Open Letter: The Role of Religion in Radicalization


As international delegates meet in Quebec City this week under the auspices of the UNESCO-Quebec conference on youth, the internet and radicalization, we the signatories of this letter think it is urgent to discuss the link between religion and violent extremism.

In particular, it is of the utmost importance to respond to a study sponsored by SHERPA and made public last week which sought to create a profile of young people in Quebec supporting ideas linked to radicalization leading to violence.The main problem with this report is how the research downplayed the role of religion in radicalization. This is done in several ways. The study seeks to establish a connection between youth who do not hold religious views and the support for radicalisation leading to violence. Essentially, the report implies that atheists or agnostics have more chances of embracing radical ideas than believers.

Saying that religion will most likely protect someone from radicalization is simply untrue. Such a blanket statement ignores examples from the real world. How does one reconcile this idea with the life of Aaron Driver who pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last August? Driver had been a Christian in his early teens, then became a Muslim, and later converted to salafi-jihadism, adopting a radical apocalyptic worldview in reaction to the atrocities he saw unfold in Syria.

But the biggest flaw in the study is that no individual who was radicalized or has been radicalized was ever examined. One needs to talk to radicalized youth to see whether or not religion played a role in their radicalization, which the report refutes.

Studies of this nature are often taken up by the media and run the risk of shaping public opinion on the causes of radicalization leading to violence. This is why we are are responding to what we perceive as being flawed conclusions in light of the current research on violent extremism.

Compared to the work done by Dr. Anne Speckhard, professor of Psychiatry and author of Bride of ISIS: One Young Woman’s Path into Homegrown Terrorism (Advances Press, 2015) and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (Advances Press, 2016), as well as another report published last week and sponsored by the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF) and the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, the SHERPA study fails to deal with the people who have been affected by this current trend and thus their conclusion does more damage than good. Even a recent report submitted to Public Safety Canada stated “that in Canada, Australia, the United States and Western Europe, the greatest threat comes from individuals inspired and directed by ISIL”.

Whether people were religious or not at some point of time, their radicalized actions (such as joining a genocidal death cult in Syria) are the product of extremist religious thinking. In other words, if an individual was once a non-believer but at a later point converted to an ideology and identity that is religious in nature, is it intellectually acceptable to ignore the process that led to the person’s radicalization?

The truth is that radicalization and violent extremism is on the rise across the world and it is somewhat disingenuous to say that religion has absolutely nothing to do with it. One just needs to look at the language and imagery used by ISIS in its propaganda to understand that religion lies at the heart of its message. Non-state actors are publishing their crimes against humanity on social media channels, citing their religious texts as motivation for such violence, and in most cases all of their recruits and supporters share the same religious identity and apocalyptic worldview.

If we really to want to be successful in crafting public policies to reduce the probability of radicalization and violent extremism here in Canada and abroad, we must then push back against problematic reports that categorically deny the role religion plays in such matters. Only then will we be able to begin making progress.

Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University

Prof. André Gagné, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Theological Studies, Concordia University

Marc-André Argentino, PhD Candidate, Department of Religion, Concordia University

Marie Lamensch, Project Coordinator/Communications/Research, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University