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Kurzman looks at concerns about terrorism in the context
of understanding its scope


In the span of time of an old-time horror movie, a real-life horror played out in the country’s skies on one sunny September morning. Four jet airliners. Nineteen hijackers. By noon, nearly 3,000 dead.

It became seared into the national consciousness as “9/11.”

Nearly 10 years later, the scars on the nation’s psyche – and its politics – remain.

It was at this intersection of psychology and politics last month that Charles Kurzman, a Carolina sociology professor, collided with U.S. Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York.

He did not see it coming, Kurzman said.  On the other hand, it would be a stretch to say that it happened entirely by chance.

In early March, King, as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, was about to hold a hearing on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans, examining what King saw as an unwillingness by Muslim leaders to help law enforcement identify possible threats.

The previous month, Kurzman, who is a specialist on Islamic movements, published a research finding that presented fresh data directly contradicting King’s assertion. The study was picked up by the Associated Press and the New York Times, and King was confronted with it during a March 9 interview on CBS’s “Early Show.”

The study showed that, of 120 Muslim-American terrorism suspects discovered by law-enforcement authorities since 9/11, 48 were turned in by members of the Muslim-American community. When confronted with that finding, King charged the study was skewed because it had left out cases involving terrorist financing.

Kurzman responded to King in a point-by-point rebuttal, posted on his homepage at, along with a copy of the study, “Muslim-American Terrorism Since 9/11: An Accounting.”

The day after the King interview on CBS, Kurzman appeared on National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” to talk about his research and the Congressional hearings. Kurzman’s study was also cited in a variety of opinion pieces in the national media, ranging from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times to “The Colbert Report.”

The study that has gained so much traction is an update of an earlier project, supported by the National Institute of Justice, that Kurzman had worked on from 2007 to 2010 with David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, and Ebrahim Moosa, a professor in Duke University’s religion department.

It collected data to find out if Muslim-Americans are turning increasingly to terrorism, as King and others feared and as the recent pace of Muslim-American terrorist incidents and prosecutions seemed to suggest.

Of particular concern was the dramatic rise in the number of suspected terrorists to 47 in 2009, in contrast to only two the year before. Kurzman’s research showed that, of those 47, 17 were Somali-Americans who had joined al-Shabaab in Somalia. And in 2010, the number of Muslim-Americans suspected of terrorism fell to 20, bringing to 161 the total number of Muslim-American terrorist suspects and perpetrators since 9/11.

His media skirmish with King highlighted another of the study’s conclusions, that Islamic terrorism makes news, and that the amount of news it generates creates the impression that it is more prevalent than it really is.

Facts matter, Kurzman said. And they have to be placed in a broader context to unearth and understand their meaning, an examination that the rush of daily news reports seldom allows.

Take, for instance, data the National Counterterrorism Center have collected through its Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS).

Since 9/11, WITS reported, the number of people killed by terrorists around the world has averaged about 5,000 per year.

It is a big number, an unacceptable number, but Kurzman has sought to add the missing context that could help enhance public understanding and reduce public anxiety.

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, more than 150,000 people die each day throughout the world – around 7,000 a day from HIV/AIDS, another 4,000 from diarrhea and 3,000 more from malaria.

Since 9/11, war and violence worldwide have claimed the lives of about 2,000 people every day. And of the 150,000 people who die each day worldwide, Islamist militants account for fewer than 100 fatalities – and fewer than 20 per day outside the hotspots of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Those small numbers do not mean that the threat is imaginary, or can be ignored, Kurzman said.

“International terrorism is a manifestation of our globalized world – of travel and technology, transnational networks and the flow of information that come from them,” he said. “All these things can serve the purpose of human betterment, but they can also be used for the purposes of violence and extremism.

“Anybody who has access to the Internet can download terrorists’ proclamations, their call to arms and recipes for violence. Huge numbers of people have access to that, and yet only a tiny trickle of the people who have access are acting on it.”

Part of the solution to terrorist threats is “killing the bad guys,” Kurzman said, “which we have done relatively successfully.” But another part of the answer, he believes, lies buried under sensational headlines and heated rhetoric that boost ratings and score political points.

Asked what he would have wanted to tell King if he had been given the opportunity to testify before his committee, Kurzman said, “Number one, we need to turn down the volume on our panicked fears about terrorism. The scale of the threat is not out of range of a bunch of other security and public health issues that are causing death on a daily basis.

“Once we do that, we can talk reasonably about where the precise line should be between security and liberty. Nobody is saying we should do away with security. Nobody is saying we should do away with liberty. We are talking about tweaking policies in this gray zone in the middle. As we do that, we should talk to law enforcement to see what is working for them so that we know what the best practices are. That way, we can avoid the kind of gross rhetoric and political partisanship that continues to drive so much of the debate these days.”

Not that Kurzman is complaining about all the news coverage he received lately, especially since he has a new book coming out in June. Titled “The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists,” the book examines why, in a world filled with more than a billion Muslims, there are relatively few Muslim terrorists.

This is a fact bemoaned by terrorists’ own websites and publications, and too often missed by politicians and pundits alike.

The threat of Islamist terrorism is real, Kurzman argues in the book, but its dimensions, so far, remain tightly confined.

Kurzman said the attention his work has received in the past month has been exciting and rewarding in ways he might have expected, but didn’t.

Already, he said, journalist Jonathan Alter has reviewed his book for the widely-read Slate website.

“This is all new for me,” Kurzman said. “My other books didn’t get reviews like this even after they were published.”

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* *Blackstone gift helps universities tap RTP entrepreneurial resources

* *Wilson to deliver Commencement speech on May 8

* *Kurzman looks at concerns about terrorism in the context of understanding its scope

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