Piety and Radicalization: Is There a Link?

After the unfortunate bombings in Boston, the media accounts often highlight increasing religiosity of the terrorists before their attacks. Here is a quote from NY Times, investigating Tamerlan’s path to radicalization:

He flew in to the airport here in Makhachkala, where the plate-glass windows of the arrival hall frame a mosque with twin minarets stretching skyward. He had already given up drinking alcohol, grown a close beard and become more devout, praying five times a day. (full story)

Similar descriptions could be found in many other outlets in these days. Does personal piety correlate with radical views?

Based on the Gallup’s World Poll, which is the largest global study of its kind, Esposito and Mogahed respond in negative. The authors call 7% of the Poll respondents as “radical” due to their view that 9/11 attacks are completely justified. Looking at this small minority more closely, Esposito and Mogahed aim to shed light on dynamics of radicalization ( see Chapter 4). They remind us the fact that many of 9/11 hijackers themselves exhibited behaviors hardly practiced by a religious/devout Muslim. A number of them, for example, drank heavily and frequented strip clubs and porn shops. The Gallup data indicates that large majorities of those with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. Similarly, no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Esposito and Mogahed suggest looking at political radicalization instead of piety: “The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety” (p. 74). The authors give examples from radicals’ views/perspectives on colonization and American Empire.

How then could we explain ever-increasing combination of religious rhetoric and political radicalism? “As our data clearly demonstrate,” Esposito and Mogahed write,

religion is the dominant ideology in today’s Arab and Muslim world, just as secular Arab nationalism was in the days of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Palestinian Liberation Organization–from its inception, a staunchly secular group– used secular Palestinian nationalism in its rhetoric to justify acts of violence and to recruit. Just as Arab Nationalism was used in the 1960s, today religion is used to justify extremism and terrorism (p. 74).

The aforementioned ideological transformation and new religious “framing” is thoroughly analyzed in a recent article by Hank Johnston and Eitan Alimi, published in Political Studies. The article identifies the primary frameworks and what Goffman call “keying processes” in the case of Chechen and Palestinian national movements with their relations to Russia and Israel, respectively. Tracing political motives of the groups’ emerging religious discourses (against their traditional secular and leftist/nationalist ideologies), the article provides support for the findings of Esposito and Mogahed.


Filed under Daily Disruption

5 responses to “Piety and Radicalization: Is There a Link?

  1. Thanks for this. Religious piety is not correlated, but an underutilized concept in social movement theory is the power of apocalyptic and millenarian beliefs in mobilizing some people to action.

    The idea that time is running out in an epochal battle between good and evil for which a few devout have been forewarned can lead some to take on the cloak of the warrior/hero/martyr. As Lee Quinby and Carol Mason observe, this often involves masculinist identity. I posted about this here:
    “Why We Need to Understand the Apocalyptic Worldview of a Small Group of Radical Muslims”

    On Friday I am posting a collection of comments and resources from a variety of scholars in an attempt to help reframe the shockingly misinformed media coverage. I will link to this article at Mobilizing Ideas and will post the link to the collection when it is online. If anyone want to submit a 100-300ish word piece for the collection, please send me an e-mail The premise is:

    “As a person with expertise, what would you tell a reporter who wanted to know what she or he needs to know to craft a better, more informed story about the Boston bombings as details emerge?”


  2. Pingback: Piety and Radicalization: Is There a Link? | OccuWorld

  3. I beg to disagree. The crux of muslim terrorism is djihad for the glory of Allah and the aim is the triumph of Islam and the establishment of a world-wide califate.
    What the djihadist thinkers and leaders such as Assam, Al Soudi, Naji and Bin Laden have done is elevated djihad to the equivalent of a sixth pillar of
    Islam, mandatory for all muslims. At the same time they have created a new
    eschatology justifying terrorist bloodbaths.


    • Yet only a tiny fraction of Muslims follow this path. It is like saying Christian Identity neonazis in the United States aim for the triumph of the Godly White Race, and have elevated this to the main task for all true Christians who show “blood in the face;” therefore Christianity in the United States is on a New Crusade “justifying terrorist bloodbaths” like the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing.


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