Islam is the largest growing religion in the world, projected to surpass Christianity by the end of the 21st century, but with the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups, Muslims receive a large amount of negative media attention. However, many in America know very little about Islam.
There are over 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, which is roughly 24% of the global population, but only 20% of Muslims live in Arab countries. According to the 2010 census and Pew Research data from 2017, three and a half million Muslims call America home. Of those, 2.15 million are adults, out of which 58% are immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
The impact of the Islamic State has had very divisive effects on Muslims. Nearly 68% of those who identify as Republican view Islam as incompatible with American society versus 37% of Democrats. Additionally, 65% of Republicans (30% Democrats) believe there is a conflict between Islam and democracy.
Is there any truth to these claims, or is it strictly political manuevering to instill fear in the uninformed? According to a 2013 Pew poll, it’s a bit of both. The deeper answer lies in where the question is asked. Muslims from South Asia vastly approve of a move to institute Sharia law across the land with 84% in support. Muslims in Sub-Sahara Africa (63%), Middle East-North Africa (74%), and Southeastern Asia (74%) also would support a Sharia government. However, others living in Southern and Eastern Europe (18%) and Central Asia (8%) endorse Sharia. Support for Sharia is mostly a regional preference, with 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan and 91% of Iraqis in favor, but in Turkey, only 12% support Sharia as national law and 8% of Muslims in Azerbaijan are also in support.
Regardless of where they stand on Sharia being the official law of their respective countries, the majority median global population of Muslims believe Sharia should only apply to Muslims. There are variances by country, where 74% of Egyptian Muslims are in support of Sharia as official law, and 55% of all Egyptian Muslims believe Sharia should apply to people of all faiths. In many regions, Muslims believe Sharia should only extend to family and property and reject the implementation of stricter punishments for adultery or theft, called hudud.
The majority of Muslims agree that suicide bombings and attacks on civilians are never or very rarely justified, including 92% in Indonesia and 91% in Iraq. Similarly, a 2011 survey found that 86% of American Muslims believe that these actions are never or very rarely justified. In a few countries, some Muslims consider violent acts to be at least sometimes necessary (40% Palestinian, 39% Afghani, 29% Egyptian, and 26% Bengali), but in almost all cases, countries with large or majority Muslim populations say they are just as concerned as the West about Islamic extremism. Two-thirds of Nigerians and Lebanese say they are very concerned with the rise of ISIS.
In America, 75% of Muslims believe there is discimination against Muslims, and 68% are worried about policies enacted by Donald Trump. Half of Muslims living in the US believe being a Muslim has become more difficult. Despite this, 92% are proud to be American and 80% are satisfied with their lives. The majority believe that most Americans are friendly towards Muslims and that with hard work they can get ahead in life. Compared to the rest of the Muslim world where 95% say they are friends almost exclusively with Muslims, only 36% of Muslim Americans say their only friends are Muslim.
On average, Muslims in America lean more towards the Democratic party (66%) than the Republican party (13%), and many prefer a larger government that provides more services than a smaller government with fewer services (67% and 25%, respectively). Muslims who believe homosexuality should be accepted in society is up from 27% in 2007 and 39% in 2011 to 52% in 2017.
With the US Government restricting immigration and travel from seven Muslim countries, how much safer have we become since Trump took office? The Government Accountability Office released a major report in April 2017 that tracked far-right and Islamic terrorism activities between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016. During this time, there were 23 fatal Islam-inspired extremist attacks that resulted in a total of 119 deaths in the United States. In the same time, there were 62 fatal far-right extremist attacks, leading to 106 deaths.
Only two events account for more than half of the 119 death resulting from Islamic extremism: the December 2015 San Bernardino attack which killed 14, and the June 2016 Pulse night club attack in Orland, Florida, which killed 49.
According to the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), there were 31 fatal Islamic extremist attacks, leading to 119 deaths and 89 far-right extremist attacks resulting in 158 deaths between September 12, 2001 and December 2016. Both data sources agree that far-right extremist attacks are far more common, but they differ on the total number of deaths, with one source concluding that Muslim extremist violence has killed slightly more people (119 deaths, as opposed to 106), and another concluding that far-right extremist violence has killed significantly more (158 deaths, as opposed to 119).
The study by START also shows that Islamic extremists killed seven times more people than far-right extremists between 1990 and 2016 despite five times fewer fatal attacks. This, however, includes the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks of September 11, the two deadliest terror incidents in American history. When those two outliers are removed, the far-right extremist violece caused 272 deaths between 1990 and 2016, more than twice as many of the 130 deaths from Islamic extremism during the same period.
