Some Facts & Recommendations About Terrorism

In the wake of this week’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France and Boko Haram attack in northeastern Nigeria, a lot of rhetoric has been floating around the internet regarding the nature of Islam and its relationship to extremism and terrorism. Research has long been gathered related to terrorism and its motivations, so facts are readily available that can help to contextualize the discussion. Unfortunately, they mostly go ignored in the interest of promoting one ideological position or another.

Most of the following comes from the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2014 Global Terrorism Index. Important insights from this report include (1) key trends, (2) correlates of terrorism, and (3) successful strategies for ending terrorism. In this post I’d like to share some of these facts and some ways we can contribute to more constructive discourse on the problem.


Defining terms is a critical (and contested) aspect of the categories utilized in the report, so following is the definition of “terrorism” used:

The GTI . . . defines terrorism as ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.’ This definition recognises that terrorism is not only the physical act of an attack, but also the psychological impact it has on a society for many years after.

This is a somewhat broad definition, although some might quibble with the exclusion of state-sponsored violence. Using this definition, though, the GTI ranked the impact of terrorism within 162 countries:

Terrorism Impact


As the report notes, there was a 61% increase in terrorist attacks from 2012 (11,133) to 2013 (17,958), and 2013’s attacks represent a fivefold increase from 2000 (3,361). Deaths occurred in 50% of terrorist attacks. More than 60% of the deaths attributable to these attacks occurred in one of five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. The following charts show various trends over the last 15 years:

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This next graph shows how significant events influenced the rise and fall of deaths resulting from terrorist attacks:

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The war in Iraq and the outbreak of the Syrian war coincide with the beginnings of the two largest spikes in terrorist activity. Religious-motivated terrorist activity increased significantly since 2002, when non-religious terrorism predominated. Outside of largely Islamic territories (Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia), political and ethnic/nationalist separatist terrorism predominates, as this chart illustrates:

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In 2013 Islamic extremism did account for the majority of terrorist activity, but as the following chart shows, this is part of a recent and severe increase owing in large part to the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram:

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Contributing Factors

You’ll note that comparison with figure 1 above shows the sharpest increase coincides with the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The Iraq War also coincides with an increase in activity. As the report finds, over 70% of terrorist activity occurs in areas experiencing major conflicts. Robert Pape argues that upwards of 90% of suicide terrorism is aimed specifically at uprooting occupying forces, a motivation that crosses the ideological boundaries that are drawn between the secular and the religious. The most prolific suicide bombers of the twentieth century, the Tamil Tigers, were ethnic separatists who appealed to Marxist ideology in their literature. The GTI highlights that, since 2000, 90% of suicide attacks have taken place in the Middle East and South Asia. This does not coincide with any change in the nature or function of Islam as a religion or an ideology, but is a function of the political/ethnic/social/economic dynamics at work in these areas. From the GTI:

From thousands of socio-economic, governance and attitudinal variables analysed, three groupings of indicators show a multivariate significant relationship with the GTI:

— Political stability
— Intergroup cohesion
— Legitimacy of the state

Areas where terrorist attacks are most frequent are areas where there is little political stability, where ethnic, religious, nationalist, and other groups experience conflict, and where the government lacks legitimacy. The fact that more than 70% of terrorism occurs in regions of major conflict suggests war is one of the predominant catalyst for terrorism in areas where those indicators are present.

Terrorism Outside Islamic Regions

Agencies in the United States and in the European Union have gathered a great deal of data regarding terrorism in their areas. For the EU, see the 2014 European Union Terror Situation and Trend Report. In the general overview it notes that 152 terrorist attacks were carried out in the EU in 2013, resulting in seven deaths. Two of those attacks are categorized by Europol as religiously inspired (resulting in one death). While religiously inspired attacks were quite low, there were 216 suspects arrested for planning or carrying out religiously inspired terrorist attacks. This marks an increase over the 159 arrests in the same category in 2012, and represents about 40% of the total 535 arrests for terrorist activities in 2013. This report from the FBI analyzes the 318 terrorist incidents, resulting in 3,178 deaths, that occurred in the US between 1980 and 2005. According to that report, Islamic extremism accounted for 6% of the attacks, just under the 7% attributed to Jewish extremism.

