The gendered dimension of the ‘good religion’/‘bad religion’ narrative and its racial implications

By Rabea Khan

What does the modern category ‘religion’ have to do with Judith Butler’s theory on gender performativity? Quite a bit, if you consider how religion in Western modernity is a feminised category. In my recently published article with Critical Research on Religion, I show how a feminine gender identity is inscribed into the modern (and as I prefer to call it modern-colonial) category ‘religion’. What illustrates this feminisation of religion especially well is the popular ‘good religion’/‘bad religion’ narrative, which is particularly prominent in the discipline of International Relations (IR). This narrative entails a gendered logic which imagines ‘good religion’ as the ‘angel of the house’ (or more fittingly in this context the ‘angel of the state’) only concerned with inner spirituality, emotion, affairs of the heart and salvation. Good religion stays in the private sphere. ‘Bad religion’ on the other hand is the kind of religion that has become ‘political’ rather than staying in the private sphere. It acts as the ‘irrational maniac’ threatening to destroy public order and the rational politics of the nation state (see Fitzgerald 2011). It is regularly described as violent, irrational, and its actors as ‘fanatic’, ‘extremist’, and ‘radical’. ‘Political’ religion, it seems, is acting against its ‘true’ nature. In other words, it is acting against its feminine, peace-loving, private nature and as gender non-conforming by inserting itself into the masculinist, public sphere where it does not belong and where it is therefore the cause of chaos and disorder. A very similar line of argument has been put forward by earlier theorists, such as Rosseau, Hegel and Freud, about women’s innate deficiency and threat to civilisation, rationality and public order if not kept in check and confined to the private sphere (see Pateman 1980). Essentially, then, ‘bad religion’ is discussed and presented in similar terms as gendered bodies that are seen to act against their ‘natural’ gender identities.

As an IR scholar, I come across ‘religion’ frequently. Religion is being discussed when it comes to issues deemed relevant to the study of IR, such as terrorism, conflicts, war, violence etc. Unsurprisingly, IR scholars talk about religion as if it is a clearly definable phenomenon, a ‘you-know-it-when-you-see-it’ sort of phenomenon. Although by now there is an abundance of literature that proves otherwise, this literature has not yet arrived in the discipline of IR which still seems to be stuck in a discourse that perpetuates what Cavanaugh (2009) has referred to as the ‘myth of religious violence’. This means that IR continues to perpetuate the baseless and popular assumption that ‘religion’ has a special propensity to induce, cause or intensify violence, war, conflict, and terrorism. This is especially the case for ‘bad religion’, which does not conform to the secular standards of the ‘good religion’ model based on (Protestant) Christianity. Bad religion, inserts itself into the public sphere, causing violence, bloodshed and importing backwardness – it is a regress. This also demonstrates the racialised implications of the good/bad religion narrative. Indeed, bad (gender non-conforming) religion is most likely attributed to religions that are non-Christian, and imagined as distant from the Christian, Western model. 

This very typical way in which IR has discussed ‘bad religion’ (and indeed this seems to be the only form of religionconsidered relevant to IR) reminds me of the way in which IR, and terrorism scholars more specifically, have talked about female terrorists. As Gentry and Sjoberg (2015) note in their book Mothers, Monsters, Whores, the female terrorist is presented as even more dangerous than her male counterpart because she is seen to act gender non-conforming, and against her feminine nature. Women are supposed to be the nurturing, peaceful ‘angels of the house’, and not political and violent, as female terrorists have chosen to be. Their violence, then, is perceived as unnatural, hence especially dangerous and violent. Indeed, the advice given to members of a West German counterterrorism unit was to ‘shoot the women first’ (MacDonald 1988). The female terrorist as Third (2014) argued, is perceived as ‘hyper-terrorist’, i.e. more terrorist than her male counterpart.

What does this have to do with religion, you might wonder? A similar ‘shoot religious terrorists first’ policy seems to prevail in the minds of counter-terrorist practitioners, advisors and scholars. The ‘religious’ terrorist is assumed to be more dangerous, lethal, fanatic and irrational than the secular one by the vast majority of Terrorism scholars – despite the lack of empirical evidence for this assumption. Within Terrorism Studies, ‘religious terrorism’ has been discussed as usually non-negotiable, nihilistic, and irrational, necessitating much harsher counterterrorism measures than secular terrorism,which is often credited with at least some degree of rationality. Attaching the gendered label ‘religion’ to concepts, phenomena, bodies or actors is a speech act that has consequences. It is feminising, i.e. denying rationality. In IR this can have material consequences, illustrated by the harsher counterterrorism measures suggested for, and imposed on violence or terrorism considered to be ‘religious’– hence more irrational and more dangerous. 

Feminising something, however, is also always racialising – as Sara Ahmed (2004, 3) notes, becoming feminine also implies becoming less white. The fact that most examples about ‘religious terrorism’ that come to mind are non-Western, usually Islamic, then, comes as no surprise. Non-Western, non-Christian forms of terrorism are more likely to be perceived as ‘religious’ – even if their actors’ motivation is primarily nationalist. For the case of ‘Islamist’ terrorism, the fact that the terrorist act or actor is situated in the ‘Middle East’– a region considered to be inherently ‘religious’, and not advanced to a more progressive, secular state – often suffices as proof that the act or actor in question must be religiously motivated. And even the instances of religious terrorism which are clearly ‘Christian’-inspired or perpetrated by white actors, are often presented or discussed in media as outlier cases which are not really Christian, but instead an abomination of the same, perpetrated by actors whose rationality is questioned with the frequent suggestion of mental instability. Thus, marginalising these actors as not representative of the West, of (real) Christianity, too, is a form of racialising these actors as distanced from the ideal form of whiteness that is implicated in the idea of rationality, the West, and Christianity. 


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge. 

Cavanaugh, William. 2009. The Myth of Religious violence: Secular ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2011. Religion and Politics in International Relations: The modern myth. London: Continuum Publishing Corporation

Gentry, Caron and Laura Sjoberg. 2015. Beyond Mothers, Monsters and Whores. London: Zed Books.

MacDonald, Eileen. 1988. Shoot the Women First. London: Arrow Books. 

Pateman, Carole. 1980. “ ‘The Disorder of Women’: Women, Love, and the Sense of Justice.” Ethics, 91 (1): 20-34.

Third, Amanda. 2014. “Mediating the female terrorist: Patricia Hearst and the containment of the feminist terrorist threat in the United States in the 1970s.” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 39 (3): 150-175.

Note: For a more detailed account of the gendered nature of “religion” please see my recently published article: Speaking “religion” though a gender code: The discursive power and gendered-racial implications of the religious label.