious adherents will be less quiescent in the face of these kinds of restrictions than suppression of a purely political nature on the part of the state. In short, restrictions on religion work to generate religious terrorism by radicalizing religious actors, weakening moderates, and increasing the support of extremists.

To test the hypothesis that countries with higher levels of governmental religious suppression experience more religious terrorism than their religiously free counterparts, we test a unique dataset on religious terrorism, which includes all identifiable religiously-motivated terrorist attacks that occurred from 2001-2009. In addition to countries’ regulation of religion scores, our dataset also includes a number of other variables to account for alternative theories explaining the onset of terrorism. These include institutional democracy, wealth, population, foreign occupation, regime durability, geographic size, number of religious minorities, world region and predominant religious tradition.

We analyzed this dataset using classification data mining—a rare but an especially useful technique for studying the complex phenomenon of terrorism. In contrast to regression analysis, data mining not only allows the researcher to determine which variables and their values are important in predicting terrorism’s onset but also how those variables are related to each other. It is often the case, for example, that terrorism results from a complex interplay of causes along different levels. Classification techniques reveal the precise ways in which explanatory variables work together to show which countries are especially prone or immune to terrorism, when and why.

Our analysis reveals four interesting findings. First, the most significant variable predicting religious terrorism is government regulation of religion—more than twice as significant as the next most important variable in the data, a country’s geographic size. Second, a “low” level of governmental restrictions is 99 percent successful in predicting no religious terrorist attacks. In fact, when government restrictions are low, the values of the other variables do not have an effect. Third, religious attacks occurred in populous countries with “high” religious restrictions with over 95 percent likelihood, though there are a few cases where long-standing religiously repressive regimes have been able to effectively thwart terrorist attacks. Fourth, high governmental restrictions often interact with other variables in myriad ways to predict terrorism. For example, religious restrictions are especially problematic in countries with large populations and unstable political regimes. On the whole, though, the evidence is clear: religious restrictions serve as a necessary (if not always sufficient) condition in predicting most acts of religious terrorism.

The results of this project call on policy-makers around the world to take religious freedom seriously. Today, hundreds of millions of people are either denied their basic rights to seek transcendent truth, or they do so in the face of stiff penalties. Some might see religious restrictions as an inopportune situation for people of faith but necessary given the contemporary realities of violent religious extremism and the security threat that it poses. This position is on the surface logical: if religion poses a threat to a country’s security, then the natural response (and the default position of many governments) is to restrict its expression. This view ignores the point, however, that these restrictions themselves are often the cause of such violence to begin with. Unfortunately, until this immensely important dimension of statecraft is internalized, a perceived tradeoff between security interests and the promotion of religious liberty will continue to guide the thinking of policy-makers. 

Nilay Saiya is an assistant professor of Political Science and director of international studies at the State University of New York, Brockport. Anthony Scime is an associate professor of Computer Science at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. 

This piece was originally authored on April 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/12/does-religious-liberty-encourage-or-curb-faith-based-terrorism