Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Review of The Missing Martyrs: Terrorism, Institutions and the End of History

The Missing Martyrs: Why there are so few Muslim Terrorists by Charles Kurzman (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.256

I recently finished re-reading The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and I still accept his core argument: history is directional. The contradictions inherent in illiberal regimes, economic systems and ideology inevitably lead to liberal democracy. Fukuyama doesn’t spend much time discussing Islam and Islamism as a possible challenge to liberal democracy because, as he notes, the ‘religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with.’ He goes on to say

Indeed, the Islamic world would seem more vulnerable to liberal ideas in the long run than the reverse, since such liberalism has attracted numerous and powerful Muslim adherents over the past century and a half (p.46).

Later in the book he says that

But now [i.e., in 1991], outside the Islamic world, there appears to be a general consensus that accepts liberal democracy's claims to be the most rational form of government (p.211)

Charles Kurzman’s The Missing Martyrs goes some way into explaining that Fukuyama’s first quoted statement is largely correct and the second statement is, at the very least, too simplistic when it comes to the Middle East in 2013. The rest of this post is a review of three elements of the book I found interesting – one of which speaks to the Fukuyama extracts.

Terrorism: Kurzman’s Mea Culpa

Firstly, his main thesis is that there are an incredibly small amount of Islamist terrorists relative to the number of Muslims. Moreover, there are a small number of supporters of such terrorists. Kurzman has several data points for these two propositions: he starts with quoting upset Al Qaeda statements:

We are most amazed that the community of Islam is still asleep and heedless while its children are being wiped and killed everywhere and its land being diminished every day... Oh, brother in religion, why have quit supporting Islam an its people (p.8-9) - Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

In fact, Al Qaeda planned to carry attacks on the West Coast of the U.S during 9/11 but they ‘could not find qualified people to carry it out’ (p.12). Of course, the most persuasive evidence is simply the numbers: ‘Islamist terrorists have managed to recruit fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past quarter century and fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11’ (p.11). The two people who have read all my posts know that all of the above is music to my ears because it’s something I’ve been saying for a really long time. True, many others have said it but almost no one accepts the implication of such a view:

...the vast majority of Muslims across the Middle East don’t like Al Qaeda. This gives prima facie evidence to the position I’m advocating: if foreign policy is the cause, why do we not see a wide spread response?[1]

I haven’t seen anyone make or accept this argument – until now, and it comes in the form of a mea culpa. Kurzman, back in 2001, was part of the ‘blowback’ brigade. He argued against military action would lead to increased attacks. As it turned out

Johnson [the author of Blowback] was wrong, and so was I. Afghans did not sign up with Al Qaeda... and Muslims around the world did not [violently] protest against the invasion... the overall level of Islamist terrorism remained stable... Islamist groups carried out 60 attacks per moth prior to 9/11 and 43 per month in the following year. Non-Islamist groups carried out a similar number of attacks during the same period (p.143)

The Iraq War produces the same result: there were ‘an average of 47 attack per month in year before the invasion and 44 per month afterward’ (p.144). It was only in 2007 where there was a large jump. Kurzman doesn't go into the reasons for this – but its clear from the data that I’ve previously shown this has very little to do with Western foreign policy. That said, Kurzman is incorrect because he goes too far: he says that terrorism is inelastic (i.e., Western foreign policy is irrelevant). This is far more acceptable than the Greenwaldian blowback nonsense but it is just simply a fact that our military action has reduced violence (see here, here and here).

There are some data points which contradict this argument about the Muslim world shunning terrorists:

[In 2003], in nine Muslim-majority countries, disturbingly large percentages expressed confidence in Bin Ladin [sic] “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”... 55% of Indonesians and Jordanians, 62% of Pakistanis, 77% of Palestinians (p.29)[2]

Greenwald would happily explain that these levels of support are genuine and tell us about foreign policy. The reality is that these results are not genuine expressions of support for Al Qaeda. Kurzman believes that these responses are given as part of rebellious fad of anti-Americanism which he calls ‘radical sheikh’ (a play on Tom Wolfe’s ‘radical chic’ - a similarly rebellious fad of American hipsters expressing support for communist revolution). I’m unconvinced by this because polling shows that only a third state that they sympathise with Al Qaeda’s goal to ‘confront the U.S’ (out of those who have any sympathy with it (p.48)).

A far more persuasive explanation which Kurzman never explicitly states is the proliferation of the conspiracy that Al Qaeda was not behind 9/11 (although he comes close on p.48-9). According to Pew, there is ‘no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks.’ So when they express support in Bin Laden, the vast majority cannot be expressing support in attacks like 9/11. Which is why (as will be outlined below), you find overwhelmingly large majorities in favour of democracy and similar levels of support for civilian attacks as Westerners.

