“Muslim-American Terrorism Declining Further”: Charles Kurzman Extended Interview Video and Transcript

The fourth annual report on Muslim-American terrorism by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a consortium of Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International, reveals a continued downward trend in the number of incidents. Dr. Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at UNC Chapel Hill and author of the report, joins us to talk about some of the highlights, and ways he thinks the facts should influence decision-making in the security arena going forward.

The full report is available online, via the invaluable IslamiCommentary website.

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Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. To download this audio, click here. Scroll down to read the transcript. To hear the entire February 9, 2013 State of Belief Radio program, click here.

INTERFAITH ALLIANCE STATE OF BELIEF RADIO FEBRUARY 9, 2013

RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Charles Kurzman

[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]:

There is a significant percentage of our population that resolutely fears Muslims and Islam. Stoked by well-organized and well-funded efforts, this pernicious bias has found expression in media, in privately-funded ads, and worst of all, in acts of hate and violence… Acts which have actually grown in their annual number in recent years.

An ugly, xenophobic strain has seemingly always festered in the claimed patriotism of certain Americans – and certain American leaders. During the cold war, much damage was done in the name of defending against communist infiltrators, who were supposedly hiding in the shadows bent on destroying America. The “other” is a useful construct, when inspiring blind loyalty is the goal. Since the attacks of 9-11, this role has been inherited, unfortunately, by Muslim-Americans and their friends.

One cannot push back against a fear and hate machine like this one all at once. But one can chip away at some of its underpinnings, hoping that a certain percentage of well-meaning folks who have bought into its message of danger and division will at least consider facts – the facts that we have.

That’s why a new study from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a consortium of Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International, is so very important. It takes an unblinking look at the facts of the matter regarding Muslims and terrorism, and what it shows us stands in stark contrast to the Islamophobic propaganda that continues to swirl all around us.

That’s why I am so very happy to have Charles Kurzman, the report’s author, with us today for a discussion.

Charlie, welcome to State of Belief Radio!

[DR. CHARLES KURZMAN, GUEST]: Thank you very much!

[WG]: Dr. Kurzman, the report is titled, “Muslim-American Terrorism Declining Further.” Now that speaks for itself, but tell us some of the numbers behind that title.

[CK]: Yes, this is the fourth annual report that we have produced tracking the number of Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators: Muslim-Americans who have radicalized and engaged in acts of violence – or plots to engage in acts of violence – both in the United States and abroad. And when we started tracking this, we were struck by how low the numbers were. There have only been, since 9-11, about 200 Muslim-Americans arrested for various offenses related to terrorism. That number has gone down in recent years. So this year we found, for the third straight year, that the numbers had decreased, and that there were, last year, 14 Muslim-Americans who were arrested for terrorism-related offenses.

Now, it only takes a few, of course, to engage in an act of violence – and we learned that on 9-11, of course. But the broader point here, I think, is that not very many of our country’s Muslim-American residents have engaged in violence, have radicalized, and have been swayed by the radical messages that they’re receiving – or could be receiving – from abroad.

I want to point out that almost all of these cases are disrupted at a very early stage; so they are no danger to the American population. And in fact, many of the individuals are turned over to authorities by other members of the Muslim-American community. So we’re not talking about a leading cause of death here. Muslim-Americans are not a danger to their neighbors.

[WG]: Were the 14 – I want to just be clear – were they arrested in the United States, or overseas somewhere?

[CK]: Almost all of them were arrested in the United States. Some of them were arrested as they were attempting to go overseas, so there’s a handful who were trying to go overseas to join terrorist organizations in Somalia or West Africa or elsewhere. The rate, though, is still so low. We’re talking about a fringe – a fringe that’s been rejected by all the mainstream, all the important Muslim thinkers in the United States.

[WG]: Dr. Kurzman, I perhaps have lived in Washington too long, and that’s why I’m cynical, but I know where you live, and I know where I live in Louisiana, and some people would say, “Well, they ought to be going down; ’cause we’ve shown ’em how tough we are and what we’re gonna do to them.” But I imagine you have a different explanation for these declining numbers.

[CK]: I think that’s one explanation, and it can’t be discounted: that the counterterrorism efforts that we’ve put in place – we were fearing a far higher rate of radicalization after 9-11. And for folks – if you think back ten years, we didn’t know whether there were more waves of attacks coming; we didn’t know the level of radicalization that might occur among Muslim-Americans here in the United States.

We now have ten years of information to go by. We have a record. And what we feared were suicide attackers, as we saw on 9-11: people who would give their lives for their faith. Now, those aren’t people who are going to be deterred by a jail term. Those aren’t people who are worried about getting caught. That level of commitment is undeterrable. But we haven’t seen much of it. And I think that is the good news in this story: is that we now have more than a decade’s of experience to go on, and the numbers have not been very large.

[WG]: The report notes that a similar pattern can be seen in Europe. Do you see the same causality playing a role there, as well?

[CK]: Yes, we were really surprised to see that the number of terrorist arrests – of Muslims in Europe – has been going down over the last several years. That’s data we didn’t collect ourselves; we got it from Europol, which is the European police agency for the European Union. And their records show that the numbers there, although they’re larger than in the United States, per capita – that is, per million Muslim residents – are relatively similar. And declining. I think because Europe is close to some of the hot spots in the Middle East, some of the countries that have ongoing civil conflict, where terrorism has been one of the methods used in those conflicts, we expected to see a far higher rate of spillover into Europe – but that wasn’t really the case.

