Listen to an interview with Charles Kurzman.
In his book, The Missing Martyrs, UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman cites a terrorist booklet that lists several ways to terrorize and kill infidels: put explosive device in car engine, stab with dagger, put snake in car, use poison arrow, sever car’s brake line, stab air needle into artery, place lead ball in car’s fuel tank, set fire to homes at sleep time, run people over with car.
The list could be endless, considering that the goal is to wreak general havoc. “If terrorism methods are as widely available as automobiles,” Kurzman says in his book, then:
Why are there so few Islamist terrorists? In light of the death and devastation that terrorists have wrought, the question may seem absurd. But if there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?
To answer that question, Kurzman weaves together surveys, history, anecdotes, statistics, and analysis into a compelling narrative that offers some much-needed perspective about Muslims and terrorism.
The book is accessible; Kurzman forsakes the academic jargon and stiff writing that too often junk up interesting arguments on complex issues. He’s not afraid to employ a little humor when appropriate, and he likes to let facts speak louder than his opinions. For instance, after 9/11 pundits said that poverty is what makes certain Muslim-majority countries breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment. But Kurzman shows how that’s not really true. He points out that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from middle-class families and attended universities. And very few, if any, terrorist ringleaders are from poor backgrounds.
Another misconception is that there are hundreds of jihadists queued up to attack the United States. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida mastermind behind 9/11, bragged to an al Jazeera reporter that he had scores of potential martyrs ready for suicide missions against the West. But Sheikh Mohammed sang a different tune to the CIA. He told agents that he had trained 39 operatives for suicide missions over several years. He said he could find just 19 who were willing and able to go to the United States. After Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation, a White House counterterrorism official reported that al-Qaida wanted to carry out a simultaneous attack on the West Coast of the United States on 9/11, but Sheikh Mohammed couldn’t find enough qualified people.
During the five years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, between 10,000 and 20,000 recruits passed through al-Qaida training camps. But by Sheikh Mohammed’s own admission, few terrorists-in-training had the language skills or cultural wherewithal to function inside the United States.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the number of recruits being trained at al-Qaida camps has dropped by 90 percent. The largest concentration of terrorist camps in the world, now in northwest Pakistan, has produced fewer than 2,000 militants over the past several years. Those camps are much smaller than they were during al-Qaida’s heyday; they consist of a no more than three dozen people at any given time. If they were any larger, Kurzman writes, they’d be easy targets for U.S. satellite surveillance.
A few terrorists can still cause major damage. And terrorism is a serious threat that we need to take seriously, Kurzman writes, but the threat ought to be put into some sort of context. According to the World Health Organization, about 150,000 people die each day around the world. Islamist terrorism accounts for 50 of those deaths. Excluding the war-torn hotspots of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, that number falls to 10 deaths a day.
Of course, that’s 50 deaths too many each day. But in comparison, approximately 1,500 people die each day from civilian violence, 500 from warfare, 1,300 from malnutrition, 2,000 from suicide, and 3,000 from traffic accidents.
Kurzman also found that most Muslims want nothing to do with al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. And this is where the media have struggled to square their sound bites with reality. It’s true, Kurzman found, that many Muslims—and non-Muslims—agree with terrorist organizations that decry U.S. intervention in the affairs of their countries. But survey after survey has shown that ordinary Muslims do not agree with violent extremism and radical ideology.
In fact, in “Radical Sheik”—my favorite chapter in The Missing Martyrs—Kurzman says that some Muslims admire Bin Laden when he disses “big bad America,” But these same admirers protest the means Bin Laden and others have used to achieve their ends, and these admirers don’t even want the jihad to succeed.
Bin Laden, sociologists agree, sparked a fad. It’s cool to oppose American imperialism, just like it’s cool to wear a Che Guevara T-shirt or to listen to gangsta rap. Few Che fans get caught up in violent revolution. Few rap listeners get caught up in gangbanging. And few Muslims want to kill innocent people in the name of jihad.
On message boards Kurzman found terrorists bemoaning their plight. They sincerely ask, “Why have so few joined us?” The reasons are varied, and Kurzman does a great job of exposing them in The Missing Martyrs. But it seems fair to simply say that so few of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims have joined the jihad because, well, the jihadists are terrorists.