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The waning appeal of Islamic fundamentalism

October 3, 2011

VANCOUVER, BC, Oct. 3, 2011/Troy Media/ – The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt once famously claimed ‘Islam is the answer’ to that nation’s social and political problems. While they have nuanced their political platform in the wake of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the slogan catches the spirit of Islamist movements at large, with their aspiration for an ‘Islamic’ state. Ironically, the very same slogan is also voiced over and over again by nervous western policy and opinion makers – albeit in response to a very different question.

In The Missing Martyrs, American sociologist Charles Kurzman tackles the prevailing debates around the ‘War on Terror’. A decade after the terrible events of 9/11, many Americans seem to have arrived at their preferred explanation, and it is stark in its simplicity. One sees it in protests against New York’s ‘Ground Zero Mosque,’ in campaigns for anti-sharia ordinances in state legislatures, in endless radio and television talk about Muslim citizens in the west as a kind of fifth column, and in public burnings of the Quran. But as Kurzman demonstrates, Islam is not the answer.

Islam doesn’t motivate terrorism

With an impressive array of statistics, Kurzman argues that if Islam were the motivation for terrorism, there would be far more terrorist attacks than there are. He points out that ‘fewer than 100,000 Muslims have been involved in Islamist terrorist organizations over the past quarter-century, less than one-15,000th of the world’s Muslim population’ which he puts at over 1.5 billion. If the religion itself encouraged violence, we would see far more of it. Kurzman also discredits claims like that made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, that ‘the biggest threat to Canada is Islamicism’ (his unique way of referring to Islamists).


Such alarmism seems independent of the actual danger. The 2011 Terrorism Risk Index placed Canada in the low risk category, at number 86 out of 197 countries – lower than the U.S., UK, and several major European countries. Moreover, the threat of death by terrorism pales in comparison to other causes of death. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, about 50 people worldwide die each day as a result of such terrorism; By contrast, 3,000 die daily from traffic accidents.

So why are our news headlines and political debates filled with dire warnings about the threat of terrorism? Why is Stephen Harper so keen to revive anti-terrorism legislation from 2007? A combination of media hype (which terrorists rely on to maximize their effect) and political opportunism motivate the magnification of fear.

The risk is that in the name of security, we will permit the erosion not only of our civil liberties, but also of our principles. The practice of secret rendition and torture was officially justified in the U.S. over the last decade – ostensibly to fight the terrorists. The prospect of allowing ourselves to justify such methods as routine aspects of policy is a much more serious threat to each of us individually.

Kurzman does not deny that there is a risk of further terrorist attacks in western countries, but aims to puts our response to such episodes into perspective. He offers useful analyses of the fissures in radical Islamist movements, contrasting the ideology and operating principles of the Taliban and al-Qaeda for example. He also draws attention to the frustration that al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and his ilk express at their lack of success recruiting Muslims to their cause.

In fact, the appeal of Islamist terrorism is on the wane across the Muslim world, and Kurzman uses polling data to show that the vast majority of Muslims prefer democratic government and have liberal political views – despite voicing nominal approval for implementing the sharia. We have seen this reflected in the protest movements of the ‘Arab spring’. Even the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence years ago in favour of participation in the political process.

However, these political views are often combined with what Kurzman terms ‘cultural conservatism’, which manifests itself in dress and attitudes toward gender roles, to the confusion of western observers. He argues that support for concepts like sharia and particular ways of dressing are affirmations of communal identity rather than political ideology. The desire for democracy and freedom is not necessarily paired with a desire to create carbon copies of western societies.

U.S.’ double standard

While there is certainly a marked anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world, this is hardly the result of distaste for U.S. culture and western freedoms. Rather, it stems from U.S. foreign policies which privilege freedom at home, while supporting dictatorships abroad. For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, this does not translate into grounds for terrorism, but it can make them more cynical about sacrifice in the name of values with such a dubious champion. This warning is worth remembering as the Arab spring unfolds. The U.S. continues to support the government of Bahrain, while distancing itself from previous support for President Mubarak. Most of all, its unconditional support for Israel seems to confirm suspicions that, for certain freedoms, Muslims need not apply.

This provocative book provides compelling evidence for a re-evaluation of the ‘War on Terror’. Kurzman’s combination of rigorous scholarship and political engagement make this a vital contribution to public debate, and a welcome corrective to collective paranoia. Many questions remain about the nature of the threat posed by terrorism, but Islam is not the answer.

The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, by Charles Kurzman. Oxford University Press, 2011. pp. 204

Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.

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