“If You Meet the Buddha on the Road”: The Problem of Religious Terrorism in Northeast Asia


Experts on Political Violence, especially religious terrorism, can easily point to themes by region. In the Middle East, fundamentalist Islamist organizations object to their way of life being challenged by modernity or by western culture. In Europe, hard-right organizations react violently to influxes of migrants and refugees. In North America, ethno-nationalist supporters of hard-right politicians react violently to the feeling that they are under threat – at times using the language of Christian Dominionism or a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations.

In each case, there is a theme that counterterrorism researchers can point to. Usually, that theme has to do with a perceived threat by an outside force, usually foreign immigrants or perceived invaders. This makes it comparatively easy to predict what the sources of religious terrorism may be in these regions of the world.

This leaves the problem of religious terrorism in Asia, particularly Northeast Asia. There does exist some overlap with the religious framing of ethno-nationalist tensions in other regions of the world. For example, China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population (in which, as a side note, bestselling Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu is infamously involved). This is a problem that could easily bottleneck into reactive political violence by the victims of the predominantly Han state’s campaigns of persecution.

In South Korea, the establishment of a mosque in the city of Daegu was met with protests from suspicious local residents, whose actions included the display of a pig’s head to offend Muslim worshippers. Thankfully, this scenario did not result in outright kinetic violence, though it appears on the surface reflective of incidents of xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States.

What is more difficult to predict, however, is religious terrorism in China, South Korea, or Japan that is not specifically based around a model of ethnic conflict, and that instead draws on domestic religious traditions. Take, for example, the Aum Shinrikyo subway sarin attack in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo did not originate from tensions between native and foreign elements in society, but was a home-brewed New Religious Movement built from existing elements of Japanese religious and spiritual cultures.

Circling back to China, analysts may want to cast similar eyes on the Falun Gong new religious movement and its conflicts with the Chinese government. Unlike Aum Shinrikyo, Falun Gong maintains a persistent international presence and outreach, allowing members of the group to advocate for their interests abroad. However, this does not mean that the group does not elicit negative attention from the Chinese government – going as far as acts of torture against Falun Gong members – that might itself result in a violent clash.

There is a noticeable difference between the examples of China, South Korea, and Japan. China’s policies of religious repression form a pressure cooker that may potentially result in religiously motivated violence. South Korea has seen incidents of Islamophobia that appear not dissimilar to those in Europe and North America, though the outcome (at least so far) has proven significantly less violent. Japan’s most infamous brush with terrorism occurred decades ago and emerged from a homegrown new religious movement that drew its principal inspiration from extant Japanese culture.

Readers may notice here that there are only a few definitive historical examples in the study of religious terrorism in Northeast Asia, and a much larger number of hypotheticals.

This itself adds to the problem of the study of religious terrorism in Northeast Asia. How is an analyst to proceed in forecasting potential terrorism in Northeast Asia if there is less of an apparent theme than exists in the study of terrorism in the Middle East, Europe, or North America?

In normative terms, this can be said to be a net positive. If the countries of Northeast Asia experience less religious terrorism, this can be viewed as a feather in their cap. However, for any analyst of terrorism and counter-terrorism focused on predicting threats and establishing a plan of action for incidents in this region of the world, it poses a challenge. How are black swan incidents of terrorism to be prepared for?

As much as there is any theme at all in the analysis of potential religious terrorism in Northeast Asia, it is the way a melange of native spiritual or cultural influences may be abused in an Asian cultural context. The Aum Shinrikyo subway attack is a principal example of this phenomenon that has existed in practice. Meanwhile, this pattern may be read as forming the justification for the Chinese government’s fear of Falun Gong or other new religious movements- not only as a challenge to governmental authority, but as a vector for potential political violence.

However, any suggestion that this might be a pattern is shattered by a review of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data website’s most recent roundups of armed conflict incidents in the region. Northeast Asia is largely a blank space compared to South and Southeast Asia, meaning that incidents of political violence by non-state actors are more sparsely distributed. However, this also means that such incidents are significantly more difficult to anticipate. This, in turn, suggests that punctuated incidents of terrorism in the region would have more of an impact on the local populace.

Suppression of religious and ethnic minority groups may be a factor in a Chinese context. In the South Korean context, as in Europe and North America, analysts may want to remain vigilant for evidence of xenophobic responses to foreign populations. Within a Japanese context, the South China Morning Post in 2021 reported on a rise in incel culture and, relatedly, gender- based violence.

However, a generalized regional analysis of terrorism in Northeast Asia faces challenges due to the lack of a thematic focus that can help diagnose potential problems on a broad basis. Consider this in contrast to North America, Europe, and the Middle East, in which analysts of violent extremism might find unifying themes. This will prove a significant challenge not only in the research and monitoring of extremist groups in the region, but also the prevention of future political violence.

Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur holds a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University, along with a Graduate Certificate in Intelligence Studies. He is an alumnus of internships with Horizon Intelligence and the U.S. Department of State's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. He is a regular contributor to short-term projects for Wikistrat and for United Nations Volunteers online assignments.


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