Terrorists and acts of terror are steeped in religious ideology. Religion and terrorism are so connected, in fact, that most find one has no ground without the other. In many cases terrorism is used to defend or pursue religious beliefs that that particular group believes. However, the effectiveness of these tactics to spread a message are rarely perceived well, especially when people die. One of the oldest acts of terror as we know it is found in Catholicism. The Crusades were a prominent time in Catholic history in which blood and death ran ramped at the hands of Catholic soldiers in a holy war. But many people don’t link the Crusades to terrorism, even though it embodies much of what we would define as terrorism today.
It’s fair to assume that most popular religions—such as Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism and more—are not based on violence for the sake of said religion. But what constitutes terrorism? As defined in Terror in the Mind of God, terrorism “[has to be] violent—even vicious—in a manner calculated to be terrifying. And, second, they have been linked in some way to religion” (Juergensmeyer, 32). So, from the get-go we have terrorism and religion linked in the definition. Although, many religions, such as Catholicism, would rather play the victim card in modern society rather than look at their past actions. Most notably to the western world, the bloody Crusades that were sanctioned by the Catholic Church, which allowed a war in the name of religion.
The Crusades is one of the first instances of religious terrorism. Being raised in the Catholic faith, the Crusades was something introduced to me fairly late in my education. Unlike other stories, my school only mentioned the Crusades in sophomore year in high school. But it deserves to be mentioned at the beginning of a discussion about terrorism, especially since it sparked one of longest running religious feud: Catholics versus Muslims. The Crusades began because of “centuries of Muslim wars of expansion… to retake control of the Holy Land in the eastern Mediterranean… and to recapture formerly Christian territories” (Dickson). Perhaps for some the Crusades is a noble cause meant to spread the one true religion (Crawford). However, most terrorist acts can fit this explanation. Just because it wasn’t labeled at the time as a terrorist act—or even denounced as a terrorist act today—doesn’t mean that the crusaders weren’t inflicting terror on innocent people, beginning a war, because they worshiped something different and wanted to reclaim that land.
There are some that reject the connection of the Crusades to terrorism. In an op-ed article written in 2015 in response to Barak Obama’s denouncement of the Crusades and Islamic terror groups, Helen Aguirre Ferre writes, “the president made the point that Muslims should not be judged by the actions of radical Islamists, which is right, except that he did not leave it there. It is as if he was more concerned about offending Muslims than about offending Christians” (Ferre). Ferre’s opinion is based in the fact that organizations like ISIS are not fighting for religion, but simply for themselves.
Ferre doesn’t stop there but goes on to draw a very ridged line between religion and terrorism. Ferre states that ISIS “are terrorists, not religious crusaders” (Ferre). I, however, would like to ask why can’t it be both? Why can’t ISIS be religious crusaders and terrorists? Terrorism, in most cases, has a root in religion. That root is not always correct or even justifiable within the context of that religion, but it does have a link with religion. According to a New America study, in today’s post-9/11 America, most Americans will tell you that the word ‘terrorist’ is liked with the word ‘Islam’ (Bergen). What Ferre doesn’t seem to grasp is that a religious crusade can be the same as terrorism, and we shouldn’t balk from the linking even though it enhances a stain on one of the world’s most practiced religion: Catholicism.
In America, foreigners are often linked with terror, despite the fact that in post 9/11 America, 83% of terror acts were committed by a citizen or permanent resident (Bergen). A woman wearing a hijab isn’t just someone practicing their religion, but something dangerous that likely has links to terror. Because of one act of terror an entire group of people, a whole religion’s symbolism, becomes linked with terror. In Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer states, “the same religion that is linked with such potent acts of destruction also carries an enormous capacity for healing, restoration, and hope” (Juergensmeyer, 26). One of the many faults of terrorism is that it adds a taboo to an entire religion and everyone that practices that religion, whether it’s peaceful or not. People are often blinded by fear to the point they forget or ignore that one act doesn’t define an entire group.
It doesn’t matter what religion is linked to the terror, it’s still terror. The Crusades were imposed by Catholics and in the name of God; many people believe that Catholics have no faults along this line. Well, that’s not entirely correct. Living in a predominantly Catholic nation—over 70% according to a recent study—terror is often linked to Catholicism; but most of the time the link comes from terror being done to Catholics or it’s not labeled terror, but justice (Religious Landscapes). Every religion has at least one connection to terror; just because many would like to forget some nasty parts of history, doesn’t erase the fact that Catholicism has a history of terror.
A big part of Catholicism in the 11th century was the practice of pilgrimages. Pilgrimages were when Catholic devotes would go in search of enlightenment or to spread the word of the lord. It is believed that “both Crusade and pilgrimage” are linked in “the belief that the end of the world was imminent” (Dickson). So, the general explanation for the Crusades was that the Catholics wanted to ‘save’ others from their doom by trying to convert as many people as possible so that they might all enter the kingdom of God. However, the more logical reason was that the wars happening eastern Europe at the time “made pilgrims to Jerusalem difficult and often impossible” (Dickson). Given these two reasons, a violent Crusade seemed just. The end of the world was coming so people needed to prepare for it, and journeys to the holy land was near impossible. The obvious solution was to go to war to make life a bit easier.
