Kurzman champions discourse on Islam based on facts, not fear

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

Charles Kurzman

Charles Kurzman

Following this month’s terrorist attacks in Norway, the Western world’s assumptions about terrorism have once again been turned on their heads. In conjunction with recent events, as well as those over the course of the past decade, Charles Kurzman will discuss the complexities and misconceptions about terrorism in the Muslim world at 4 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Kurzman will present his most recent book, The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.

“This is a counter-intuitive approach to the problem of Islamic terrorism,” Kurzman said. “Most studies ask why there are so many terrorists. If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world and even a small proportion of Muslims were interested in a violent revolution — an attack on the West — we would see terrorism everywhere, every day. But we don’t. In fact, al-Qaida and its affiliates complain frequently that they are having trouble recruiting Muslims for martyrdom operations, which is their phrase for suicide attacks.”

Kurzman quoted a World Health Organization study that highlighted the relatively low number of deaths related to terrorism, particularly out of the several key countries with high terrorism rates, which he limited to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“Terrorism fatalities are lower today than at any time since the 1970s,” Kurzman said. “As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I hope that our public discussion about Islamic terrorism will be based on evidence, not just fear.”

If we are focused only on saving lives, Kurzman said, we could easily reallocate a tiny portion from U.S. government spending on terrorism and spend it on essential items, such as mosquito netting, and save thousands of lives.

Kurzman added that he isn’t necessarily advocating for a full shift of focus.

“I think the goal is not to say where we should be focusing our attention, but rather to change the conversation about terrorism, national security and the feelings of insecurity that seem to drive so much of the public debate about Islam and Muslims,” Kurzman said.

Kurzman is a professor of sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to Missing Martyrs, he also is the author of Democracy Denied: 1905-1915 and The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. He edited the anthologies Liberal Islam and Modernist Islam, 1840-1940.

He also is a decade-long Chautauquan.

“It is very exciting to switch from my seat to the lawn outside of the Hall of Philosophy up to the podium,” Kurzman said. “I know that Chautauquans will be open-minded, and I hope will be interested, in what I have to say; I also know that they will challenge me and disagree with me and raise issues that I have not thought of yet, and I look forward to that.”