kurzman, missing martyrs

I’m teaching my colleague Charlie Kurzman’s book The Missing Martyrs for the second time this semester in my Sociology 101 course. It’s a great book, and the students appreciate both its counterintuitive (to them) claims and its accessibility. (It doesn’t hurt that the book opens with a recounting of the all-but-forgotten botched attack on UNC’s campus in 2006.) One of the virtues of the book is the question it adopts: “why are there so few Muslim terrorists.” Kurzman notes that, among aggrieved populations that have spawned terrorist attacks, Muslims produce far fewer terrorists per capita than the others. It’s an important lesson in asking good sociological questions and comparing theory with data. (It also mirrors Burawoy’s work on consent, in which he inverts the question “why don’t workers work harder” into “why do workers work as hard as they do?”) There are several important points made in the book. Among these is the frequent incompetence of would-be terrorists, which tends to decrease the actual incidence of terror attacks. But perhaps most important is the point Kurzman calls “radical sheik” (a bad pun, but a good point). The point is that many young Muslims are angry and anti-American, but are not particularly Islamicist (yet). Kurzman notes, for example, the popularity of t-shirts bearing Osama bin Ladin’s likeness:

The epitome of radical sheik may be the Bin Ladin T-shirt, which apparently sold well in several Muslim-majority countries for a time after September 11, 2001 — despite the fact that an Islamic government as envisioned by Bin Ladin might ban human images as un-Islamic and ban T-shirts as a form of Western cultural imperialism. The Bin Ladin T-shirt is a self-undermining statement, and it is difficult to imagine an actual Islamist terrorist calling attention to himself by wearing one. (30)

There are several other pieces of evidence that rank-and-file would-be terrorists don’t become so because of deeply-held Islamic faith so much as because radical Islamism presents the most immediate opportunity for them to channel their more general anger and disaffection. Add to this the very substantial evidence about the potential and growth of liberal Islam (see Kurzman’s edited book on this), and the result is a convincing case that Americans misunderstand the link between Islam and terrorism. This misunderstanding has enormous consequences, including (but not limited to) in foreign policy. Thinking about the response to the ISIS situation, the assumption seems to be that ISIS is the result of deeply held religious fanaticism leading to terrorism:

Devout Radical Islam => terrorism

In this causal pathway, it makes strategic sense to bomb ISIS in order to destroy people who are already radical Islamists, because those are the people who will become terrorists. But Kurzman provides an alternative causal pathway:

Anger/Anti-Americanism => desire to commit terror => Radical Islam

If he’s right–and I think he is–then the bombing response to ISIS will not just fail, it will exacerbate the problem by creating more young people who are angry at the US and the West in general. The alternative is to come up with policies that decrease the likelihood of young people becoming so angry at the US and the West, thereby starving radical Islamism of terrorist candidates.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “kurzman, missing martyrs”

  1. Updated to reflect Charlie’s point: “People in Middle East and Islamic studies make a distinction between Islamicists (academics in the field of Islamic studies) and Islamists (Muslim activists who want to establish an Islamic state or society), so your usage of “Islamicists” might raise a few eyebrows with some colleagues!”


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