I think globally – if we look globally – terrorism has been declining all over the world, terrorism of all forms, peaked in 2007, according to global data from the National Counterterrorism Center. And the world is getting safer in many ways: people are living longer, and other sorts of things; the number of wars has actually declined over the last several decades… You wouldn’t know it from reading the news! If you just keep up with the news, you’d think that the world is in the worst crisis ever! But in fact things are pretty good. And that’s not necessarily newsworthy.

[WG]: Well, and I have the sense, also, that there is a political angle to that, where there are some people who benefit from fear; and really don’t want to assure the American public as much as to keep them on edge, because that gives them a bias out of which to speak.

[CK]: I think you’re definitely right. I also think that government officials, even if they don’t share those self-interests or those biases, are afraid that attacks are going to occur on their watch, and if they loosen any of the conter-terrorism pose or posture, that the next time there’s any small incident of violence, they’re going to get blamed for that. And frankly, I think there will be further attacks; that’s human nature, that’s the way the world goes. It’s a dangerous place in many ways. But it’s not a leading cause of death; it’s not a leading public health crisis. And it’s only when Americans come to recognize that that the politicians will have the space to allocate resources and to adjust our security posture to match the facts that we’ve actually experienced over the lastten years: the much smaller scale than many people feared we would see of Islamic terrorism.

[WG]: Which is exactly what all of you are trying to do in this splendid report, and the reasons that you’re doing it. I found another fact that – just – very, very interesting: that almost all recent plots, rare as they are, were stopped in the planning stages. Now, Dr. Kurzman, a lot has been said about the insularity of some Muslim communities in the West. Do you have a measure of what role fellow Muslims have actually played in that kind of early disruptions of planned terrorist attacks?

[CK]: We do. For the cases where we could tell, how did this plot come to the attention of the authorities, Muslim-Americans were turning in plotters as often as the US government was discovering them on its own. In other words, one of the main ways that these plots came to the attention of authorities was because Muslims went to law enforcement and said, “This isn’t right, you need to know about this.”

So the fears that Muslims are not cooperating with law enforcement, or that Muslims are somehow in cahoots with these plots, I think is misplaced; that we’re seeing quite a bit of cooperation, and that credit is due. And that when you see these plots, they’re marginal within Muslim communities; they tend to be folks who are too radical for their own mosques, and are frozen out. They’re not people who are a part of the mainstream of Muslim communities in this country.

[WG]: I don’t want to miss something. Is there anything else that stands out for you in this report?

[CK]: We were struck by the consistency of these numbers. That somehow, each year, just a couple dozen or less folks are getting involved in these kinds of activities. At the same time, to put this in perspective, every year, somehow, Americans manage to kill each other at a rate of about 14,000 murders per year. That’s an astounding figure! And I think when we talk about violence in this country, when we talk about security concerns, that puts this in context. Last year, there were no fatalities from Muslim-American terrorism in this country; since 9-11 – that is, over 11 years ago now – there have been 33 fatalities from Muslim-American terrorism, and most of those are the fellow who went to Fort Hood and shot people up there, or the Beltway Snipers who may not even have been Muslim – we’re counting those folks. So that’s 33 since 9-11! There have been more than 180,000 murders in the United States. In other words, this terrorist threat is real, and we should take it seriously, but has not been a major source of violence in the United States, and should be treated more in proportion to the actual level of threats that we’ve experienced.

[WG]: I’m going to risk – you’re a Sociologist rather than an English teacher – and so I am going to do an intentional redundancy here: what do you think it will take to reconcile the facts and the figures with the misperceptions, so that Americans will get ahold of the truth and stop dealing with this fear that is overblown?

[CK]: I think we’re starting to relax. That 9-11 was of course a huge shock for so many Americans, and we are starting, hopefully now, to realize that that era has largely passed. I think we’re getting there, and we need to reinforce that, and I suspect that these figures which we’re keeping track of – and we didn’t prejudge them, these are just what we found – these figures may help people to realize that their Muslim neighbors are not security threats, they’re ordinary folks living their lives, part of the great tapestry and diversity that has made America great.

[WG]: Charlie, you personally have written rather widely on Islam and the role of Muslims in the modern world. With that kind of broad background, you read your report, what does that tell you about the world we live in right now?

[CK]: It’s a great big world. There are all sorts of political, theological, swirling debates going on within Islamic communities as well as every other community. And when we realize and dip into this diversity, and recognize the great welter of things that are swirling around us – I think it makes us humble. I hope it makes us humble to see that we’re not alone in wrestling with all of the big issues of faith, of politics, of the right way to live our lives… Muslims, non-Muslims, everybody are wrestling with these issues; and we’re often coming up with quite similar answers. And I think that’s where we should find our shared humanity; that’s where we can find alliances that are going to build bridges, and that are, hopefully, going to build a solidarity against the relatively small factions that are trying to engage in violence and hatred.

[WG]: I can’t thank you enough – you and your colleagues – for the work you’ve done.

Dr. Charles Kurtzman is the author of the new report, “Muslim-American Terrorism Declining Further,” just out from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He spoke to us from the Carolina News Studio at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is a Professor of Sociology.

This entire report is available for our listeners to read online. We will post a link at stateofbelief.com. You can go there and you can see the data that Dr. Kurzman has talked about.

Dr. Kurzman, I thank you so much for taking time to be with us today on State of Belief Radio, and I hope that you’ll come back next year and the year after that, and we’ll see it declining every time.

[CK]: I hope so too, and thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.

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Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.

Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.