The desire to make worship easier in spite of nations or boarders is something the early Catholics and ISIS have in common. The Crusades were meant to reclaim the holy land, to make pilgrimages easier while also smashing other religions. ISIS has a somewhat similar mission. In a CNN article about ISIS’s desires, Tim Lister states, “ISIS does not recognize the borders of nation states that make up the modern world nor the idea of a democratic state or citizenship. It sees these as man-made creations at odds with the notion of a caliphate” (Lister). In this, ISIS and the early Crusaders have similar thinking. Disregarding boarders and acting with religion as an excuse, both bring death and terror wherever they go.
Perhaps people like Ms. Ferre will disagree with my linking the Crusades and to an organization like ISIS. It’s not a perfect comparison, but I never claimed that the two are one in the same and hope that didn’t come across. But how can one be excused in the name of religion but the other is admonished as terrorism? Perhaps it’s the modern lens that we tend to see the world through.
The connection between Catholicism and terror is something most people will rail against, particularly practicing Catholics. This belief is likely based in the idea that Catholics do everything for God and in God’s name—that isn’t to say that other religions don’t act in their own higher-power’s name. The desire to reject a terroristic past comes from the idea that “most people feel that religion should provide tranquility and peace, not terror” and thus reject a violent past (Juergensmeyer, 35). The desire to brush off the Crusades as a just religious act could be a desire to maintain that Catholicism is the only ‘right’ religion.
Part of the hesitance to link the Crusades to terrorism comes from the perception of terrorism as something inherently evil and anyone who partakes in that religion is evil by association. I will admit that that statement is a bit more modern and extremist than the actual reality. However, if we use Islam and Muslim communities as a reference for people’s reaction to religions associate with terrorism than it might be more fair than anything. As I have said before, calling the Crusades a terrorist act leaves a stain on what many would like to call a perfect or the correct religion. Because at the end of the day, many “employ [terrorism] in the same sense as the word murderer” (Juergensmeyer, 46). As a religion that is built around the idea of sacrifice, the idea that their ‘just actions’ were murder—which is against the Ten Commandments—is unfathomable. I believe that a bit of guilt also has to do with the resistance; guilt that the Crusades aided in the murder of innocent people simply for the ease of another religion.
A lesser known element about terrorism is that a lot of things have to go right in order for the terror act to have an impact. In order for terrorism to succeed, “it takes a community of support and, in some cases, a large organizational network” (Juergensmeyer, 53). Pope Urban II sanctioned the first Crusade and used his power and statue within the Catholic Church to order a war that targeted areas that were full of other religions; people labeled heretics. The Crusades were endorsed by the Pope, a man believed to be God’s figurehead on earth. Because of that alone, it stands to reason that most Catholics at the time would have thought they were doing God’s will by partaking in the Crusades. If the modern Roman Catholic church abolishes these acts, I have not been able to find any evidence.
However, the rise of terrorism in recent years—or, should I say, the awareness of terrorism—has added a new layer of qualifications, almost, in order to be called a terrorist act. Religious violence, in recent years, “has reappeared in a form often calculated to terrify on a massive scale… acts of violence often justified by the historical precedent of religion’s violent past” (Juergensmeyer, 40). Rather than allowing terrorist to be called that, there has been an added racial element to what constitutes a ‘terrorist’. Catholicism has a terror filled past, but few Catholics who incite terror in modern day are branded a terrorist. Perhaps it’s just me, but I distinctly remember stories of white Catholics shooting or bombing in the name of Catholicism—usually aimed at another religious group. I remember that these people weren’t called terrorists but rather described as mentally ill or something of that sort.
Religion is filled with terror. In fact, I believe it would be difficult to find a religion that didn’t have terror or fear as part of their history even if their sacred texts and teachings warn away from violence. Catholicism is a religion that seems to denounce the idea that terror and terrorists exist within their own organization. Often times, we see that Catholics are victims—catholic history portrays them as victims from Rome killing Jesus to the 9/11 attack on a widely Catholic nation. But, just like most every religion, Catholicism has its roots in terror despite their attempts to hide it. The Crusades was a time in the eleventh century in which Latin Catholics condoned and encouraged a war that targeted regions inhabited by people of other religions; they began a revolution in the name of God and called it just. Despite modern rhetoric, Catholicism is just as steeped in innocent blood as any other, but it’s time that they address this history and revolutionize the narrative.
Bergen, Peter, Albert Ford, Alyssa Sims, David Sterman. “In depth: Terrorism in America After
9/11.” New America. https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/terrorism-in-america/who-are-terrorists/
Crawford, Paul. “The Crusades.” Catholic Education Resource Center, 1997.
Dickson, Gary, Thomas F. Madden, Marshall W. Baldwin. “Crusades: Christianity.”
Ferre, Helen Aguirre. “Religious Crusaders were not Terrorists.” Miami Herald.February 14,
Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.
University of California Press, Fourth Edition, iBooks Edition, 2017.
Lister, Tim. “What does ISIS Really Want.” CNN World. December 11, 2015.
“Religious Landscapes.” Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life.
9/11.” New America. https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/terrorism-in-america/who-are-terrorists/
Anne is a graduating senior majoring in English with a concentration in media and lit and a philosophy minor. Originally from Houston, Texas, she lives on the Upper East Side.