The reason I find this explanation so much more persuasive is because it matches the path of the question that is asked. If you look at the Pew results you will see confidence in Bin Laden going down year on year:

Over time, support for bin Laden has dropped sharply among Muslim publics. Since 2003, the percentage of Muslims voicing confidence in him has declined by 38 points in the Palestinian territories and 33 points in Indonesia. The greatest decline has occurred in Jordan, where 56% of Muslims had confidence in bin Laden in 2003, compared with just 13% in the current poll.

The reasons why it has gone down so radically could be because people started to realise that Al Qaeda meant support for violence – more research is needed into this question. But one thing does remain clear: there is no way to reconcile (i) the decline in support for the ‘confidence in Bin Laden’ proposition and (ii) huge support for regimes which AQ would call apostate governments with any expressed support for Bin Laden – unless you see it as not supporting Bin Laden at all.

Ideology and the End of History

Kurzman shows how the second Fukuyama statement quoted above is overstated:

The World Values Survey and a variety of subsequent polls have asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Democracy may have problems, but its better than any other form of government.” More than three-quarters of Muslims agreed... this included 71% of Saudi citizens, 83% of Palestinians and 85% of Afghans (p.110).

This is should be the first riposte to those who claim that we cannot ‘impose democracy’: it is not an imposition, it is giving the people what they want. In any event, I don’t think it makes any sense to talk of “imposing” choice, its a self-refuting proposition[3]. Kurzman’s claims about how liberal Middle Eastern Muslims are a little harder to accept. He defines ‘liberal Islam’ as the acceptance of ‘key ideals of Western liberal tradition such as democracy, human rights, social equality, tolerance’ (p.95). This is a good definition but he goes to say that these ‘ideals [are approached] from a distinctly Islamic discourse.’

The reason its hard to accept the liberalism of M.E Muslims should be apparent from this result: Gallup found ‘majorities or near majorities in dozens of Muslim societies favouring the implementation of Sharia’ (p.109). The extent to which this is a negative result, of course, depends on the content of ‘Sharia.’ Kurzman believes that Middle East Muslims reconcile their ‘dual ideals of sharia and democracy’ through ‘a combination of political liberalism and cultural conservatism’ (p.117). Kurzman attempts to show this in two ways: first, in practice, people do not choose Islamist governments and secondly, support for Sharia may simply be a ‘symbolic gesture.’

This latter second claim is supported by the following finding: ‘majorities in 13 out of 14 Muslim [countries] agreed’ with the statement that ‘religion is a matter of personal faith and should be kept separate from government policy’ (p.110). However, unlike the Bin Laden result, we have reasons for thinking this is not merely symbolic but translates to actual support for Islamist policies. The latest Pew data finds that 40% or more of most Middle East countries want Sharia applied to non-Muslims; there are majorities in support of barbaric penalties like amputations; there is anywhere between 44% and 84% support for stoning for adultery (of those who want Sharia to be the law – which also constitutes a majority); between 29% and 86% support for the death penalty for apostasy. This is not liberalism ‘approached through a distinctly Islamic discourse’ – this is a clear manifestation of illiberalism.

It’s not all bad, of course, most Muslims ‘also embrace specific features of a democratic system, such as competitive elections and free speech.’  Moreover, a majority Muslims in the Middle East do support ‘equal education for boys and girls [and] women having the right to decide whether to wear the veil’ and state that ‘women should be allowed to vote, hold cabinet level positions and work outside the home’ (p.116). But again, it is a stretch to state that the ‘conservatism’ of Middle East Muslims does not ‘translate into illiberal policies’ (p.116).

Taking Kurzman’s first claim about Islamists losing elections: historically, it does seem to be correct (bearing in mind this book was published in 2011):

in more than 80 election in Muslims societies over the past generation, Islamic parties do worse in the freest election than the non-freest. Overall, most Islamic parties won less than 15% of seats, and only once has an Islamic party won an outright majority.

This should show that the idea that Arabs or Muslims are hostile to democracy/non-Islamist parties is utter nonsense. However the trend has not been followed since 2011. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour parties won 70% of all seats; in Tunisia a relatively liberal Islamist party won 41% of the vote and in Libya another relatively liberal Islamist part won 48.8% of the vote. I am not suggesting that all Islamist parties are the same but they are certainly not the kind of human rights-respecting parties that would garner seats in this country.

