From the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the April 2022 bombing of the Sufi Khalifa Sahib mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, religious minority sacred spaces are a conspicuous target of societal violence. While the potency of these attacks as instruments of symbolic and physical intimidation against vulnerable communities is well-recognized, comparatively little research has examined the larger societal and political forces that motivate them, particularly outside conflict zones. Employing data on individual religious minorities in 162 states from 1991–2014, we conduct quantitative analyses demonstrating that severe violence against religious minority sacred spaces is significantly correlated with increasing regime instability, particularly in more democratic states that strongly support religious institutions. Our findings suggest that the most violent outcomes tend to be diversionary, redirecting public anger toward internal ‘enemy’ others, rather than reactionary or retaliatory behavior toward already persecuted or genuinely threatening out-groups.
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