The truth about the roots of most terrorism

When Muslim attackers and terrorists claim they’re acting to defend and advance Islam, westerners put their fingers in their ears

Great news! The Washington Post says, “Terrorist attacks are quietly declining around the world.” Citing a University of Maryland report on terrorism, the author points out that there are fewer terrorist attacks since 2016.

So nothing to see here, folks – move along.

Not so fast.

I’m not sure we’re quite ready to celebrate the fact that in 2017 there were ‘only’ 3,780 terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa, with 10,819 murdered. True, this appears to be a 38 per cent decline in attacks compared with 2016, and a 44 per cent decline in body count. All told in 2017, there were 10,900 attacks, with 26,445 deaths.

In most regions of the world, terrorist attacks and consequent murders declined to some degree in 2017 from 2016. But in Western Europe, the number of terrorist attacks increased to 271. In North America, there were 97 terrorist attacks, an increase of 29 per cent over the previous year, resulting in 124 deaths, fully a 70 per cent increase.

Feeling more relaxed now?

This Post articles reflects the tendency of the mainstream media and some governments to downplay the existence or importance of terrorism, irrespective of the facts. This reflects the orientation of the mainstream media leaning left ideologically.

Most American media support the Democrats, tended to idolize former president Barack Obama, have joined the resistance against President Donald Trump, and are advocates for multilateralism and soft power.

Most Canadian media support the Liberals or NDP, were fierce opponents of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, tend to oppose the military and favour peacekeeping over peace-making, which might require kinetic engagement (fighting).

So the mainstream media downplays adversaries (except Russia, because it can be used as a weapon against Trump).

Leftists hold to the assumption that human nature is inherently good and malleable (except for conservative politicians and capitalists), and so no enemy should be condemned harshly, as they’re really just looking for good jobs or acceptance. They also take the neo-Marxist postcolonial view that the capitalist West is guilty of abusing the world and thus is itself the cause of terrorism.

On the other hand, Canadians and Americans don’t follow the mainstream media and leftist political parties and their governments in their desire to deny the existence or importance of terrorism.

For Americans, protecting the country from terrorists is their top priority. In a 2016 poll, Canadians are much less worried about terrorism than Americans. For Canadians, the economy and unemployment are the top concerns, with only a small number saying terrorism is their highest concern.

The most basic principle of anthropological ethnographic research is to listen to the people you’re trying to learn about. But when Muslim attackers and terrorists claim that they’re acting to defend and advance Islam, westerners put their fingers in their ears. Obama said that “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.”

Officials of public security, from ministers of justice, to judges, to police, often refuse to declare attacks and murders as terrorist acts.

Why have westerners, and particularly leaders who are supposed to protect their citizens, ignored what terrorists say about their motives and edited out their claims to be acting on behalf of Islam?

  • In the West, but not in the Islamic world, religion is supposed to be personal and not a matter for public discourse.
  • A basic principle of the West and of human rights is freedom of religion, so it’s deemed inappropriate to make pejorative comments about any religion.
  • Most westerners know little about Islam and Islamic history, including the history of the Arab Islamic Empire.
  • Most western countries have important ties with Islamic countries, which are often sources of petroleum.
  • There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, around 24 per cent of the global population, rather more than you want angry at you.
  • With increasing percentages of Muslims in the population, politicians look to their elections and want to avoid alienating those voters.
  • Westerners avoid the religious issue because they wish for some easy answer to terrorism, such as expressing our respect and apologies, sending foreign aid or offering technology. Otherwise, they would have to confront the terrible reality that there’s nothing we can give terrorists that will stop the killing.

Nonetheless, some intrepid souls have raised the question as to whether Islam is inherently violent and aggressive. There has been much debate about what various passages of the Qur’an and the Hadiths mean.

So what’s the significance of the following Qur’an passage?

“And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter … and fight them until fitnah is no more, and religion is for Allah.”

If people act according to what they think their duty to Islam is, that’s the important thing, not contrary arguments someone else might make about what Islam requires.

What’s important is that Islamic State functionaries and soldiers believe they’re acting on behalf of Islam.

What’s also important is that the Islamic State is reproducing the aggressive expansionism of the Arab Islamic Empire from the seventh to the 12th century.

‘Progressives’ have asserted that the real threat to Canada and the United States is far-right extremism, and cite a study purporting to show that terrorism by the far right is more frequent than by Muslim terrorists. The parameters of that study begin after the 9/11 attacks, and so disregard the over 3,000 murdered in those attacks. Even so, since 9/11, substantially more have been killed in terrorism by Muslims than by attacks by members of the far right. Since 2001, the ratio of American deaths from Islamic terrorism compared to right-wing terrorism is 62 to one.

Canadians and Americans aren’t fools. They don’t believe that Muslim terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or that the main terrorist threat comes from right-wing extremists.

Each person should be treated as an individual and judged according to their qualities, merit and actions. Treatment of people as members of categories is a violation of their human rights. It should also not be necessary to say that most Muslims aren’t terrorists and should not be treated as if they were, or even as if they were inclined to be. Respect the integrity of individuals.

So how do we address the fact that most terrorists are Muslims and most believe they’re fulfilling their duty to Allah?

  • In protecting Canadians and Americans, we need to scrutinize potential fonts of terrorism: borders, mosques, Islamic schools and social media.
  • Potential immigrants and refugees should be investigated to discover ties to terrorist groups or expressions of sympathy for terrorism.
  • Mosques should be monitored for extremist views, as should Islamic schools. If we think it would be more even-handed, we could monitor churches and synagogues, Christian and Jewish schools as well.
  • Social media should be monitored for extremist sources and networks, especially with Canadian and American connections.

We have to balance our openness and freedom with security.

Those who recommend open borders – admitting terrorists with open arms and even funding them – don’t have the well-being of their fellow citizens in mind. People advancing such policies should not be put in charge.

Philip Carl Salzman is professor of Anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and fellow of the Middle East Forum.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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