Book: "The Missing Martyrs": Why are there so few Muslim terrorists?

A question worth asking

Any book that is subtitled “Why there are so few Muslim terrorists” is bound to elicit mixed feelings from the average reader of altmuslim.

On the one hand, why “so few”? How many were you expecting? Of course, the prevailing assumption in the demotic literature of the op-ed pages and the cable news shows is that the term “Muslim terrorist” comes close to being an oxymoron. What other kind, after all, could be there?

Taking this position to a new height, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), recently insisted there was no tension between his past support for still-violent IRA and his current campaign against radicals. The IRA, he explained, didn’t hurt Americans. Quad est demonstrandum, as the philosophers in eastern Nassau County like to say.

On the other hand …thanks for that “so few”! The central contribution that University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociologist Charles Kurzman’s book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press, July 2011) is encapsulated in that subtitle – indeed in those two words: Muslim terrorists. As Kurzman elaborates in a book that aims to map various (some but not all) divisions within the Muslim world, and the diversions and divagations of those who seek to turn that world en masse toward violence – there just aren’t that many “Muslim terrorists.”

But in comparison to what, one might still reasonably ask? In comparison, Kurzman tells us, to the expectations of the central core of al Qaeda and to the policy-making structures of Western democracies. On the (real) terrorist side, Kurzman points out, there have been expectations on several occasions that global events from 9/11 to the Iraq war would precipitate large upticks in recruitment. Yet these have not materialized.

On the counterterrorist side, state policy and investments is organized around the premise that terrorism inspired by al Qaeda is the state security threat facing American and European democracies. Given the destabilizing effects of climate change, the rise of Chinese military power, and the evanescence of American monetary hegemony, one would think there were more important tasks on the horizon.

Consistent with Kurzman’s analysis, it has been the terrorists and counterterrorists, rather than broad mass in the middle, who see in the recent democratic wave in North Africa and the Middle East the inkling of an al Qaeda groundswell. When terrorism is your business, as Kurzman implies, you begin to see a bomb in every (Arab) spring, and a martyr in even despot’s victim. Yet it is the moderate middle’s clearer-eyed vision of the revolts – as the first great twentieth-first century wave of democratization – that will in the end be recorded in the history books.

Nor is it in any case clear how the strategy of trumpeting the importance of al Qaeda is anything but self-defeating for America and its allies. As Kurzman explains, the doomsday scenarios about terrorism on both the left and the right have consistently failed to materialize. In the early 1980s, the “right-wing propagandist” (Kurzman’s words, not mine) Claire Sterling published a book called The Terror Network, identifying a global terrorism conspiracy that threatened to topple the United States. Some credited Sterling’s alarm. Then-CIA director William Casey told his staff to read Sterling. “I paid $13.95 for this and it told me more that you bastards.”

Wisdom apparently no longer comes so cheap. Almost two decades later, Chalmers Johnson on the left published Blowback, warning of the unforeseeable consequences of U.S. interventions overseas. While the “blowback” thesis is much less histrionic than Sterling’s piffle, Johnson’s work also overstates the cyclical dynamics of terrorism. Things simple are not as bad as many people think they are, at least on this front.

Kurzman’s project is largely, but not exclusively, deflationary in ways that echo past scholarship. He frames a nice extended argument about how “Radical Sheik” cool provides a better explanation of terrorist organizations’ appeal that religious zeal. The argument recalls Olivier Roy’s analyses of European Islam’s development and also Tufyal Choudhury’s excellent account of the role of religious knowledge in combating terrorist recruitment in the United Kingdom. Kurzman is likely, though, to reach a wider audience than Roy’s and Choudhury’s more academic work, which is more than welcome.

A further useful element of Kurzman’s book is his elegant overview of what he calls “liberal Islam,” in fact a quite diffuse and geographically diverse category that encompasses groups from Canada to Iran to Indonesia (and back in time to the late Ottoman Empire). The Western ignorance and disregard of these “liberal” strands of Islam would be quite remarkable were it not so consistent with the long history of Western support for reactionary religious factions, from the British strategy in Mandatory Palestine to the CIA-funded anti-Soviet campaign in 1980s Afghanistan. Perceptions of Islam, now as always, are a function of what has furthered strategic ends.

Yet it is not clear that the marshalling of this kind of argument is sufficient or really responsive to the problematic way in which terrorism is linked to Islam in contemporary political discourse. Kurzman in effect treats the problem as one of information: If only people understood the true facts, they would behave differently.

I’m not sure, however, that’s right. Rather than a problem of information, Kurzman may be addressing of problem of interests. There are plenty of people who, for private or peculiar ideological reasons, have an interest in linking Islam with terrorism and then inflating the numerical and strategic significance of the threat. Their interest in this regard is resilient to factual appeals. And they have much greater firepower to organize and change the content of public discourse.

Moreover, it pays not to underestimate the fact that politicians have an incentive not merely to inflate threat perceptions but to suggest that they are uniquely placed to combat the threat. One of the subtle and important implications of Kurzman’s analysis is that the safety of the general public depends in a critical way on the behavior and decisions of Muslims. Which, of course, is not something you can expect any politician, whether of the left or the right, to say out loud.

At one level, Kurzman’s book is an important contribution to the combating of false stereotypes, although it would have been helpful in this regard had addressed more extensively the pervasiveness of terrorism as a tactic among other religious affiliations. But at the end of the day, the problem seems political, and not religious. It is a matter of organizing, not of analysis.

It is, in other words, something that is not the exclusive preserve of the scholar and more the responsibility of everyone.

Aziz Huq is as assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

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