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What's so ‘religious’ about ‘religious terrorism’?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Jeronimo Willem Gunning, Richard Jackson

Original languageEnglish
Article number
Pages (from-to)369-338
JournalCritical Studies on Terrorism
Issue number3
Published16 Dec 2011

King's Authors


This article assesses the validity of the concept of ‘religious terrorism’ and its consequences for research and policy practices. It explores the origins, assumptions and primary arguments of the term and subjects them to an analytical assessment. It argues that the distinctions typically drawn between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ terrorism are problematic, both conceptually and empirically, and that the term is misleading in its typical assumptions about the motives, causes and behaviour of groups classified as ‘religious terrorist’. In particular, it shows that the behaviour of those thus labelled is so diverse, and often so indistinguishable from their ‘secular’ counterparts, that the term has little meaning without further qualification, while simultaneously obscuring important aspects of both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ violence. It then goes on to illustrate how the term, rooted in a particular historically situated understanding of religion and a particular set of power structures, serves as a disciplinary device to domesticate ‘political religion’, delegitimising certain actors while legitimising a number of highly contentious counterterrorist practices designed to deal with those described as ‘religious terrorists’. The article ends with some suggestions for alternative ways to study the role of beliefs and institutional structures, religious or otherwise, in producing political violence.

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