A hallmark of research is that it is neutral and thus open to unanticipated results and findings.
It seems as if researchers at Duke and the University of North Carolina got together to violate this cardinal principle of scholarly research in their report, "Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans
The report contends that the threat of homegrown extremism is exaggerated. That's an odd conclusion just a week into 2010. Although the authors acknowledge that 2009 was an unusually active year for homegrown terror plots, the litany of cases is insufficient to alter, or even place an asterisk next to, their conclusion.
"The recent spike of cases in 2009 is disturbing," the authors write, "but it is far too early to know if this is an aberration or a trend. Even if the levels of radicalization of Muslim-Americans do increase, it is important to emphasize that the numbers of individuals engaged in these activities are extremely small."
This seems to rebut an argument no one has made while miscasting the very nature of terrorism. Terrorism does not require large numbers of people to achieve its purpose, which is the creation of fear through calculated and often symbolic acts of violence or the threat of such acts.
Terrorist groups have lasted decades and wreaked havoc without having more than a couple of dozen members. Further, it doesn't take an army of thousands to generate death and devastation.
Ten Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists were able to kill more than 180 people and hold Mumbai, a city of more than 14 million people, hostage over three days. Pointing out that relatively few people become terrorists is irrelevant.
Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30 more at Fort Hood, Texas, on his own.
Even national Islamist organizations, loathe to acknowledge the very existence of Islamic extremism, admitted in December that they need to do more to combat radicalization among young Muslim Americans.
The Duke/North Carolina study, funded by the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, identifies 139 people linked to terrorist violence since 2001, an average of 17 people a year. But during the past 14 months, 20 young Somalis disappeared from the Minneapolis area and are thought to have gone to East Africa to join the jihad there. Five D.C.-area college students were arrested in Pakistan last month as they tried to join the jihad against American troops in Afghanistan.
Jihad, group leader Ramy Zamzam explained outside a courtroom last week, is not terrorism.
Like the Zamzam group, most of the cases included in the study involve terrorist plots outside the United States.
For example, David Headley is charged with plotting to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and with helping the Mumbai plotters by scouting possible targets.
The report devotes a page to the North Carolina jihad plot, emphasizing the group's desire to wage jihad abroad. But it fails to mention that Daniel Patrick Boyd is accused of scouting the Marine base at Quantico for a possible attack and that he and defendant Hysen Sherifi were charged in September with plotting to kill American soldiers.
And the data doesn't count cases involving terrorist financing, listing them as "exclusively non-violent activities . . . because, in our view, individuals have not fully radicalized unless they are willing and have taken steps toward violent action to further their radical views."
It is simply bad social science to view the phenomenon of terrorism as isolated from all other factors and activities besides violent acts. Terrorist acts are at the tail end of a process of radicalization through which an individual comes to believe in the necessity of radical action through interactive social processes often fostered and guided by Islamist movements.
Violent Islamist movements do not just blow things up. They produce propaganda, raise funds, engage in dawah and educational efforts, and often provide services to their constituency. All of these efforts are an interrelated part of a whole and cannot be separated.
We should expect better from a research team that prominently features a sociologist.
The emphasis on the number of people prosecuted diminishes significance of the threat of terrorism because plots were interdicted before they had a chance to succeed. If even a few of them had been successful, the death toll could have reached into the thousands. It's a fundamental weakness of the argument to argue this threat is exaggerated.
Their definition ignores the radical dogma that goes along with "nonviolent activities" and the often-used Quranic solicitation that those who finance jihadists are blessed the same as if they participated.
It also buys in to the "covenant of security" understanding many Britons now regret. In essence, radical groups were tolerated as long as their violence did not target the United Kingdom.
The report also seems plagued by other arbitrary standards. The research team interviewed 120 people in four mid-sized U.S. communities. It found that Muslim communities do a good job of self-policing against radical elements and that "Muslim-American organizations and leaders have consistently condemned terrorist violence here and abroad since 9/11, arguing that such violence is strictly condemned by Islam."
It isn't clear how those subjects were chosen or whether the researchers sought out contrary points of view. They are not difficult to find.
Writer Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, sees American Muslim leadership as a part of the problem more than as part of the solution. In the wake of the Zamzam arrests in Pakistan, Fatah noted the radical ties of those expressing concern and making vows to combat the extremist trend. "[T]he leaders of the American Mosque establishment have still not yet recognized that their rhetoric no longer works and that most Americans can see through their tired old cliches about 'peace' and 'love'."
After the Fort Hood massacre, journalist Asra Nomani described Hasan's slaughter as "a cautionary tale to all Muslim communities about the consequences when we fail to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world with moderate interpretation of Islam over rigid, literal interpretations."
She interviewed a man who attended the same Maryland mosque as Hasan and debated theology with him. Hasan espoused clearly radical views and a literal interpretation of the Quran.
"No one in the mosque responded with concerns about Hasan's extremist views," Nomani wrote. But they did object when his interlocutor handed out a newspaper article about an Afghan suicide bomber who accidentally killed his mother and other family members. An angry mosque member accused him of creating a "fitna," or division, in the community.
Nomani met with the same anger when she tried to change her mosque's policy of segregating women from men during prayer.
The report credits the Islamic Society of North American, Islamic Circle of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, but makes no mention of their well-documented radical ties and the counterproductive ideologies they espouse.
These organizations have a history of reacting defensively, of crying entrapment when informants help expose plots before they turn violent and even impeding law enforcement investigations. That fact is not analyzed in the report, which casts the groups as a part of the solution.
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