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Terrorist = Muslim? A look at the numbers belies the equation

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"Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim": the hackneyed slogan has proven remarkably resilient, retaining its air of "truthiness" despite demonstrable misalignment with empirical evidence.

The first half of the claim -- "not all Muslims are terrorists" -- is an extreme understatement.

According to research conducted by American sociologist Charles Kurzman, the non-terroristic contingent comprises well over 99 per cent of the world's Muslim population. And the second half -- "but all terrorists are Muslim" -- is a gross misrepresentation; the data on the incidence of non-Muslim terrorism in North America and Europe debunks the facile assertion that terrorism is predominantly a Muslim activity.

For example, here are the statistics from this year's European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, hot off the Europol presses. 

  • Number of ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorist attacks in EU Member States in 2013: 84
  • Number of left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks: 24
  • Number of right-wing terrorist attacks: two
  • Number of religiously inspired terrorist attacks: two

Overall, only 1.3 per cent of all 2013 terrorist attacks in Europe (two out of 152) were committed by Muslim extremists. "As in previous years, the majority of attacks can be attributed to separatist terrorism," the Europol report concludes.

Charles Kurzman's annual survey of terrorist incidents in the United States (conducted for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security) similarly shrinks the phantasmagoric bogeyman of Muslim American terrorism down to its true proportions.

According to Professor Kurzman's report for 2013:  

The bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 16, which claimed four lives [...] involved the first U.S. fatalities from Muslim-American terrorism since the shooting at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009. Meanwhile, the United States suffered approximately 14,000 murders in 2013. Since 9/11, Muslim-American terrorism has claimed 37 lives in the United States, out of more than 190 000 murders during this period. The Boston Marathon bombing was one of 30 mass killings in 2013 with four or more fatalities, according to data compiled by USA Today. The deadliest incident, the shooting in the Washington Navy Yard on September 16 [by a non-Muslim], killed 12 people. Mass killings in 2013 led to 137 fatalities, more than three times the victims killed by Muslim-American terrorism in the United States since 9/11.

Furthermore, as Kurzman points out in his report for 2012, "[since 9/11], more than 200 Americans have been killed in political violence by white supremacists and other groups on the far right, according to a recent study published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy."

Professor Kurzman's findings are bolstered by a study conducted by the New America Foundation and Syracuse University, which determined:

Ten years [after 9/11], we have yet to see an Islamist terrorist incident involving [chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear] weapons in the United States, and no Islamist militant in this country has made a documented attempt to even acquire such devices. Yet this is not the case for other terrorists. Indeed, the record of the past decade suggests that if a chemical, biological or radiological attack were to take place in the United States, it is more likely that it would come not from an Islamist terrorist but from a right-wing extremist or anarchist.

And yet -- despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary -- the assumption of a Muslim monopoly on terrorism is so dominant that it's virtually taken as common sense. The narrative of Muslim terroristic threat is disseminated through a variety of channels, with varying degrees of subtlety: from print and broadcast news media (which tend to label violence committed by Muslims as "terrorism" while refraining from using equivalent language to describe similar acts committed by non-Muslims -- if these acts are reported at all), to primetime television shows such as 24 and Homeland (featuring storylines driven by the pervasive, lurking danger of Muslim terrorism).

The misperception is reinforced by official sources -- in 2011, for instance, our Prime Minister proclaimed that "the major threat is still Islamicism [sic]." And the RCMP's Radicalization: A Guide for the Perplexed perplexingly insists that "virtually all of the planned or actual terrorist attacks in Western Europe and North America since 9/11 have been carried out by young Muslims" -- without citing a single supporting source or statistic.

The blinkered focus on terrorism as a uniquely Muslim phenomenon does not make us safer; in fact, the tunnel vision produced by such a narrow perspective may actually be a liability (by excluding other potential threats from its scope). Moreover, it makes a subset of our Canadian community -- the Muslim population -- significantly more vulnerable to rights abuses.

In Canada, the gravely erroneous application of suspicion culminated in the secret detention and torture abroad of (at least) four innocent Muslim Canadians: Abdullah Almalki, Maher Arar, Ahmad El-Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin.

For the sake of security as well as facticity, it's high time we stopped portraying terrorism as a "Muslim problem."

Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law.​

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