Often heard following the 9/11 attacks was the scary prediction that if only one percent of the world’s one billion Muslims joined al-Qaeda, at least one million terrorists would soon be launching attacks against the U.S. and its allies. The subsequent years have shown that forecast to be pure hogwash, tinged with a little anti-Islamic bigotry. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism, worldwide terrorist acts from 2005 through 2008 – excluding attacks occurring in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan – averaged about 6,600 yearly, hardly the number you’d expect from a million person assault.
Nor has the United States been inundated by Islamist inspired terror attacks. According to Would-Be Warriors, 2010 Rand Corporation study, from 9/11 to the end of 2009, 46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism occurred in the United States. Only 125 persons were identified in the 46 cases and half of the cases involved only a single individual. The report’s author, Brian Jenkins, one of the toughest but fair-minded analysts on terrorism, also pointed out that “the volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s than it is today.” That decade, Jenkins calculated, saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents.
Equally specious have been the repeated claims that while “all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim.” The FBI’s publication Terrorism 2002 -2005 calculated that Islamic extremists accounted for only six percent of all terrorist acts on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005; in contrast, Jewish radical groups accounted for seven percent, Latino groups 42 percent, and “extreme left wing groups” 24 percent, and “others” 16 percent.
This is not to dismiss the real threat that domestic terrorism poses to the United States or to minimize the tens of thousands of individuals killed or injured in worldwide terrorist attacks. But these figures plainly deflate the alarmist “Muslim as terrorist” hyperbola that continues to abound a decade after 9/11. The anticipated million man march of al-Qaeda suicide bombers was a delusion but continues in personalities as diverse as Sean Hannity, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Glenn Beck.
Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wants to know why, if roughly one-fifth of mankind is Muslim and they all supposedly hate the West and embrace martyrdom, are there not more Muslim terrorists? The short answer is that the vast majority of Muslims – well more than 99 percent – reject al-Qaeda’s goals. Kurzman points to numerous opinion polls evincing that the number of Muslims eager for a theocratic state ruled by Sharia law is a distinctly small minority. Secularists number a fifth to half of the population in various Muslim majority countries and liberal Muslims – those supporting an Islamic government following democratic procedures – account for about half the populace, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia. A 2007 Pew Research poll found that majorities in 13 out of 14 Muslim societies agreed that religion should be kept separate from government policy.
Kurzman wants the American public to “turn down the volume on terrorism debates” and “put the threat of Islamist terrorism in perspective.” Given how the U.S. media immediately assumed that the slaughter in Norway was perpetrated by Islamists, he faces a towering, up hill battle. But Kurzman offers convincing arguments for those willing to listen. The surprising numbers of opinion polls that regularly monitor public attitudes in Arab and Muslim communities evince support for his views. They show that the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by terror attacks against civilians and that such acts turn public opinion against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. He also introduces the idea of “radical sheik” to explain to why internet forums and young Arab musical groups laud Islamist attacks on the U.S. and the West. Young Muslims, he counsels, express sympathy for “Bin Ladin and his ilk as heroes of anti-imperialism and Islamic authenticity – without actually wanting these revolutionary movements to succeed.” This widespread “symbolic endorsement” of radical Islam, Kurzman points out, has “not translate into support for revolutionary goals or potential collaboration with terrorism.” Radical Islamists appear to have the upper hand in Muslim communities because so long as they use violence, “their visibility far outweighs their numbers.”
Kurzman makes the case that radical Islamists are under ideological siege and losing the war of ideas among Muslims. Socially conservative but non-violent Muslim televangelists attract thousands of more adherents than the barkers of revolutionary Islam. Eclipsing radical Islamist doctrine has been the evolving tradition of liberal, democratic Islamic thought that has sought to modernize Muslim majority countries while paying fidelity to socially conservative Islam. Kurzman’s critique of liberal and revolutionary Islam should be mandatory reading for anyone insisting that Islam inherently stifles creative political thinking or condemns its adherents to a backward, violent theology. Progressive Islamic opinion has been publicly stifled in the Arab world partly by the murderous attacks of radical Islamists but more so by repressive Arab governments that view such voices as threats to their hold on power. Facilitating such silence has been the U.S. and its Western allies. In the U.S., Kurzman points out, such silence has been enforced by ignoring or belittling the proponents of liberal, democratic Islamic thought. “Expert pessimism about the potential for Islamic liberalism,” Kurzman explains, “has a long heritage in the West.”
Kurzman is one of the few analysts to admit that there is little Washington can do to change the Arab world’s deep hostility toward the United States, absent a meaningful change in U.S. foreign policy – a nil prospect. But most Muslims view the U.S. as a threat to their national security and religion yet still maintain positive attitudes toward American culture and society. Kurzman urges U.S. policymakers to take advantage of the latter. Published before the current “Arab Spring,” he suggests that Washington replace its traditional, narrow question of how a policy will affect U.S. “national interests” with how will a policy effect the groups and movements that share American values and care about democracy. Forging alliances with such groups in the long term will help to secure U.S. national interests and further isolate radical Islamists. Readers seeking insight into the political cross-currents emerging from the Arab Spring without fear mongering rhetoric over radical Islam would do well to read The Missing Martyrs.