- - Sunday, November 27, 2011

By Charles Kurzman
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 248 pages

In “The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists,” Charles Kurzman, a highly regarded professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, returns again and again to an ideological premise that fact and common sense do not support.

Mr. Kurzman would have readers believe that the U.S. government’s expenditure of resources in the war against al Qaeda-type terrorism is severely disproportionate to the magnitude of the actual threat because there are, in his words, “so few Islamist terrorists.” With more than a billion Muslims in the world, Mr. Kurzman asks, “many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?”

Now, it is true that al Qaeda-type terrorist operatives represent a tiny proportion of hard-core Islamists (i.e., extremists who exploit Islam for violent objectives) - who themselves, in turn, represent a minority of Muslims around the world. Nevertheless, the threat persists, and when Mr. Kurzman writes, “Recruitment difficulties have created a bottleneck for Islamist terrorists’ signature tactic, suicide bombings,” one has to ask: Should we be cheered?

True, while they may lack hundreds of willing recruits for martyrdom operations in the West, al Qaeda’s close allies - the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Shabab in Somalia and al Qaeda in Yemen - appear to have no difficulty recruiting an inexhaustible supply of indigenous and even Western volunteers in their respective countries, geographical areas he downplays as threats to the United States and the West.

Moreover, unlike Mr. Kurzman’s accounting, al Qaeda-inspired insurgencies in those countries show no signs of diminishing, which explains why Western security services are so concerned. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen function as magnets for homegrown Western extremists who travel to those countries, where they are indoctrinated and trained to carry out attacks in their home countries.

What Mr. Kurzman fails to appreciate is that one of the reasons terrorism in the West has become a relatively rare event is the success of the large and expensive resources governments have devoted to countering it. Thus, reports of arrests of terrorism suspects are quite frequent. Once such robust counterterrorism efforts are reduced, per Mr. Kurzman’s recommendation, to end “the state of emergency that limits civil liberties,” the terrorist threat likely will escalate in the West. And after a major terrorist incident, politicians blamed for cutting such resources invariably will end up as ex-politicians.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kurzman’s book is not without merit. His observations about how terrorists exploit the Internet and mass media to radicalize and recruit new adherents in their “electronic jihad” are worth reading. His account of how instruction manuals are digitized and posted on websites in order to facilitate the carrying out of attacks is sobering.

Also noteworthy is Mr. Kurzman’s depiction of “radical sheik,” a play on “radical chic,” which “involves expressions of sympathy for [Osama bin Laden] and his ilk as heroes of anti-imperialism and Islamic authenticity.” While Mr. Kurzman’s explanation of this phenomenon is detailed and insightful, one might disagree with his contention that “radical sheik disassociates terrorist symbols from terrorist activities” because its adherents do not “actually want these revolutionary movements to succeed.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Kurzman’s assessment of the differences between “globalist” and “localist” Islamist terrorists is worth noting. He shows how the former - “generally well-educated, often with scientific training” - speak one or more European languages and pursue “a vision of a pan-Islamic government centered in Arabia.” The latter, “by contrast, have little education, and more often [come] from Islamic seminaries than from secular schools,” and “their vision of an Islamic state is limited to a single territory.”

While Mr. Kurzman refers to al Qaeda as representative of the “globalist” stream, one might take issue with his categorization of the Taliban as “localist” because they also have sponsored international terrorist operations, such as Faisal Shahzad’s plot to bomb Times Square in early May 2010.

One also might take issue with Mr. Kurzman’s bizarre contention that “Islamist terrorists seek to modernize society and politics, recasting tradition in modern molds.” Here, he not only distorts their real aim - a theocracy, which is the antithesis of modernity - but claims that they “emphasize social equality, at least among male Muslims.” So much for building a modern society.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kurzman’s concluding chapter, “Predicting the Next Attacks,” is a sensible and insightful overview of the limitations of social science methods in predicting terrorist attacks. A thoughtful and important book can be found here by readers willing to overlook its missteps.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research at Virginia Tech.

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