Though the Mumbai attacks were deeply disturbing, the role of religion in this tragic case does not seem to be much different than in most other cases of so-called “religious terrorism” in recent years. That is, they are more about terrorism than religion. Having ruminated for the past twenty years over the question of what religion has to do with public violence, my conclusion is that religion is seldom the sole factor. It is a mistake to focus only on the religious language and images associated with a terrorist act. Yet religion does play a role: when social and political dissension is framed in religious terms, it can conduce toward extreme positions. But terrorism is not the monopoly of any one religious tradition. Only recently we were witnessing the terror of Hindu and Sikh activism in India, and we’ve seen an abundance of Christian terrorism in the US, especially in the years preceding the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. So religion plays a role in making a tense situation problematic and contributes an ideological justification for violence. But it is an error to think that religious leaders have the power to dissuade activists from carrying out their violent missions. Muslim leaders cannot reverse Islamic terrorism any more than Christian leaders could have deterred the terrorism in Northern Ireland or the tide of Christian militia activism in the United States in the 1990s, including Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing, which killed more innocent victims than those tragically lost this weekend in the Mumbai attacks.
–Mark Juergensmeyer is director of the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies and professor of global and international studies, sociology, and religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is “Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State” (University of California Press, 2008).