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
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 www.unc.edu/~kurzman, 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
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
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
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
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
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.”