There are many non-ideological explanations for this: civil society in these countries has not been allowed to flourish whereas religious groups have giving them an organisational headstart. Polls carried out between August 2011 and June 2012 showed between 51% and 56% preferred a democratic-civil state rather than an Islamic state – but this didn’t align with the results of the election. But organisationally: Islamist parties have four times as many active members and more than double the amount of campaign volunteers (source).

But it would be wrong, given the results shown above about support of illiberal policies, to suggest this is entirely about non-ideological factors. Over time, however, this will change – we are seeing the pangs of refusing to have liberal democracy subverted in Egypt. Where Islamist come into power, they will fail (a July 2013 poll found that 73% thought that Morsi didn’t make a ‘single good decision’; 82% support the military’s ousting of Morsi)[4]. It is also encouraging that less Islamist parties have won in Tunisia and Libya[5].    

To summarise: From the survey of the polling, it does appear that the Muslim world has accepted democracy. But it is a stretch to say that there is an acceptance of political liberalism. There are encouraging levels of support for selective forms of free speech, limited personal freedoms and pluralism – but the thing about liberalism is that it cannot be selective. The barbarity of punishments, gender discrimination and religious involvement speaks to the conflict of political liberalism and Sharia rather than reconciliation between the two.

This is not to suggest that the Muslim world will not change – I think it will, particularly as civil society (on which, see below) and free speech grows. History is directional and the contradictions in a non-liberal democracy will manifest themselves – this is just a fact that is inherent in the superiority of liberal democracy. There are problems in overstating the liberalism (as Kurzman does) and illiberalism (as many on the right do) in Muslim countries but one fact should encourage us all: Arab spring ‘crowds were much larger than the ones that have formed in the past few days [protesting the anti-Islam film in 2012].’


This section has nothing to do with the book but its interesting to ask why Middle Eastern countries haven’t democratised despite having populations which explicitly endorse democracy. I am not talking here about the causes of revolution – I have stated my opinion on that before: the socio-economic, cultural explanations of revolution (and crime and terrorism) almost always fail. In fact, Brownlee, Masoud and Reynolds (2013) find in their statistical study that ‘there were no structural preconditions for the emergence of [the Arab] uprisings.’ I am instead asking: why, given that the people endorse democracy, have they not had their way? The answer is a mixture of brute force (which oil-states can fund), hereditary monarchies (who have a lot of loyalty) and, most importantly, an anti-democratic institutional framework.

There are two studies which show exactly how the institutional framework severely impedes successful democracy despite the wishes of its people. Kuran (2013) builds on his work on Islamic economic institutions (reviewed on this blog here) and shows how Islamic institutions (not people or culture) have inhibited the rise of a civil society. The most significant of these is the waqf – this is an institution which provides public services (like schools and water). This was a form of trust which was funded by a private individual’s assets. It allowed the individual to protect their assets without giving it to the government.

As Kuran states, ‘the waqf served as the delivery vehicle for functions met in the West generally through corporations’ (p.400). The reason the waqf matters is because a waqf could not participate in politics, could not align with other waqfs and was not accountable to its users. Compare this with a corporation which can take part in politics and was accountable to its customers and its stakeholders. And the absence of the corporation matters:

Democratic rights got established because of epic struggles driven by groups organized, usually as corporations, within universities, as cities, as religious orders, as unions, or as merchant associations. Such groups demanded rights. They articulated requests. They developed blueprints for alternative orders. They stimulated intellectual life. (p.401)

Hence this absence of the corporation as an institution left ‘the Islamic world without politically influential social structures situated between the individual and the state’ (p.402). Chaney (2012) provides another institution which impeded the growth of civil society: the use of slave armies in Islamic conquests. The use of ‘these slave armies allowed rulers to achieve independence from local military and civilian groups’ (p.12). The only check that formed on this ruler (backed by his slave armies) was religious associations but both these groups ‘worked to resist the emergence of rival centers of political power such as merchant guilds that could have facilitated institutional change’ (p.12).[6]

The use of slave armies explains different results in different countries which were invaded by Muslim armies: slave armies were not used in India and the Balkans and hence a dual effect that (i) the ruler would have to cooperate with the existing groups with the effect that (ii) wholesale institutional importation could not be carried out. Both of these allow for strong civil society to arise. (Chaney’s paper is excellent because he provides statistical support his argument against other explanations of democratic deficit).

These historical Islamic institutions explain why civil society is so weak – even today. This does not mean that widespread protests cannot occur – it simply means that the citizenry are organisationally weak. It means that even when you have support for democracy across the population, institutional reform is difficult. It is with this institutional framework in mind that one should read Sheri Berman’s article in Foreign Affairs:

The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies...

One of the best ways to help foster civil society is help create these groups. According to the New York Times, this is exactly what the U.S did in the run up to the Arab Spring. As they note, ‘the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.’


