The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism

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James R. Lewis
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 2017 publication of The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism is an excellent addition to the literature on religion and terrorism. In some ways, it grapples with the problem highlighted by Scott Appleby’s assessment in “Religious Violence: The Strong, the Weak, and the Pathological," (Practical Matters, 2012) that the previous thirty years had “witnessed a thematically and methodologically incoherent outpouring of books, articles, and multi-media documentaries” on the topic of religious violence. This incoherence can be difficult for those new to the topic, and Lewis’ edited volume responds to this challenge in three ways: it smartly limits its scope to the topic of contemporary religion and terrorism; it includes work from a disciplinarily diverse—and yet not incoherent—assemblage of scholars; and it deals directly with important theoretical interventions that have occurred since 9/11.

The text, according to Lewis, is organized into five sections: the first section (chapters 1-4) consists of chapters that appear to grapple with the broad question of how religion and terrorism are related; the second section (chapters 5-9) contains chapters exploring a variety of narrower theories explaining this relationship; the third section (chapters 10-12) engages with the “religion-terrorism relationship” in the context of three specific movements; the fourth section (chapters 13-15) explores “a range of different responses [social, governmental, media, etc.] to contemporary non-state terrorism”; and the final chapter discusses self-sacrificial religious violence (3-5).

The quality of the chapters obviously varies, but the text unquestionably captures theoretically contemporary thought on the relationship between religion and terrorism. Particularly excellent are Lorne Dawson’s exploration of how religion is treated in contemporary analyses of religion and terrorism; Scott Atran’s concise review of the literature on devoted actors, sacred values, and identity fusion; Stephen Nemeth’s discussion of rational choice theory as it relates to religious terrorism; Pieter Nanninga’s reframing of the ways in which we might understand al-Qaeda’s religion; Per-Erik Nilsson’s theoretical engagement with the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks; and Christopher Hartney’s adept analysis of the work done via fictional representations of religious terrorism in the media.

The weakest chapter in the volume is Tom Mills and David Miller’s genealogy of what has been described as the terrorism industrial complex. While the inclusion of a chapter on this topic makes sense, the execution is difficult to follow—even for someone familiar with much of the scholarship being cited. Similarly uncompelling is Mark Juergensmeyer’s chapter on religion and terrorism more broadly. The chapter itself is both clear and succinct, but it’s perhaps the least contemporary in the volume (it cites no post-2005 sources) and largely a re-articulation of earlier work.

One modest short-coming of the volume is the absence of a more robust introduction. The field’s “thematically and methodologically incoherent” nature makes it difficult to curate a reader on the topic. Moreover, Lewis acknowledges that he has “intentionally brought together a selection of researchers with widely varying—sometimes bordering on mutually exclusive—approaches and theoretical orientations” (3). The volume is, as a result, a wonderfully diverse collection of essays, both in terms of disciplinary roots (sociologists, theologians, anthropologists, scholars of religion, etc.) and methodological orientations (ranging from the social scientific to the philosophically humanistic).

While this breadth makes the text an excellent resource for the classroom, however, it also introduces a challenge to the novice reader. Thus while the relatively short introduction does offer some modest context, it effectively leaves the reader adrift to sort the mainstream from the marginal or the established from the exploratory. The inclusion of an entire chapter on René Girard, for example, demands a more robust explanation. The chapter itself is a wonderfully cogent exegesis of Girard’s scholarship (and one that does not, like many engagements with Girard, minimize the Christian themes in his analysis). The reality, though, is that (notwithstanding the occasional mention of scapegoating) Girard’s work is rarely cited in mainstream contemporary scholarship on religion and terrorism. Even within this text, for example, no other chapter even mentions Girard (while eight cite Mark Juergensmeyer).

A far more modest concern is that only two of the sixteen authors were women (it’s possible that the author pool lacks diversity in other registers as well, but this is impossible to ascertain from the text). Even if there are fewer women than men working on the topic of terrorism, it is impossible to imagine that there were no women qualified to contribute.

Altogether, The Cambridge Companion to Religion and Terrorism is an excellent addition to the literature on religion and terrorism. Its theoretical sophistication alone makes it worth recommendation, but its disciplinary and methodological breadth makes it particularly impressive. It is perhaps the best existing book for an introductory course on the topic of contemporary religious violence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Megan K McBride is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James R. Lewis is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Troms, Norway.


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