The Future of Religious Terrorism

Megan K McBride

In December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the defeat of ISIS: “We can announce the end of the war against Daesh.… Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.” One year later, in December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a similar declaration: “We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly.…We have taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”

These declarations are aspirational at best, and analysts from both the left and the right agree that ISIS is far from defeated. The claim of defeat is largely a claim that ISIS no longer functions as a proto-state—controlling land and issuing passports, for example—but has instead been forced underground. Unfortunately, this move underground may actually make further progress against the organization more difficult. As Douglas Ollivant, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and White House aide in charge of Iraq during the Obama administration, once noted: “We’re actually pretty good at taking out states.… They’ve been very, very helpful in setting out target arrays for us. The problem is when they go back into the shadows.” In other words, ISIS-the-state may have been the easy target.

Lost in the frenzy around this debate—in the scramble to reconcile assertions of defeat with the ground truth, to articulate a plan for an American withdrawal from Syria that isn’t actively detrimental to regional security, and to accurately assess the current threat that ISIS poses—is the question of what the organization will look like in 5 or 10 years. It is entirely possible that in the wake of its defeat as a state, ISIS will simply rebrand itself once more and transition back into a primarily local terrorist movement like its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Alternatively, it could adopt a transnational model of terrorist activity like its original parent organization, Al Qaeda. As a result, there is a real threat that success against ISIS might result in the defeat of a proto-state largely preoccupied with local and regional issues, and the simultaneous empowerment of a transnational terrorist movement committed to engaging with the global community.

Perhaps more troubling than these very real threats, though, is the possibility that the “defeat” of ISIS could easily be mistaken for a “defeat” of religious terrorism altogether. In the early 2000s, political scientist David Rapoport argued that contemporary terrorism had occurred in four “consecutive and overlapping” waves lasting roughly one generation each. Rapoport identified the most recent wave as “religious,” and speculated that it might run its course by 2025 at which point we would expect a new wave to take shape. Relatively few people outside of academia have read Rapoport, but his theory (though thoughtfully criticized by Parker and Sitter) lingers in the public discourse: as we speculate about the defeat of ISIS, it is easy to see a degree of perhaps naïve triumphalism about the defeat of religious terrorism.

Such triumphalism is problematic because religious terrorism presents a difficult set of policy challenges for Western nations committed to free speech and freedom of religion. We have by no means solved the riddle of religious terrorism. We have not clearly identified the ways in which religion and violence interact, we have not effectively formulated a persuasive response to these radical ideologies, and we have not found an appropriate balance between the protection of civil rights and the protection of the populace. It is consequently problematic if rhetoric about the “defeat” of ISIS is misinterpreted as a broader assertion about the defeat of religious terrorism. Such conflation might lead to the belief that we have defeated religious terrorism, and that it is no longer necessary to direct resources towards the work of finding solutions to the challenges it presents. We might, in other words, be tempted to think that we have already weathered the worst and no longer need to prepare.

Evidence that this wave has passed, however, is not particularly strong. In fact, there is compelling evidence to suggest that we will see an increase in religiously motivated terrorism and violence over the coming decades.

Birth rates of fundamentalists:  Experts anticipate that “fundamentalists will gain significant ground against their liberal and secular counterparts by 2050, even surpassing them in some cases.” As a result, the global population “will become increasingly religious and conservative in the long-term, reversing decades — even centuries — of liberal secularization. There will be no mass conversions or sudden shifts in the cultural mood. Instead, religiosity will spread largely through demographic” shifts. In other words, it is possible that religiously inflected politics and violence will increase over the coming decades.

Populism and religion: Some researchers suggest that religions, including Christianity, will increasingly function as identity markers that make a “clear distinction between the West and the Muslim world” possible and “will likely spread beyond right-wing populists and become more mainstream.” In short, religion might increasingly function as a flashpoint in international conflicts.

Perceived personal insecurity: Analysts have argued that “existential security—‘the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted’— reduces religiosity.” The inverse, however, is also true in that perceived insecurity is correlated with increased religiosity. One study even found a direct link between a financial crisis and religious intensity.

Exposure to violence: Analysts have found that being exposed to political violence—and exposure to state-sponsored political violence—is directly correlated with increased self-identification as religious. Moreover, research also suggests that “people in communities where violence is perceived to be high are more likely to express support for violent religious extremism.”

There are also analysts who argue that religious violence is more likely to occur in cities (a potential concern given demographic trends showing the increasing urbanization of the world), and others emphasizing high rates of religious radicalization among prison populations (an issue given that the growth of prison populations continues to outpace general population growth). In short, we live in a world that is increasingly interconnected and urbanized; that is subject to demographic trends that favor fundamentalists; that is characterized by a rise in populism and increased inequality; and that is plagued by widespread political violence and a growth in prison populations.

We might be living in a world particularly hospitable to the rise of religious terrorism.

We should be careful, of course, not to overreach. Academic studies are rarely perfectly predictive, and some do not claim predictive power at all. Critically, we should also remember that increased religiosity does not necessarily correlate with increased violence. Nonetheless, it is important to be wary of newspaper headlines and political pronouncements. ISIS may be defeated, but this is not the same as the defeat of religious terrorism. In fact, demographic shifts and global trends suggest that religious terrorism may continue—or even possibly increase—over the coming decades. And if so, the tools that we have not yet fully developed—and that the current administration has in some cases shortsightedly linked to the problem of Islamist radicalization—may prove to be critical to our success against future threats.

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