Two Myths of “Muslim Violence”

We are all familiar with the rough outlines of the narrative: Followers of Islam commit terrorist acts in numbers far out of proportion to their representation in the human family. They blow stuff up, behead Christians, and kill cartoonists all because their holy book, the Qur’an, instructs them to convert or kill all unbelievers. As Fox News commentator Brian Kilmeade put it recently, “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”

It’s not hard to see why news outlets around the world love to present this narrative.It has all the elements of a great story: implacable evil, unalloyed good, suspense, drama, and lots of explosions. The problem, though, is that it is not even remotely true.

As Ronald Reagan used to say, facts are stubborn things. They ruin some of the best stories. And the current cultural narrative of “Intolerable Islam” is profoundly underct by two easily verifiable sets of facts: 1) only a small percentage of the terrorist acts in Europe and America are committed by Muslims or in the name of Islam; and 2) the overwhelming majority of the victims of Islamic extremism are also Muslim. Let’s look at the evidence.

The first point, that most terrorist acts in the West are not committed by Islamicists, is the subject of an excellent recent article in the Daily Beast by Muslim journalist Dean Obeidallah. Acknowledging that “obviously, there are people who have committed horrible acts in the name of Islam,” Obeidallah presentms compelling evidence that “overwhelmingly, those who have committed terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe aren’t Muslims.

These assertions are actually quite easy to prove, as terrorism has become the sort of thing that governments and law enforcement agencies write a lot of reports about. Every year, for example, Europol publishes a document called the TE-SAT, or the Terrorism Situation and Trends Report. This document tracks terrorist attacks (failed, foiled, and carried out) across five general categories: Islamicist (changed to “Religiously Inspired in 2012), Ethnic/Separatist, Left Wing/Anarchist, Right Wing, and Single Issue (i.e. the Animal Liberation Front). Here are the results over the most recent five years of available data:




So, according to Europol, there were 1088 terrorist attacks between 2009 and 2013. Of these, ten, or less than one percent were by Islamicists. All terrorists in Europe are Muslim, except for the 99% who are something else. The worst of these attacks–the killing of 69 people in a Youth Summer Camp in Norway in 2011–was fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment by a self-proclaimed advocate of a Christian Europe.

In the United States, the figures are similar (with, of course, the glaring example of the World Trade Center Attacks in 2001). In 2013, the WashingtonsBlog mined the START Global Terrorism Database for attacks on US Soil between 1970 and 2012. OF 2,400 attacks classified as terrorism, 60, or 2.5%, were carried out by Muslims (including members of the American group, the Nation of Islam). Almost twice as many attacks, 4.9% of the total, were carried out by the Jewish Defense League and other Jewish groups, and 7% were carried out by Christian activists against abortion clinics. And here, according to the Department of Homeland Security, are groups responsible for the most terrorist attacks in the United States between 1970 and 2011:


The only places where Muslim extremists are responsible for the majority of terrorist activity are areas that are predominantly Muslim. But here, nearly all of the victims are Muslim as well. The two countries with the most terrorist activity in the 21st century have been Iraq and Afghanistan, where nearly 100% of the victims of Islamic extremism have been fellow Muslims. In a 2011 report, the United States National Council on Counter Terrorism estimates that Muslims accounted for between 82% and 97% of all deaths resulting from religiously inspired terrorism in the five previous years.

This doesn’t fit the standard narrative, of course. If the primary victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims, then it is difficult to lay the blame for the attacks on all of Islam (which suffers almost all of the negative consequences of the extremism) or on the Qur’an (which specifically forbids the killing of fellow Muslims). So our news reporters and commentariat tend to ignore the evidence and stick to the script.

This is why, for example, this months attack on a French newspaper, which killed ten cartoonists and two police officers, has received 50 times as much global coverage as the Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian village that killed 2000 people, nearly all of the Muslim. And it is why most Americans know that Islamic State extremists beheaded two American journalists in Iraq last year but not that the same group in beheaded two Tunisian journalists last week–just one day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Few American  news sources even covered the executions, and I have yet to see a “je sois Sofiene Chourabiadhir” or “I am Nadhir Ktari” banner anywhere on Facebook.

Two of the most common questions that come up after any Islamicist attack are, “if Islam is a peaceful religion, why are nearly all of the terrorist acts in the world committed by Muslims?” and “why aren’t so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ condemning the attacks?” These are, I believe, important questions, and they have spectacularly compelling answers.

The answer to the first question is “they aren’t. They are just committing most of the terrorist acts that get covered in the United States.” And the answer to the second question is, “why do we get to demand that Muslims condemn the ten percent of attacks by Islamic extremists that are directed at Westerners when Westerners are barely willing to notice the ninety percent of such attacks that are directed at Muslims?”