Dr. Charles Kurzman, Sociology professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote a report on Muslim American involvement in Islamic extremism published in January 2018. In it, he writes that only 33 Muslim Americans were associated with Islamic extremism in 2017, a 25% drop from 2016, but higher than the average since 2001 (28 per year for 16 years, a total of 456). Of these, half traveled or attempted to travel to join groups overseas. Fourteen were associated with targets within the United States and two had unknown targets.
According to his report, three people shot at civilians with a rifle, one ran over pedetrians with a rented truck, and one attempted the first suicide bombing by a Muslim American, using a homemade bomb. In total, the attacks killed 17 people and injured 20. All suspects were arrested. These attacks brought the total death toll to 140 since September 11, 2001. Over the same 16 year period, there have been 260,000 murders in the United States with 267 killed in mass shootings in 2017 alone. Twice as many Americans have been killed in 2017 in mass shootings than by Muslim-American extremists in the last 16 years.
In 2015, the number of Muslim Americans linked to extremism peaked due to the rise of ISIS and quickly declined shortly after. The number for 2017 continue this trend, despite Trump claiming that the Obama administration had failed to solve the problem of terrorism and that he would. During his 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised, “The support networks for Radical Islam in this country will be stripped out and removed one by one. One of my first acts as President will be to establish a Commission on Radical Islam … to identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of Radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.”
None of this happened — there was no Commission established, terrorism has not been “solved”, and the government has not uncovered any terrorist networks within the United States. Few attacks were carried out by more than a handful of people and the larger attacks were stopped before they could take place. The average number of Muslim Americans involved in each plot has dropped from 3.7 in 2009 to 1.7 in each year since 2010. No plots have involved more than three Americans, and even though some conspired with groups overseas, there have been no networks exposed within our borders.
President Trump enacted legislation banning people from seven countries from entering the United States as part of his counterterrorism initiative. In 2017, there were no attacks of any kind from any person with a background from any of the countries listed on the travel ban. Since 9/11, violent extremists with family backgrounds in those countries have caused zero fatalities and 32 injuries. These accounted for 21% of Muslim Americans involved with extremism since 9/11, out of which half were Somali. Among plots directed at targets in the United States, only 7% had ties to the travel ban countries. The latest data available shows that 518,386 people from the travel ban countries immigrated to the United States between 2005 and 2015; only .02% have been associated in any way with extremism.
Trump banned Syrian refugees from the Syrian war from entering the United States out of fears of extremism, but of the 21,060 refugees admitted since 2011, none have been linked to extremism. This shows that the vetting process established by previous administrations that Trump claimed allowed “uncontrolled entry” has actually been effective at preventing extremists from enterning the country.
In October 2015, FBI director James Comey said there were “ISIS investigations in all 50 states, over 900 of them”, but the number of indictments or acts of extremism were less than 5% of those reported by Comey. Still, then-Candidate Donald Trump falsely claimed after the Orlando shooting that there are “thousands of shooters like this with the same mentality and we’re bringing thousands and thousands into our country.”
Sixty-five Americans have been identified as having traveled to ISIS controlled areas of the Middle East since 2011. Of those, 27 died overseas; seven are in US custody, including two who defected from ISIS, and 31 may still be living in ISIS territory. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, 20% of Muslim-Americans are converts who did not grow up in Muslim households. Among Muslim Americans involved with violent extremism since 9/11, converts constitute a higher proportion, 36 percent. This suggests that generational conflict within Muslim immigrant families is not generating a disproportionate level of violent extremism. In sum, it is not accurate to suggest that Muslim-American violent extremists have a distinct demographic profile. This confirms the conclusion of previous studies and of law enforcement agencies. Violent extremists, FBI director Comey testified to Congress in 2014, “do not share a typical profile; their experiences and motives are often distinct.”
In addition, it is worth noting that several dozen cases per year does not represent a “rich recruiting pool.” The annual average (27 cases) is fewer than one in 100,000 of the estimated 3.5 million Muslims in the US, and fewer than one in 10,000 young adult male Muslims. It is also important to note that 7% of Muslim Americans who have engaged in extremist activities since 2001 had been diagnosed with mental illness prior to their arrest or death. Another 2% may have suffered mental illness but were not diagnosed.
Perhaps that most significant number is, in America, you’re less likely to be killed by a Muslim extremist (1 in 6 million) than be killed for being Muslim (1 in 1 million).
When it comes to extremist violence perpetrated by refugees, the numbers are unequivocal. In the four decades between 1975 and 2015, only 20 individuals who arrived in the U.S. as refugees either attempted or carried out a terrorist attack – resulting in three deaths. And, of most relevance to President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration ban, all three of those killings were perpetrated by anti-Castro refugees.
Not a single death has resulted from terrorist activity by a Muslim extremist refugee.