Peace Science Digest

Religious Freedom and the Reduction of Religious Terrorism

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Saiya, N., & Scime, A. (2015). Explaining religious terrorism: A data-mined analysis. Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol. 32(5) 487-512.

Talking Points

  • The most significant predictor of religious terrorism is a government’s restriction of religious freedoms.
  • Repressing religious freedoms is twice as likely to cause terrorism than a country’s high poverty rate or population size.
  • By shifting from a repressive to a moderately tolerant religious freedom policy, governments lower their likelihood of religious terrorism by over 40%.


What is the relationship between terrorism and religious freedom? For those working to address the phenomenon of violent religious extremism, insight into this question is especially important. For some, restricting religious freedom is a necessary move to prevent the development and spread of terrorism, while others argue religious freedoms undermine the support for terrorist groups by lowering the likelihood of violent acts against a restrictive government.

This study uses a research method called data-mining to help comb through large quantities of data to find relevant patterns and previously unknown relationships between terrorism and religious freedom. The data-mining process analyzes terrorist attacks in 174 countries from 2001-2009, looking for relationship patterns between faith-based/religious terrorism and the level of religious freedoms where the terror attacks took place. In this study, faith-based/religious terrorist attacks are characterized by: a) if the attacks were carried out by a group or individual self-identifying as a predominantly religious actor; b) if the mission or goals of the group or individual are religious in nature; or, c) the attack was primarily motivated by a religious belief system.

This study found that the most significant factor in predicting religious terrorism is a government’s regulation of religious expression, which is more than twice as significant than any other factor in the study including a country’s wealth or population. In almost all (98.9%) of the 1,515 records of terrorism in the data-mining archive, governments who upheld high levels of religious freedom rarely experienced religiously-inspired terrorist attacks. The researchers also found that by adopting moderate levels of religious tolerance, governments who previously held highly restrictive policies on religious freedoms could expect to see their likelihood of religious terrorism attacks drop from 50% to 10%.

These findings do not suggest that countries with high levels of religious freedom never experience terrorism, or that religiously repressive countries always experience terrorism. Rather, the evidence clearly shows when governments prevent religious groups from practicing their faith, these groups are much more likely to turn to violence to address their grievances or religious objectives.

Contemporary Relevance

According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), 2014 experienced the largest yearly increase in terrorism in the last 15 years. Among other factors, the GTI identifies policies targeting religious freedoms as a contributing factor to terrorism. Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria experienced the majority of deaths from terrorism. It is clear that any constructive path forward must be inclusive of populations with religious differences.

Sometimes research needs to provide proof of the seemingly obvious: an increase in religious liberties is the best way to prevent faith-based terrorism.

Practical Implications

The relationship between religious freedom and terrorism leads to important policy questions: is a government’s fight against terrorism better served by restricting or increasing religious liberties? The results from this research clearly state that by denying religious freedoms a government increases their likelihood of religious terrorism, and that the best way to combat religious terrorism is by safeguarding religious freedoms to deny faith-based terrorist groups the recruitment tool and ideological motivation created by a repressive government.

Another key finding in this study shows that a country’s wealth has no relationship to religious terrorism, which challenges the belief that religious terrorism is primarily caused by poverty. Considering this new information, governments and practitioners can expect a lower likelihood of experiencing religious terrorism through an increased focus on promoting social liberties such as freedom of religion, speech, and assembly.

There is a growing amount of research examining the various causes of terrorism. These studies, including the above research, can provide practitioners and policy-makers with opportunities to examine and address terrorism’s varying causes, rather than limiting themselves to a superficial single-cause analysis. This multi-angle approach is imperative because focusing on one cause to terrorism can lead to bigotry, racism, and unsuccessful attempts at addressing the underlining issue of violent conflict.

Continued Reading

Gais, H. 2015. What We Get Wrong about Religious Violence. Foreign Policy in Focus.

Moix, B. 2007. Faith and Conflict. Foreign Policy in Focus.

Powers, G. 2012. Religion and Conflict. Peace Policy.

Keywords: religion, terrorism, religious freedom

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.