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Where are all the Islamic terrorists?

By Charles Kurzman

Last month, a few hours after a bomb exploded in downtown Oslo, I got a call from a journalist seeking comment. Why did Al Qaeda attack Norway? Why not a European country with a larger Muslim community, or a significant military presence in Muslim societies? I said I didn’t know.

A second media inquiry soon followed: Given NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the number of disaffected Muslims in Europe, why don’t we see more attacks like the one in Norway? This question was more up my alley. I recently published a book asking why Islamic terrorism has been rarer than many of us feared after 9/11. Before answering, I checked the news. Norwegian officials were reporting that the attacker was not Muslim. I was no longer an authority on the incident.

A third reporter called the next morning: Has the focus on Islamic terrorism distracted us from the threat of non-Islamic extremism?

I felt a creepy sensation that I have experienced often since 9/11. In the fields of Middle East and Islamic studies, bad news is good for business. The more that non-Muslims fear Islam, the more security threats are hyped, the more attention my colleagues and I get. Journalists want insights from “Islam experts” and “Middle East specialists,” regardless of how remote our area of research is from the day’s news. Universities are hiring—there were more than 40 tenure-track jobs last year in Middle East and Islamic studies. Federal research grants are plentiful, especially from the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

It all points to an inescapable conclusion: Martin Kramer was right. A decade ago, just after 9/11, he accused scholars of profiting from the Islamist violence that their political correctness prevented them from taking seriously: “How many resources within the university could they command if their phones stopped ringing and their deans did not see and hear them quoted in the national newspapers and on public radio? And how would enrollments hold up if Muslim movements failed to hit the headlines?”

Scholars are not the only ones to benefit from these headlines. Kramer, a former professor who now holds positions at two think tanks, the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, benefits, too. Just like university deans, think-tank administrators and donors allocate resources based in part on presence in the news media. Kramer exemplifies this arrangement. Every time he sounds an alarm about Islamic radicalism, he helps raise public vigilance, and increase financial support for his institutions.

By contrast, I am in the awkward position of undermining the importance of my own field. My research finds that Islamic terrorism has not posed as large a threat as reporters and the public think—certainly not as large a threat as Al Qaeda and its affiliates intended. They routinely complain about the failure of Muslims to join their movement.

Of the 56 million people who die each year around the world, around two million die from HIV/AIDS. Nearly one million die from malaria. Almost three quarters of a million die from violence. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, terrorism peaked in 2007 with 23,000 fatalities, half of them in Iraq—a terrible toll, but not a leading cause of death.

In the United States, 15,000 people are murdered each year. Islamic terrorism, including the Beltway sniper attacks, has accounted for almost three dozen deaths in America since 9/11—a small fraction of the violence that the country experiences every year. The toll would have been higher if the perpetrators had been more competent; for example, if Faisal Shahzad had used higher-quality materials in his Times Square car bomb. Even so, the number of perpetrators has been relatively low. Fewer than 200 Muslim-Americans have engaged in terrorist plots over the past decade—that’s out of a population of approximately two million. This constitutes a serious problem, but not nearly as grave as public concern would suggest.

When scholars in Middle East and Islamic studies point that out, we are accused of being apologists for terrorism. Some of my colleagues have been the focus of smear campaigns. I’ve been fortunate not to experience anything of that sort, though Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called my work “biased” and “slanted.” As it turned out, King’s criticism was great publicity. I issued a press release rebutting each of his points, which wasn’t difficult, because it was clear that he hadn’t actually read my work.

The media attention was both exhilarating and troubling. It reinforced my sense that the field benefits not just from Muslim violence but also from the ignorance and paranoia of non-Muslims. As a result, my colleagues and I spend much of our time in the limelight trying to dispel the anxieties that helped bring us into the limelight.

We are not very good at this task. Our books rarely sell as well as the more scaremongering titles. Our television appearances look stiff next to the media-savvy hotheads from the think tanks. Surveys report that American attitudes have not budged over the past decade—evenly split in their view of Islam and favorable toward Muslims, by a 2-to-1 margin.

A decade after 9/11, many Americans still believe that we are experiencing a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. It’s the default, easy explanation for violent incidents like the terrorist attack in Norway. When this narrative fades, replaced by some other panic, my colleagues and I will lose the public’s eye. We’ll return to academic obscurity. That’s our goal—that, and promoting our field as energetically as we can in the meantime.

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author, most recently, of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.

This article appears with permission from the Chronicle Review.
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