President Obama, at a press conference last week, stated that "al Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers." For instance, following a report in May by an Argentinian prosecutor, the State Department is reevaluating its own assessment of Iran’s infrastructure to support terrorist activities in Latin America.
Just how widespread are religion-related terrorist activities? Five findings from recent Pew Research studies provide some answers.
1. Religion-related terrorist activities are more widespread than you might imagine
Religion-related terrorists were most likely to carry out acts of violence in the Middle East and North Africa (50% of countries), followed by Asia-Pacific (22%), sub-Saharan Africa (21%) and Europe (11%). They were least likely to carry out violent attacks in the countries of North and South America (3%).
The April Boston Marathon bombing is an example of such terror. CNN reported that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that his brother, Tamerlan, was motivated by jihadist thought and the idea that Islam is under attack. He has recently pleaded not guilty to charges against him.
2. Religion-related terrorist groups, like al Qaeda, are not popular among Muslim publics
In Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals, 13% of Muslims hold a favorable view of al Qaeda, 55% an unfavorable view, and roughly three-in-ten (31%) offer no opinion, according to the Pew Research survey.
Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam, according to a separate survey by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.
In most countries where the question was asked, roughly three-quarters or more Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in most countries, the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies. Yet there are some countries in which substantial minorities think violence against civilians is at least sometimes justified. This view is particularly widespread among Muslims in the Palestinian territories (40%), Afghanistan (39%), Egypt (29%) and Bangladesh (26%).
3. Religion-related terrorist activities crossed borders in one-in-four countries (26%) worldwide
A 2012 Pew Research Center analysis found that religion-related terrorist groups reportedly engaged in cross-border attacks or drew on international connections for support in a total of 51 countries (26%) between 2009 and 2011.
According to the sources coded for that analysis, religion-related terrorism contributed to social hostilities involving religion in 43 of the 51 countries (22% of all the countries studied). For instance, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group that originated in Uganda in the late 1980s, reportedly committed cross-border attacks and abductions in various African countries, including South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition, religion-related terrorism reportedly influenced government restrictions on religion in 25 of the 51 countries (13% of all the countries studied). In Russia, for instance, the government has banned 18 Muslim groups for alleged ties to terrorism, according to a 2010 U.S. State Department report.
Regionally, cross-border religion-related terrorist activities were most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where 13 of 20 countries (65%) in the region were affected. Current events suggest that the pattern is continuing and, in some instances, has sectarian dimensions. In June, for instance, Hezbollah - a Shia Muslim group designated as a terrorist organization by several governments - reportedly crossed into neighboring Syria to join the ongoing civil war on the side of the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad Assad, who is also affiliated with a Shia Muslim group, the Alawites. The coalition of rebel forces seeking to topple the regime, however, is largely Sunni Muslim.
By contrast - as shown in the fourth row of the table below - cross-border religion-related terrorist activities affected a smaller share of countries in other regions (see fourth row in table below). However, in some regions, cross-border activities occurred a larger number of countries than in the Middle East and North Africa: Asia-Pacific region (15 of 50 countries), sub-Saharan Africa (14 of 48), Europe (6 of 45 countries) and the Americas (3 of 35).
On average between mid-2006 and mid-2010, social hostilities involving religion (as measured by the Pew Research Center's Social Hostilities Index*) are 5.2 times higher in countries where religion-related terrorist violence resulted in 10 or more casualties than in countries where religion-related terrorists were not active at all.
This means that religion-related terror does not occur in a social vacuum. It most often occurs in a context where other forms of social hostilities are present. For instance, religion-related acts of terror occur on an almost daily basis in Iraq. And, as noted in my recent TEDx Talk, sectarian violence - another form of social hostility - also occurs on an almost daily basis.
* The Social Hostilities Index (SHI) measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups. This includes mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons and other religion-related intimidation or abuse. The SHI includes 13 measures of social hostilities.
5. High government restrictions on religion are part of the context for religion-related terror
The flip side to the previous point is that religion-related terror is also more likely to occur in countries that have high government restrictions on religion. Indeed, religion-related terrorism has among the strongest associations with the Pew Research Center's Government Restrictions Index.*
This means that just as religion-related terror does not occur in a social vacuum, neither does it occur in a political vacuum. It most often occurs in a context where governments are highly restrictive of religion. For instance, religion-related acts of terror occur on an almost daily basis in Pakistan. Government restrictions on religion are very high in Pakistan. And, as noted in my recent TEDx Talk, blasphemy is legally punishable by imprisonment or death in Pakistan – in other words, the government can put you to death for remarks or actions considered to be critical of God. (Also see my recent blog post for more on Pakistan.)
* The Government Restrictions Index (GRI) measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs or practices. The GRI is comprised of 20 measures of restrictions, including efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.
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