The number of Muslim Americans involved in terrorist threats declined in 2010 from the previous year, although you wouldn’t know that from the tone of a congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday on “the extent of radicalization of the American Muslim community.”
Committee chairman Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, has been planning the hearing for months, partly as a response, he says, to the lack of cooperation some law enforcement officials have complained of within the Muslim-American community. Civil liberties groups and Muslim leaders, meanwhile, are decrying what looks like the singling-out of a minority group in a congressional setting that recalls McCarthyism.
As justification for his narrow focus, King has cited a statistic that 80 percent of mosques in America are controlled by radical imams. That figure turns out not to be based on fact (or, for that matter, common sense). But here is some relevant data that is:
The number of Muslim-Americans engaged in terrorist acts aimed at the U.S. declined in 2010 from 18 to 10. Including domestic and international targets, the figure dropped from 47 to 20 (and 2009 was an anomalous year thanks to a cohort of 17 Somali-Americans who joined a terrorist group in Somalia).
“One of the things that is interesting to me is how that drop is invisible in the public debate about the Muslim-American terrorist threat,” said Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina who collected the data in a recently published study. He further examines the implications in a book to be released this summer by Oxford University Press, The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.
“We have a tremendously efficient system of international and national news services that sift through all of the violence that occurs around the world every day and finds hints of Islamic terrorist intention, and then sends news of those incidents to the news services and to our TVs and newspapers and blogs,” Kurzman said. “The result is we end up with a skewed perception of the prevalence of Islamic terrorism.”
In total, he says, 11 Muslim-American terrorists are responsible for killing 33 people since Sept. 11. Per capita, Muslim Americans are more likely to engage in terrorism than the general population, but the threat is still miniscule in the context of the more than 15,000 homicides that occur in the U.S. each year. (Looked at another way: Muslim Americans are also not exclusively responsible for terrorism, domestically or internationally.)
Even more relevant to King’s hearing is another statistic Kurzman documents: The single largest source of initial information used to foil Muslim-American terrorist plots has been the Muslim-American community itself (in identifiable cases involving 48 of 120 suspected terrorists since Sept. 11). That figure does not include tips delivered by terrorism suspects under questioning. And it’s greater than the number of tips (43) that have been generated by U.S. government investigations.
Kurzman doesn’t think every Muslim-American community reports every suspicion or observation, whether because individuals are hesitant to become involved or fear for their own immigration status, but the picture is hardly the one painted by King.
“Virtually every Muslim-American leader has spoken out repeatedly against terrorism,” Kurzman said. “When people ask ‘Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against terrorism?’ they are, all the time; it’s repetitive how often they do it.”
So what would a more accurate — and useful — congressional hearing on the topic look like?
“You’d have examples of law enforcement agencies and Muslim community leaders describing best practices and cooperation against terrorism,” Kurzman said. “You’d have perhaps a public health or law enforcement official giving statistics on the scope of terrorist violence as compared with other forms of violence in the U.S. I think that critics would be welcome, but the overall tone of the hearing would be one of building on successes rather than demonizing a minority community.”
It might help, Kurzman suggests, if we thought about terrorism in the way we think about public health problems like swine flu or SARS. We adjust the resources aimed at those challenges according to the prevalence of the problem, and we don’t pour all our efforts and money at any single threat.
“Sometimes we overreact to threats, and there are costs to overreacting,” Kurzman said. “The costs can be financial, they can be costs in terms of civil liberties, there can be costs in terms of our nation’s identity as a place of religious freedom. And I’m hoping that these hearings will not do too much damage to our nation’s self-image as a place where people of all faiths are treated equally and fairly.”