Mitigating Radicalization

A 2010 Duke University study available here analyzed the attitudes of Muslim-Americans toward extremism to attempt to account for the very low occurrence of radicalization taking place on American soil. It outlines several findings:

- There is increased anti-Muslim sentiment
– There is a low number of radicalized Muslim-Americans
– The practices of Muslim-American communities prevent radicalization

The following practices were identified as mitigating radicalization:

- Public and private denunciations of terrorism and violence
– Self-policing
– Community-building
– Political engagement
– Identity politics

The last practice requires some explanation. The report shows that Muslim-Americans have become more assertive of their Muslim identities since 9/11. While a great deal of rhetoric attempts to equate increased piety with an increased chance of radicalization, the report showed the opposite. Citing a 2007 Pew study (here), the Duke report noted that Muslim-Americans who said religion was “very important” in their lives were 1/3 less likely to respond that attacks on civilians were “sometimes” or “often justified” to defend Islam. When Muslim-Americans felt their identities as Americans were salient (increasingly common since 9/11), their communities were organized less frequently by ethnic group, and they felt a cultural connection to other Americans, reducing the occurrence of radicalization. The study states:

Over the past several decades, immigration and conversion have turned Muslim communities into far more multiethnic sites than the homogenous enclaves of a generation ago. According to a survey of more than 400 mosques in 2000, one third had no majority of participants from any single ethnic group. Immigrants from numerous countries come to know one another far more than they would have in their home countries, creating a new Islamic identity that is distinct from the narrower sense of ethnic identity.

It continues:

Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding.


The report concludes with the following recommendations for mitigating radicalization among Muslims:

1. Encourage politic mobilization. This is the most significant positive trend the report noted

2. Promote public denunciations of violence. Note: “promote,” not “demand.” The report points out that public opinion polls suggest Americans are woefully unaware of the “consistent and strong public denunciations following incidents here and abroad.”

3. Reinforce Self-Policing Efforts by Improving the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Muslim-American Communities

4. Assist community-building efforts

5. Promote outreach by social service agencies. “This kind of engagement is viewed as an opportunity for Muslim-Americans to become stakeholders in the general community.”

6. Support enhanced religious literacy. A great example of this might be sharing the Letter to Baghdadi, an open letter recently published by a group of scholars of Islam denouncing terrorism and highlighting the many and various ways terrorism violates Islam and the Qur’an and has no legitimate basis in either.

7. Increase civil rights enforcement.Discrimination and contempt breeds bigotry and radicalization. ” Enhanced civil rights enforcement at local, state, and federal levels will contribute toward addressing Muslim-American concerns.”


Terrorism is too critical a problem to publicly engage with naive assumptions and empty rhetoric. Let’s get educated on the issues before we lose ourselves in rhetorical excesses and dogmatism.

Open Access eBook from De Gruyter: Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World

Initiation into the MysteriesDe Gruyter has a new open access book available here by Jan N. Bremmer entitled Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. You can download PDFs of individual chapters or download the entire publication in EPUB. It looks like a wonderful publication. See the table of contents below. (HT James McGrath)



Thoughts on Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 7.46.53 PM (2)I just completed Bill Schniedewind’s 2013 A Social History of Biblical Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period. It is ostensibly an ambitious sociolinguistic examination of the history of the Hebrew language as it was employed within the cultures of Israel and Judah from the second millennium BCE into to the early centuries of the Common Era, but it touches on some important debates currently ongoing in the study of Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible with only brief acknowledgment of those debates and the clear ground staked out by his discussion. Perhaps most conspicuously, Schniedewind largely ignores the concerns raised in recent years by a number of scholars regarding the ability to date—even relatively—biblical texts on linguistic grounds. Young and Rezetko’s 2008 Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, for instance, is briefly cited twice, but quickly dismissed by an appeal to Jan Joosten’s review of the volume. The traditional notions of Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) are presupposed with little treatment of the challenges that have been raised.

