The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists

November 24, 2011

Charles Kurzman, a sociologist and Iran specialist at the University of North Carolina, clearly enjoys the fact that, when faced with the statement he posits in his book's subtitle, security experts - and most ordinary people - find it counterintuitive. Yet it is obvious enough, and has indeed been emphasised even by the governments that reacted most violently to 9/11, that only a minuscule proportion of Muslims have ever engaged in terrorism. Nonetheless, large numbers of people see Islamist terrorism as the greatest threat they face. Kurzman's aim is to persuade them to treat it "on the scale that it deserves". He throws the US national anthem in the face of those whose panic measures do not match the image of "the home of the brave".

That said, he certainly does not discount the threat, particularly that of "home-grown" Muslim jihadists, that arguably provoked the most serious alarm in Western societies over the past decade. In 2006, a recent graduate of Kurzman's own institution, who had discovered the ideology of al-Qaeda in a book (written by a US terrorism specialist) in the university library, planned to kill as many students as he could by driving his car into them. He failed, but although Kurzman finds his incompetence "bewildering", the would-be attacker's belief that his act might induce the people of the US to "force the US Government to leave all Islamic territories in the Middle East to take care of themselves" is disturbing enough.

Nor does Kurzman underestimate the difficulty of altering Muslim perceptions of Western policy. He uses the economic concept of "elasticity" (his style is very much that of the seminar room - in a good way) to explain how many Muslims combine admiration for US ideals with suspicion of US actions. This suspicion means that even US action that helps Muslims - for instance arming the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs - does little to change perceptions, especially where (as in Pakistan) anti-Americanism is deeply entrenched. Americans need to realise that there are few quick fixes in the business of making the world more congenial.

His response to the counterintuitive statement in his title is simple enough. It is far harder for terrorist groups to recruit fighters - as distinct from supporters - than alarmists imagine. Islamic jihadists are not merely a tiny minority, they are divided, with most committed to local rather than global struggle. Readers tempted to leap straight to his last chapter, enticingly called "Predicting the next attacks", will encounter a masterclass on the limits of social science, and in particular the belief in social engineering that underlies the US Department of Defense's hope of "shaping the attitudes of entire societies, with predictable outcomes". Kurzman effectively dismantles the most ambitious claims to generalisations about the causes of terrorism which, as he says, can help to make it seem more alarming.

Although it might seem ungracious to say so, readers may find themselves asking why it has taken Kurzman 10 years to produce this book. Five years ago it would have been strikingly contrarian; now it looks to be riding the wave of scepticism that has accompanied the growing realisation that the military campaigns in Iraq and even Afghanistan have done nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism.

To many Americans, though, his approach will still be shocking. US academics face a different policy environment, inhabited by powerful right-wing thinktanks, able, for instance, to get legislation introduced to set up a committee to examine universities' international studies programmes, to ensure that they prioritise "homeland security and effective United States engagement abroad".

What looks in Europe like academic objectivity can come under violent assault as "extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy" and "undermining America's national security". Kurzman is on the scholarly front line. The good news is that he seems to be winning.

The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists

By Charles Kurzman

Oxford University Press

240pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780199766871

Published 25 August 2011

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