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Radicalization and Religious Extremism


Religious extremism, although usually relegated to the margins of society, has been a dangerous and unpredictable element in American history.  It has given rise to fringe religious groups (such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, and Revolution Muslim).  It has also played a role in movements with broader political and social goals (such as some militia movements and violent anti-abortion groups).

Such groups frequently engage in Constitutionally protected speech and political activism when pursuing their causes.  But militant religious beliefs have also compelled some of the most infamous acts of violence in American history, from the Salem witch trials in 17th century colonial Massachusetts to the Jonestown massacre  and Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in late 20th century.  Today, as demonstrated by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, jihadist terrorism presents a deadly challenge to the United States.

In 2011, the Obama administration defined its approach to countering violent extremism, including religiously motivated violence, with the release of three strategy documents: