Hoffman, and Gunning & Jackson’s Take on Religious Terrorism

1800 words (7 pages) Essay

18th May 2020 Religion Reference this

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Until the 19th century, religion was the only justifiable explanation for terrorism. In this critical review, I am looking at Hoffmans “Holy Terror”: The implications of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative (1995) and Gunnings and Jackson’s “what’s so ‘religious’ about ‘religious terrorism’ (2011). Hoffman’s article tries to differentiate between religious and secular terrorism and highlights that religious terrorism is not only apparent in Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, but are also apparent in American white supremacist, Israeli radical Jewish messianic movements and Indian radical Sikh movements. Gunnings and Jackson problematise the distinction between religious and secular terrorism without further examination of both as they are very similar in nature. 

Hoffman’s “Holy Terror”: The implications of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative

Hoffman’s article is very descriptive in nature and outlines the shared history of religion and terrorism. He discusses the etymology of the terms used in relation to terrorism and how they originated from religious backgrounds. The term zealot was derived from a ‘millennarian Jweish’ sect that fought Roman occupation of current day Israel. The term is now used to define a person who is “fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political or other ideals” (Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019). Similarly, the term assassin was derived from a religious terrorist group who fought the Christian crusaders who attempted to conquer present day Syria and Iran. This group were radical Muslim Shi’a and it is revealed that between 1090 and 1272 AD, there was already the idea of martyrdom and murder was linked to the idea of divine duty. This is important because current day terrorist groups like the ISIS still use the same philosophy to convince their followers for suicide attacks and justify the action. Assassin now means “a person who murders an important person for political or religious reasons” (Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019). Lastly, the next term that is identified by Hoffman is thug which means “a violent person, especially criminal” (Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019) and was derived from an organization of robbers and assassins in India who would kill in the name of ‘Kali’, the Hindu goddess of terror and destruction. It is interesting to note that the Thugs of India managed to strangle and sacrifice more people than the modern terrorist groups have through the use of developed machinery and lethal explosives. These examples are important because they give us a sense of how religion has always played a crucial role in terrorism. Although the root cause of terrorism may not be religion itself, it historically has played an important role in defining terrorism as we know it.

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Hoffman then tries to differentiate between religious and secular terrorism by pointing out that their value systems are inherently different. While for the religious terrorist, violence is an accepted pathway to take which is justified by a theological commandment. This leads a religious terrorist to not be tied down by any political or moral values. On the other hand, secular terrorists carry out violence as a means to an end and consider indiscriminate violence as counterproductive to their agenda. Thus, he argues that religion mainly serves as a legitimizing force to carry out acts of terror.

Hoffmans article is one of the most frequently cited articles in the field of Religious Terrorism, with scholars like Gregg (2014) going as far to derive the definition of the tactic of terrorism based on his work. The paper is well written and easy to read, however one thing I was interested to note was the fact that he goes of out of his way to almost make an excuse for or tries to justify the works of the white supremacists by including the sentence “Although the white supremacists have thus far caused far less death and destruction than the Islamic Shi’a terrorists….” (Hoffman, 1995). He has made no comments like such in the other terror groups he has mentioned in the paper, including the Hamas, Hezbollah, the Jewish fanatics or the Sikh terror groups. This makes me wonder what prejudices he may have had, maybe unwittingly, while writing the paper. This sentence takes me back to the class discussion on terror attacks where, when a person of the Islam faith undertakes an attack they are instantly labelled as terrorist groups or activities, whereas when a white person undertakes an attack they are labelled as lone-wolves, often with a mental illness and brings up the “us vs them” argument to mind.

Although, Hoffman then proceeds to point out that religious terrorism doesn’t only exist in the middle east in the form of Islamic terror groups and draws parallels between them and the American white supremacists, Israeli radical Jewish messianic movements and Indian radical Sikh movements it feels like he writes mostly about Islamic terrorists. This is reiterated in his conclusion when he introduces the concept of part-time terrorists and their transnational nature with the example of another Islamic extremist terror group ‘Fuqra’. 

Gunnings and Jackson’s “what’s so ‘religious’ about ‘religious terrorism’

Gunnings and Jackson’s (2011) article provides a critical assessment of the conceptual and empirical validity of ‘religious terrorism’. Throughout the article Gunning and Jackson challenge that the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ terrorism are not as clear cut as have been purported by previous literature and news media. They stress that sometimes the behaviors of the terrorist groups that are labelled as religious are sometimes indistinguishable from a secular terrorist group. Their aim with the research is not to completely reject the frameworks and literature in ‘religious terrorism’ but to shed light that this distinction between religious and secular is not clear and therefore to problematize it.

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Their disagreement with the concept of ‘religion’ in the context of terrorism is two folds. The first is unclear distinction between secular and religious. They argue that if we are to define religion as concerning ultimate values then various modern political ideologies would fall under this. However, if we are to define ‘religion’ as being sacred or transcendental in nature then nationalism or even faithfully following a football team would be counted. The second problem with defining ‘religious terrorism’ is how do we label certain political organisation as ‘religious’. Some organisation’s ideologies are influenced by religious beliefs while their actions follow that of a secular organisation. Similarly, the question arises on whether the leaders need to be religious or if just the organization being religious suffices? These are only some of the troubling questions that Gunning and Jackson raise to portray the complexities with distinguishing religious from secular. One of the best examples they provide to show this complexity is the problem with labelling the Palestinian fundamentalist organisation Hamas. While the leaders of the groups are from secular professions and their ideology is nationalistic, the leaders derive much of their authority from religious sources like using religious knowledge or being involved in mosque to increase their symbolic power.

Another important critique that Gunning and Jackson raise is that the use of the term ‘religious terrorism’ implies that there has been a strong empirical evidence to suggest this relationship. They argue that this is not the case as there are various issues with drawing up this kind of causality. One of the major problems with empirical evidence is that statistics is heavily skewed by few groups and few lethal attacks. For instance, when the al Qaeda affiliated groups were not included in the dataset, the causal relationship between Islamist groups and high casualty attacks became very weak.

One of the glaring issues with this paper is that although it helps problematize the distinction between religious and secular terrorism, it doesn’t suggest a clear path forward on how this issue may be tackled. Although they mention the pathway they wish the field of study to take, it isn’t written in a straightforward manner. Unlike the Hoffman article, this one isn’t particularly easy to read.  I found it particularly interesting how far the rationalization of the definitions and the differences in religious and secular terrorism has come in the 16-year period between the two articles. Going from making a clear distinction between the two, to problematizing the same, demonstrates how the research regarding this topic is still evolving. 


In summary, there is still a need to conclusively define the differences between religious and secular terrorism. However, it isn’t going to be an easy task as there are many overlaps between the two. It may even be futile to develop a distinction between the two and might be a better idea to take each terrorist group as they come. What starts out as a religious group may end up with a political agenda and vice versa. Nevertheless, the two studies provide a deep insight on religious terrorism.


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