Another rhetorical theme is the rejection of the so-called minimalists’ Persian-period dating of much of the Hebrew Bible. This case was interesting, and was made in one area by highlighting in the continuity of hapax legomena found in LBH and Rabbinic Hebrew and influenced by Persian, Greek, and Aramaic over and against those found in SBH that are absent from LBH and appear to be influenced by Akkadian and Ugaritic. This discontinuity in linguistic influence between SBH and LBH evinces, for Schniedewind, a disjunction in the use of Hebrew best accounted for through the cultural and political upheavals of the exilic period. There is certainly a strong argument to be made here, but one gets the impression it is being made in a vacuum.

I certainly enjoyed reading Schniedewind’s book and found a great deal of insight regarding the relationship of linguistic change to the social and political dynamics of Israel and Judah, but I felt at times that the discussion could have been benefited from more methodological precision and care, and some more transparency regarding its rhetorical targets. It could just be that the breadth of the examination and/or the target audience left little room for extensive technical engagement of opposing viewpoints.

Update to Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language & Linguistics Post

I’ve been tipped off to some additional PDFs of EHLL articles available online, so I’ve updated my post, which now has links to over 100 PDFs. I’ve also rearranged the authors by their last names. Find it here.

Free PDF from SBL: Rezetko and Young, Historical Linguistics & Biblical Hebrew

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SBL has released another free title in their Ancient Near East Monographs series. Robert Rezetko and Ian Young, Historical Linguistics & Biblical Hebrew: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach. Here’s the TOC:

Table of Contents

Free from SBL: C. L. Crouch, Israel & the Assyrians: Deuteronomy, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, & the Nature of Subversion

Israel & The Assyrians

SBL Publications has a list of titles available for free download on this page. Because you’re interested in Deuteronomy and its composition and ideological function, you’ll be particularly excited to see the inimitable Carly Crouch’s Israel and the Assyrians: Deuteronomy, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, & the Nature of Subversion. From the introduction:

A prominent feature of attempts to ground the deuteronomic text in a historical context over the last half century has been the observation of certain affinities between Deuteronomy and ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties and loyalty oaths. More specifically, it has been suggested that the book of Deuteronomy, in some more or less original form, constituted a subversive appropriation of Neo-Assyrian imperial ideology in favor of a Yahwistic theocentricity: a text deliberately designed to undermine the authority of the Assyrian king by planting YHWH in his stead. The prevalence of this assertion has its roots in the widespread recognition of similarities between elements of Deuteronomy, especially chapters 13 and 28, and Assyrian vassal treaties and loyalty oaths, with a particular focus on the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, commonly referred to as VTE. . . . The following aims to go beyond the doubt cast on the nature of Deuteronomy’s relationship with VTE to question the nature of its relationship with Assyrian ideology more widely and, as a consequence, to challenge the interpretation of the book in subversive terms.

On Ben Affleck and Sam Harris

Some comments popped up last night on my Facebook wall on which I’d like to share some thoughts. The above image was the first thing I saw, and I wondered who would think they could get away with such a flagrant misrepresentation of the comments Ben Affleck recently made on Bill Maher’s television show. I was a bit surprised to read that it was American Atheists, Inc. promoting this kind of rhetoric, but the comments they posted along with the image were even more concerning. I’d like to talk a bit about Harris and Maher v. Affleck, and then the FB post.

First, regarding the image, I don’t think anyone has ever said that any and all criticism of someone’s religion is racist in and of itself. Perhaps someone did somewhere, but that’s certainly not what Affleck said. He was responding to Sam Harris’ well-known history of controversial opinions regarding Islam and what to do with it. This is what was said to catalyze the “gross and racist” comment.

Sam Harris: Liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy… When you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamaphobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people. That is intellectually ridiculous.

Ben Affleck: Are the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that so you can say…

Harris: I’m actually well educated on this topic.

Affleck: I’m asking you… you’re saying that Islamaphobia is not a real thing, that if you’re critical of something.

