Terrorism: perception vs. reality

UNC sociology professor Charles Kurzman specializes in Middle East and Islamic studies, but he knows his American history, too.

In the video below: Kurzman on his research findings, new book and Osama Bin Laden.

“Muslims are the latest wave of immigrants who are associated with acts of violence and are thought to be disloyal or not fully American, who are thought by many people to be impossible to integrate into American society. It was the same for the Irish in the 1840s, for Germans from the 1860s through World War I and for Italians who early in 20th Century were associated with anarchism and socialism and for Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor,” Kurzman said.

Much of Kurzman’s recent work has been to compile statistical profiles of Muslim Americans that reveal the majority of Muslim Americans are not the demons that some politicians and pundits have made them appear after 9-11.

“There have been a lot of losses, there’s a lot of mourning,” Kurzman says when asked about 9-11 and the war on terror. “My point is not to downplay the losses, to downplay the fatalities but to say at the same time, let’s look at the data. The data suggest that the number of terrorist attacks has not gone through the roof since 9/11, as some of us thought there would be.”

In March 2011, for instance, Kurzman’s work gained national attention while the House Committee on Homeland Security held hearings examining the perceived unwillingness of Muslim leaders to help law enforcement identify possible threats. Read a related article in The University Gazette.

The research is an update of an earlier project, supported by the National Institute of Justice, that Kurzman 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.

They collected data to see if Muslim Americans are turning increasingly to terrorism, as some feared and as recent Muslim American terrorist incidents and prosecutions seemed to suggest.

Kurzman’s study showed that, of the 120 terror plots that had been made public, members of the American-Muslim community had thwarted 48.

Kurzman has also studied the ethnicity of the people behind those plots and found that “ethnicity was a wash.”

About half of the would-be terrorists were U.S.-born citizens. Most were young. But in terms of ethnicity, they were evenly split among Arab Americans, Caucasians, and people from Somalia and South Asia.

No one group dominated, according to Kurzman.

Kurzman began studying Islamic movements when he was in graduate school in the 1980s.

“Islamic movements have been in the news since the Iranian revolution and they have become a major part of international politics for the last generation,” Kurzman said. “9-11 focused people’s attention even more on small, deadly groups that are non-state actors,” Kurzman said.

The death of Osama bin Laden was a seminal event in the war on terror, but there is another promising development Kurzman explores in his new book that will be released this summer.

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 so few Muslim terrorists.

Read more about Kurzman’s research.

More on Kurzman’s work from Endeavors magazine: Holy Work, Studying Terrorism, Power to the People, The Reasons for Rebellion