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Differences between Politically and Religiously Motivated Groups

Differences between Politically and Religiously Motivated Groups

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There are a lot of groups in the world today, most of which have extremist or radical ideologies against the mainstream institutions that exist in the world today. Most of these groups hitherto classified by the established institutions as terrorist organizations often rely on the perpetration of violence or threat of it to pursue social, political, and religious ideologies. Any definition not-withstanding, these groups have been in existence since time immemorial in as much as many of us think that terrorism is a new phenomenon. In this article, I discuss the differences between the religiously-motivated and the politically-motivated groups.

Contemporary Religious and Politically-Motivated Groups

Contemporaneous extremist and radical groups rely so much on the publicity from the mass media due to non-stop coverage to further their coverage. Pre-modern groups such as the Knights Templar, the Sicarii, and the Thugge relied on violence to achieve their end. They justified their activities on political, religious, or social ideologies. For instance, Thugge was a cultist group of assassins based in India, which was ready to use violence against those who opposed Kali (Zalman, 2019). These are but a few.

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Religiously motivated groups use religious ideologies as a justification for their activities. In the modern sense, Islam is associated with radical or extremist ideologies with religious foundations in the world today. Religiosity has been on the rise since the year 1970s, and this has come with a corresponding increase in religious terrorism. For instance, the Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Ku Klux Klan, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hams, Abu Sayyaf, Hezbollah, and the Aum Shinrikyo can all be classified as extremist terrorist groups motivated by religious causes for action. In as much as Islam is associated with most of the terrorist activities being witnessed in the world today, Christianity has had its share. This assumption that Islam can be related to a larger share of the disproportionate number of terrorist activities being witnessed in the world today continues to grow in many an academic work (Romano, Rowe, & Phelps, 2018). It is, however, a valid assumption a priori that religious-based terrorism has become the number one form of terror and violence.

A greater danger that the world is increasingly at risk of is the fact that religious fanaticism is on the rise, leading to the formation of a significant number of extremist groups. These groups wreak havoc to their perceived enemies using religious idioms and mandates shaped in divine terms. Another debate that has continued to take root in most of the academic world since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran has been on the cause for the rise in Islamist extremism (Fine, 2008). Some scholars posit that rational-strategic motives, rather than ideological principles, are to blame on the cause for this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there are many groups with extremist or radical agenda, and they can be distinguished as based on several factors. Politically-motivated groups with socialist or communist agenda such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Shining Path, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof and Weather Underground United Organization are motivated with the goal of establishing communist or socialist states. Those with the national liberation agenda include the Kurdish, ETA, Tamil Tigers, Mau Mau, Fatah (PLO) and the Islamic Republican Army have the aim to liberate their nations from external or imperial forces (Zalman, 2019). Lastly, states and other transnational state actors and organizations with violent, extremist, or radical agenda exist in the world today.

This phenomenon beats the pre-modern definition of extremist and terrorist groups as non-state actors. However, the activities of individual states such as Iran, Iraq, and Israel makes the fit well within the definition of an extremist state actor (Zalman, 2019). A particular point is when these states have been supporting other non-state actors to further their agenda. Israel, Pakistan, and Qatar have long been accused of supporting terrorist groups. The international community has, in turn, designated North Korea, Iran, and Iraq for being terrorists. Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were long known to be terrorist groups. However, these groups have in turn justified their actions as right.

Ideological Underpinnings

Ideology plays a vital role in the understanding of the motive behind religious or politically motivated groups. Secular political groups inspired by revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin, Ernesto Guevara and Mao Zedong and those by theological underpinnings based on the teachings of notable figures such as Abdullah Yusuf ‘Azzam (Palestine), Sayyid Qutb (Muslim’s Brotherhood) and Ayatollah Khomeini (Iran) have had a tremendous ideological foundations as their justifications (Romano, Rowe, & Phelps, 2018).  The principal ideological difference between these groups is that whereas the politically motivated ones are based on secular political beliefs, religious groups seek to fulfill the divine call for the liberation of human beings from the worldly things.