Bill Maher: It’s not a real thing when we do it.

Harris: I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people…

Affleck: It’s gross, it’s racist. It’s like saying “you shifty Jew.”

Yes, it would be “intellectually ridiculous” to insist every criticism of the doctrine of Islam is bigoted, but, again, I don’t know anyone who’s said that. Harris has a history not of criticizing specific doctrines of Islam, but of broadly criticizing the expression of the religion as a “bad idea.” The dichotomization of “ideas” from “people” serves to inoculate Harris (in his mind) from any kind of racism or bigotry, but comments like, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” betray the thinness and fuzziness of the line that may or may not distinguish “ideas” from “people” in Harris’ mind. That comment is undeniably gross and racist, particularly in light of the fact that many recent converts to radical Islam look nothing like Harris’ prototypical Muslim (he points out even he looks like a Muslim, as if that makes it ok to say Muslims look a certain way; and skin color is not the central issue, despite Harris’ defense of his position). He claims to be well educated in the area, but his etic and antagonistic perspective prevents him from understanding the Islamic experience and faith. He has never seen the US or Israel through Muslim or Middle Eastern eyes. He has never looked at the world through the perspective of one born and raised outside of the Western world. He does not understand the Muslim worldview or the cultural mores of those born and raised in the Middle East. No matter how educated he is or becomes, he absolutely does not, and will never, understand “the codified doctrine of Islam.” (Nor will I or Ben Affleck, for that matter.)

The fact is, modern popular criticisms of Islam are thoroughly entangled in different ways with issues of ethnicity, nationalism, politics, and culture, but instead of taking the intellectually responsible—and time consuming—route of carefully disentangling those concepts and appropriately applying those criticisms, Harris and Maher pretty much always lump it all together and for convenience sake just represent it all as “religion.” This is highly problematic, not only for those who highlight their prioritization of reason and evidence, but also for those who generally insist one must carefully parse the reasons and motivations for cultural phenomena and not broadly asign responsibility to convenient targets, as Harris insists when talking about sexism and employment stats:

I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

As proselytizing atheists, though, broadly assigning responsibility to religion makes for a convenient—yet artificial—religious bogeyman. This bogeyman is reinforced with the either insincere or ignorant notion that all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all “devout Muslims” believe everyone must convert, be subjugated, or die:

The only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.

Here Harris plays the role of the sectarian and dictates what Muslims may and may not think. This uncritically accepts the dogmatism of the most conservative factions within Islam that they represent the unilaterally defining expression of their religion. The reason for accepting this dogmatism is simple: it makes it easier to criticize Islam as a whole, rather than wade through pluriformity and diversity of thought and present a nuanced and rhetorically unhelpful description of the religion. That fundamentalism, however, is generally commensurate with social insularity (or quarantine), which is a phase through which almost all religions pass. Those quarantined within a broader culture of disparate values and priorities will ultimately grow out of that phase and begin to syncretize or reform if they hope to proliferate and continue to grow. This occurred in the Western world during the Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural period of change through which the Islamic states have yet to pass. As a result, they constitute the dominant cultures in many places and are largely not saddled with the need to syncretize. Those Muslims living in other cultures, however, generally pass into that next natural phase of religious development. Their religion is no less Muslim. To say that only adherents to that insular phase are “devout” is simply cherry picking the most convenient sectarian ideology for one’s rhetoric.

The facts, additionally, don’t support the anti-Muslim litany regarding the inspiration for violence. This is a large and complex issue, but some observations betray the naivety of calling it all the fault of Islam. For instance, more than 95% of suicide attacks are directed at compelling an occupying force to withdraw from prized territory. That isn’t suggestive of a purely religious motivation for that kind of violence. It’s perceived by the attackers and those who support them as a valid expression of nationalism and cultural preservation and defense. Harris himself defends the murder of innocent people on exactly the same grounds:

Yes, our drone strikes in Pakistan kill innocent people—and this undoubtedly creates new enemies for the West. But we wouldn’t need to drop a single bomb on Pakistan, or anywhere else, if a death cult of devout Muslims weren’t making life miserable for millions of innocent people and posing an unacceptable threat of violence to open societies.