Aside from the shortfall mentioned above, there are several other shortfalls. Firstly, a general theme of Kurzman’s book: he seeks to underplay the good that Western military action can do. In explaining the low levels of Islamist terrorists, part of his explanation involves Muslim pushback and ‘symbolic support’ (which is explained above). That is undoubtedly true: but this small group of terrorists can be eliminated. In fact, even he notes that since the liberation of Afghanistan ‘the scale of terrorist training has dropped by 90 percent’ (p.12). The same has happened in Pakistan where Al Qaeda has been decimated[7] – and the whole host of other examples I’ve given in the past.

As I’ve shown above, Kurzman has a tendency to overstate the liberalism of Middle East Muslims. Rather more surprisingly, he has a tendency to overstate that extent to which terrorist organisations are willing to change their behaviour. He does this generally:

Most of these [terrorist] organisations abandoned revolutionary violence a generation ago and now run candidates in parliamentary elections, with platforms that pledge allegiance to democracy and limit jihad to peaceful definition (aside from destroying Israel) (p.42-3).

I laughed at the end of that sentence – I particularly liked that he put it in brackets. He also does the same thing more specifically to Hamas and the Taliban. He points to the fact that Hamas leaders signed a statement which ‘condemn[ed] in the strongest terms the incidents [i.e., 9/11] which are against all human and Islamic norms’ (p.43). I didn’t know about this but I think its (i) selective because Hamas praised Bin Laden (and the chances of this being symbolic are slim because it happened in 2011) and (ii) irrelevant because it carries out terror attacks. True Hamas endorses nationalism whereas Al Qaeda is globalist but that is about it.

On the Taliban, I find Kurzman more egregious. Kurzman claims that ‘the Taliban leadership remained dubious [first] of al-Qaida’s global aspirations and [secondly of] killing of civilians’ (p.79). His evidence that the Taliban doesn’t like to kill civilians? Mullah Omar’s orders which says that they should not ‘cause death and injury to innocent people.’ Lets ignore that we shouldn’t take a terrorist organisation’s word especially when they have a history in massacring innocents – the order is meant for public consumption. If you look at orders Mullah Omar gives in private, you’ll see he approves of the massacre of innocents. Article 10 of a 2009 order allows Taliban terrorists to kill hostages who are not just soldiers but “government workers” but even this says that care should be taken not to harm “local people” (Article 41). But then came a 2010 Order which was not intended for public consumption and it stated

2. Capture and kill any Afghan who is supporting and/or working for coalition forces or the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
3. Capture and kill any Afghan women who are helping or providing information to coalition forces

These people are civilians – even the “informers” are civilians who are merely helping their democratic government. Note that it allows for the killing of anyone who ‘supports’ the government – a government that was democratically elected that polls show have an extraordinary amount of support. Both claims about the Taliban are shown to be incorrect by the fact that Taliban had a camp to train suicide bombers to be dispatched to the West. The cooperation between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is such that a Taliban spokesperson stated that

They [al Qaeda] are among the first groups and banners that pledged allegiance to the Emir of the Believers [Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban], and they operate in Afghanistan under the flag of the Islamic Emirate

The Taliban have refused to denounce Al Qaeda – and so to say they don’t have global aspirations is misleading (see here, here, here, here). They will allow the Taliban to operate and help them in their global endeavours to attack the West. The Taliban’s primary goal is to remove the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and the coalition forces but given their material support for Al Qaeda that really shouldn’t matter.

Finally, a shortfall is his view that ‘Muslim liberals suffer the second hand smoke of American foreign policy’ (p.156) because association with America leads to them being targeted. He therefore praises the Obama administration’s ‘restraint’ and ‘hands off approach’ during the 2009 Iranian elections (p.158-9). I’ve always thought this view of what Obama did has been somewhat overstated (see this fact check of Romney’s claim that Obama was ‘silent’) but in any event assuming he was muted, his silence was regretted not just by Iranian reformists (which he admits on p.159) but also the Obama administration itself (see this New York Times report). Either Obama spoke out in which case its a bad example or he didn’t speak out and it turned out to be wrong choice because everyone regretted it. And even then, regardless of which one is right, the Iranians condemned the U.S anyway (i.e., it led to the result that Kurzman wanted to avoid). More generally I think his approach is wrong because of the New York Times report quoted above about the U.S having an important role in civil society organisations and the Arab spring.

Despite the negatives I’ve listed, this really is a good book. I don’t think there’s been a more interesting book on terrorism in a very long time. I have a couple of other gripes but this post is already long enough. Merry Christmas!