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Despite Attention, Sociology Professor Says Violent Extremism Is Relatively Rare


We've been following the latest news from London, and we also just heard a discussion about whether the news reporting on attacks like the recent ones in the U.K. and elsewhere is in line with what analysts and scholars are saying about terrorism. We wanted to talk more about that, so we called Charles Kurzman.

He's a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among his many research interests is Muslim-American involvement with violent extremism. We reached him at his home office in Chapel Hill. Professor Kurzman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHARLES KURZMAN: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So recognizing that we don't know all the details about this latest attack, you know, who the attackers are, what their personal stories are, how do you think we should be thinking about these incidents?

And it seems as though the discussions recently fall along different lines. There's the loser theory. You know, these were marginalized individuals. They don't fit into society. They're acting out. And then there's the soldier theory that these are people who see themselves as kind of a part of a worldwide army. You know, based on your reporting, what do you think is true?

KURZMAN: Yeah. My research suggests that it's some sort of combination that you have a variety of linked revolutionary movements. They want to make an Islamic revolution, and they're trying to recruit anybody they can. Now, the folks who respond to that call are a variety of types with social backgrounds of all sorts. The key thing to remember is that they're just aren't that many of them, fortunately.

So we have an attack it appears, like yesterday's attack in London. We've had, you know - every month it appears there's something somewhere. But out of more than a billion Muslims in the world, there yield from this propaganda effort to going - trying to get people to pick up arms on behalf of this revolutionary movement, it's very, very low.

MARTIN: You know, to that point, I mean, there was a horrific bomb attack in Kabul, you know, last week and another one yesterday. And a number of people, you know, people tweeting us, people responding on social media, you know, have made the point that those tend to not get as much attention in the West as the things that happen, you know, in the West. Should we think of these as all of a piece?

KURZMAN: Some of them say that they're linked with one another in some sort of global revolutionary movement, and others are more focused on the national or even a very local situation. If you look globally at the data on terrorism around the world, a large bulk of it is in a handful of civil war zones.

That would be - include Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would include Syria and Iraq, a couple other countries that seem to be getting the bulk of this terrorism. And yet in the West, it's fortunately - is not all that common. It's not one of the leading causes of death here in the United States or in Western Europe.

MARTIN: Well, indeed, in one of your monographs, you wrote that in 2016 Americans were less likely to be killed by Muslim extremists than for being Muslim. How would you wish us to respond to another event like this which will surely come?

KURZMAN: I think our response needs to be to put this in perspective, that this is relatively rare. It's totally unfortunate, and I'm not excusing this violence in any sense, but our resilience requires us not to overreact. So one frame for thinking about this is data from the World Health Organization that around the world there are 750,000 murders each year, approximately.

Of those, violent extremism accounts for a very small proportion. Here in the United States, we have about 15,000 murders a year, and of those, a tiny proportion are from violent extremism. So when we focus just on that tiny proportion, even if we were to bring that down to zero, which we can unfortunately never count on doing, it's not going to make a huge dent in the threat to public safety that we experience each year.

MARTIN: That's Charles Kurzman. He's a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. And you may know his work for his annual report on Muslim-American involvement with violent extremism. Professor Kurzman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KURZMAN: Thanks very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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