(The degree of the hypocrisy of this statement is difficult to comprehend. How many of those “innocent people” having their lives made miserable are the same “innocent people” whose lives we’re just ending with drone strikes?) Harris highlights broad Muslim approbation of suicide bombing and the prosecution of non-Muslims, but we can just as easily point to US approbation of numerous atrocities committed over the decades in defense of “the American way.” One need not look far to find jihadists appealing to Western oppression and violence against their societies and their people as justification for killing “innocent people.” Harris’ argument does not appear religious in orientation or provenance, and no doubt he would insist it is purely rational, so why is it fundamentally religious when someone who “looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim” says it? It’s not, but pretending it’s religious helps Harris’ proselytizing.

So on to the FB comments:

What happened to the Ben Affleck we used to love, who thought it was respectable—and essential—to criticize bad ideas openly and vehemently?

Remember the 1999 Dogma Movie which starred Affleck along with an ensemble cast including Kevin Smith (who also directed it), Matt Damon,George CarlinChris RockSalma HayekLinda FiorentinoAlan Rickman,Bud CortJason LeeJaneane GarofaloAlanis Morissette, and Jason Mewes? The film criticized religion and revealed the danger and absurdity inherent in fixed beliefs without evidence.

As with Harris, “ideas” are distinguished, ostensibly, from “people,” but also as with Harris, that distinction holds only when describing atheist dogmas and methods. It vanishes when applying them. It’s not Islam as an idea that is criticized, it is the expression of Islamic faith on the part of its adherents that is criticized.

Islam, like all religions, is a scam,

This is just a phenomenally naïve comment, if not downright dishonest. Sure, some people use religion to scam others, but to unilaterally categorize religion as a “scam” just flies in the face of the overwhelming preponderance of empirical evidence that belief in the supernatural has a deeply rooted cognitive and evolutionary basis and is a sincere and fundamental part of the worldviews and consciousnesses of billions of people around the world. That kind of rhetorical jab does not betray any respectable degree of concern for logic, evidence, or insight, but rather juvenile and naïve pettiness. It characterizes a phenomenally complex and pervasive aspect of human nature in terms of one of the most petty and base expressions of that nature of which it can conceive simply for the sake of rhetorical effect.

and dogmatically adhering to its provably incorrect core claims comes at the cost of equality for women, equality for LGBT people, science education, and many other vital aspects of a humanistic and just society.

It should be noted that plenty of secular societies are also having a hard time securing this equality. The issue is usually couched in terms of culture, politics, and personality when it’s criticized in those secular societies, and let’s not forget that New Atheists like Harris and Dawkins are frequently the objects of heavy criticism for their racism, sexism, and cultural imperialism. To what incorrect core claims are they dogmatically adhering to also threaten those vital aspects of a humanistic and just society? Certainly not the universal human frailties of selfishness, egotism, and ethnocentrism?

Racism is disgusting. As atheists and champions of humanist principles, we desire and demand equality for all people, but let us take care to communicate that criticizing a religion—an idea, with no rights—is not synonymous with criticizing someone’s ethnicity, race, or sexual identity.

Unless you actually are criticizing someone’s ethnicity, race, or sexual identity, which is often the case with folks like Harris and Maher, as much as they seem think they’re allowed to as long as they’re convinced it’s true. Many people condemn racism and then turn around and defend their racism. It’s not “equality for all people” to say you should get profiled in the airport if you look Muslim. To pretend that atheists are somehow immune to this in virtue of claiming to prioritize logic and reason is just asinine.

People, by virtue of being human, deserve respect as a natural right. Ideas, however, must earn respect by being in accordance with evidence, logic, and reason.

Islam fails, miserably and disastrously, on all counts.

We denounce racism. We denounce Islam. These two statements are not contradictory.

Not unilaterally, but they absolutely can be, and in the case of Maher and Harris, I think they demonstrably are.


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