A Muslim suicide bomber is influenced by a religious ideology that has a deep root in Islamic theology, and they cannot be separated from this ideology. Secular political extremist groups have been in existence for a very long time. The foundation of these groups is to further a political agenda, such as the resistance of domination or invasion by imperialist forces (Corte, 2007). The beginning of the contemporary, political and systematic terrorist groups have a deep foundation on the French Revolution going into the First World War. The years 1913 to 1940s, independent political group actions saw a decline, in as much as the Soviet Union and Fascist governments conducted internal violent or terror attacks on their citizens for domestic political domination.

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Guerilla tactics such as the one employed by Mao Zedong has its foundation on the British operative’s (T E Lawrence) assistance to the Arab resistance in the Hijaz during World War One. Groups such as the Mau Mau (Kenya), and Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) (Algeria) employed this tactic during their revolt against colonial rule between the years 1945 and 1979. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) of Northern Ireland and the Basque Euzkadi Ta-Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain represents some politically motivated groups with separatist agenda. All these groups have a political foundation and justify their actions on socio-economic underpinnings.

Political ideologies behind these groups are meant to bring a revolution within the nation-state, rather than to shatter it or exterminated the opponents. The groups had no interest at world domination or imperialist agenda in as much as they dreamt of transforming the world. The extremist political groups in most cases did seek diplomatic ties with the defeated power soon after ascending to power. For instance, most of the former British colonies did find diplomatic and economic relations with the UK under the banner of the Commonwealth Countries. The FLN group reestablished economic ties with their former colonizer France after gaining independence.

Politically and religiously motivated groups have some similarities. One, all their activities, some of which are violent and extreme, are based on ideologies. Both of these groups have their beliefs falling outside the mainstream political and religious values and on the edge of the ideological spectrum (Murse, 2019). Secondly, all their ideologies are based on hatred, anger, and fear of the mainstream institutions. For instance, Islamist, communist or socialist political extremists are in the opposition of democratic and capitalist political governments and other human rights beliefs. All these factors are constant across both the liberal and right-wing extremism and other religious extremists.

Consequently, most of these groups usually resort to the use of violence to further their course. Lastly, most scholars do believe that all the motivated religious groups are based on a political agenda hence the proliferation of the name religious-political extremism. For instance, in their quest for furthering the spread of Islam in the entire world, Muslim’s Brotherhood or the Islamic State has the aim to bring back the caliphate which is based on an Islamic rule.

Consequently, groups such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah all have religious and political motivations as fundamental ideological underpinnings. The distinction between the two ideological foundations only come into existence because these groups use religious idiom and shape mandate in divine terms to gain political leverage such as concessions, recognition, territory, and power.  A key difference is that political groups have a direct political agenda whereas religious groups have their activities taking the course of religious agenda. These groups usually seek freedom from the perceived dominating forces.


The world has had a lot of extremist groups that seek to disrupt the very foundation of the mainstream institutions out of the desire to gain political or religious leverage over the other competing groups. Most of these extremist groups act out of anger, fear, and hatred of their perceived religious or political opponents; hence, they resort to violence or unorthodox means to achieve their agenda. The rise of terrorist religious and civic organizations with diverse ideological foundations in the world today can attest to this fact. This article has found that in as much as religious groups have different religious motives, these groups have a latent desire to achieve a political objective.


  • Corte, L. d. (2007). Explaining Terrorism: A Psychosocial Approach. Perspectives on Terrorism, 1 (2).
  • Fine, J. (2008, Winter). Contrasting Secular and Religious Terrorism. Middle East Quarterly, 15 (1), pp. 59-69.
  • Murse, T. (2019, July 02). Political Extremists. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from ThoughtCo.:
  • Romano, D., Rowe, S., & Phelps, R. (2018). Correlates of Terror: Trends in Types of Terrorist Groups and Fatalities Inflicted. (G. Simons, Ed.) Journal of Congent Social Sciences, 5 (1).
  • Zalman, A. (2019, July 21). A List of Terrorist Groups by Type: From Pre-Modern to Present-Day. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from ThoughtCo.:


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