The rise and/or fall of radical Islam

WELLS: So which is it?

David Frum is one of several commentators this morning emphasizing the distinction between the horrible mass murder in Norway and Islamist extremism. [UPDATE: I forgot to link to the article; clumsy of me. Here it is. David is on stronger footing than some of his peers, I should note, because he didn’t spend Friday trying to make any connection between the Norway atrocity and Islam. He actually waited for some evidence.

David then departs from the events of the day to draw a more sweeping conclusion:

“Those guesses [about an Islamist link to Norway] proved wrong, not because Islamists have ceased to wish harm to the West, but because Islamists have lost almost all their ability to coordinate large-scale attacks upon Western countries.

“Individuals may still grab weapons and start shooting, as happened for example at Fort Hood in November 2009. The self-radicalization of young Muslims must remain a serious security concern.

Radical Islamist plotting, however, has been all but vanquished in the Western world.

That last bit kind of jumped out at me, because as I sometimes do these days to my immediate regret, I picked up a copy of Newsweek this week and flipped to Niall Ferguson’s column. Nested in there with Ferguson’s general, post-2008 narrative (he’s pretty sure Barack Obama is a goof) and his immediate argument (he’d like military spending to be exempted from any debt-ceiling-prompted spending restraint) is this paragraph:

“The United States certainly needs to get its fiscal house in order. But any serious analysis of the benefits of defense cuts needs to consider the potential costs of walking away from countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn’t noticed.

If those are the terms of the debate, I’m on Team Frum. (I’m not the only one who got stuck on that paragraph, apparently.) That would be a harder argument to make, of course, if there had been a recent high-profile high-casualty attack in a Western capital by Islamic fundamentalists. And such an atrocity is still a possibility. But it’s actually not much of a possibility. From a column a few months ago by the Ottawa Citizen‘s indispensable Dan Gardner:

“The European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2010 states that in 2009 there were “294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed attacks” in six European countries. This was down almost one-third from the total in 2008 and down by almost one-half from the total in 2007.

“So in most of Europe, there was no terrorism. And where there was terrorism, the trend line pointed down.

“As for who’s responsible, forget Islamists. The overwhelming majority of the attacks- 237 of 294 – were carried out by separatist groups, such as the Basque ETA. A further 40 terrorists schemes were pinned on leftist and/or anarchist terrorists. Rightists were responsible for four attacks. Single-issue groups were behind two attacks, while responsibility for a further 10 was not clear.

“Islamists? They were behind a grand total of one attack. Yes, one. Out of 294 attacks. In a population of half a billion people. To put that in perspective, the same number of attacks was committed by the Comité d’Action Viticole, a French group that wants to stop the importation of foreign wine.”

But since we’re encouraging debate today, I should point out that Michael Coren has different math.

One scholar who’s patiently made the case for the decline of radical Islam is Gilles Kepel, who suffered from some truly lousy timing: his book Jihad, which he wrote precisely to argue that violent attacks were a sign of radical Islamist desperation that were alienating the perpetrators from larger Muslim populations, came out in English translation shortly before 9/11. But arguments like Kepel’s are worth considering.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.