Review of The Missing Martyrs: Terrorism, Institutions and the End of History

This is a cross-post by Mugwump

The Missing Martyrs: Why there are so few Muslim Terrorists by Charles Kurzman (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.256

I recently finished re-reading The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and I still accept his core argument: history is directional. The contradictions inherent in illiberal regimes, economic systems and ideology inevitably lead to liberal democracy. Fukuyama doesn’t spend much time discussing Islam and Islamism as a possible challenge to liberal democracy because, as he notes, the ‘religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with.’

He goes on to say

Indeed, the Islamic world would seem more vulnerable to liberal ideas in the long run than the reverse, since such liberalism has attracted numerous and powerful Muslim adherents over the past century and a half (p.46).

Later in the book he says that

But now [i.e., in 1991], outside the Islamic world, there appears to be a general consensus that accepts liberal democracy’s claims to be the most rational form of government (p.211)

Charles Kurzman’s The Missing Martyrs goes some way into explaining that Fukuyama’s first quoted statement is largely correct and the second statement is, at the very least, too simplistic when it comes to the Middle East in 2013. The rest of this post is a review of three elements of the book I found interesting – one of which speaks to the Fukuyama extracts.

Terrorism: Kurzman’s Mea Culpa

Firstly, his main thesis is that there are an incredibly small amount of Islamist terrorists relative to the number of Muslims. Moreover, there are a small number of supporters of such terrorists. Kurzman has several data points for these two propositions: he starts with quoting upset Al Qaeda statements:

We are most amazed that the community of Islam is still asleep and heedless while its children are being wiped and killed everywhere and its land being diminished every day… Oh, brother in religion, why have quit supporting Islam an its people (p.8-9) – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

In fact, Al Qaeda planned to carry attacks on the West Coast of the U.S during 9/11 but they ‘could not find qualified people to carry it out’ (p.12). Of course, the most persuasive evidence is simply the numbers: ‘Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11’ (p.11). The two people who have read all my posts know that all of the above is music to my ears because it’s something I’ve been saying for a really long time. True, many others have said it but almost no one accepts the implication of such a view:

…the vast majority of Muslims across the Middle East don’t like Al Qaeda. This gives prima facie evidence to the position I’m advocating: if foreign policy is the cause, why do we not see a wide spread response?[1]

I haven’t seen anyone make or accept this argument – until now, and it comes in the form of a mea culpa. Kurzman, back in 2001, was part of the ‘blowback’ brigade. He argued against military action would lead to increased attacks. As it turned out

Johnson [the author of Blowback] was wrong, and so was I. Afghans did not sign up with Al Qaeda… and Muslims around the world did not [violently] protest against the invasion… the overall level of Islamist terrorism remained stable… Islamist groups carried out 60 attacks per moth prior to 9/11 and 43 per month in the following year. Non-Islamist groups carried out a similar number of attacks during the same period (p.143)

The Iraq War produces the same result: there were ‘an average of 47 attack per month in year before the invasion and 44 per month afterward’ (p.144). It was only in 2007 where there was a large jump. Kurzman doesn’t go into the reasons for this – but its clear from the data that I’ve previously shown this has very little to do with Western foreign policy. That said, Kurzman is incorrect because he goes too far: he says that terrorism is inelastic (i.e., Western foreign policy is irrelevant). This is far more acceptable than the Greenwaldian blowback nonsense but it is just simply a fact that our military action has reduced violence (see herehere and here).

There are some data points which contradict this argument about the Muslim world shunning terrorists:

[In 2003], in nine Muslim-majority countries, disturbingly large percentages expressed confidence in Bin Ladin [sic] “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”… 55% of Indonesians and Jordanians, 62% of Pakistanis, 77% of Palestinians (p.29)[2]

Greenwald would happily explain that these levels of support are genuine and tell us about foreign policy. The reality is that these results are not genuine expressions of support for Al Qaeda. Kurzman believes that these responses are given as part of rebellious fad of anti-Americanism which he calls ‘radical sheikh’ (a play on Tom Wolfe’s ‘radical chic’ – a similarly rebellious fad of American hipsters expressing support for communist revolution). I’m unconvinced by this because polling shows that only a third state that they sympathise with Al Qaeda’s goal to ‘confront the U.S’ (out of those who have any sympathy with it (p.48)).

A far more persuasive explanation which Kurzman never explicitly states is the proliferation of the conspiracy that Al Qaeda was not behind 9/11 (although he comes close on p.48-9). According to Pew, there is ‘no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks.’ So when they express support in Bin Laden, the vast majority cannot be expressing support in attacks like 9/11. Which is why (as will be outlined below), you find overwhelmingly large majorities in favour of democracy and similar levels of support for civilian attacks as Westerners.

Do read the rest of Mugwump’s review here.

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