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Fact Check: Most Terrorism Victims are in Muslim Majority Countries

By far the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks over the past 15 years has been Muslims killed by Muslims

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Long before there was an Islamic State, Muslim jihadists grappled with a nagging conundrum: how to build authentically Islamic states.

While some advocated toppling the near enemy – the so-called atheist regimes and their collaborators — others pushed for striking the far enemy — Western enablers, the United States in particular.

In the 1990s, al-Qaida put the debate to rest by taking the fight to the far enemy, a strategy that culminated in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

As al-Qaida has diminished in power in recent years, though, and given birth to myriad offspring and permutations with often local agendas, including the so-called Islamic State, the near enemy has borne the brunt of the terrorist violence.

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By far the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks over the past 15 years has been Muslims killed by Muslims. In the latest instance, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck a Kurdish wedding in southeastern Turkey on Saturday, killing more than 50 people.

“I understand why the media cover terrorism in the West so closely, and I understand why people who follow these events become so frightened, but objectively speaking the threat of terrorism is not very great,” said Richard Bulliet, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.

In this image taken from a video filmed by the Abu Sayyaf Group and released by the Islamic State extremist group, militants swear allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a ceremony in Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines. Photo Courtesy: International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore
In this image taken from a video filmed by the Abu Sayyaf Group and released by the Islamic State extremist group, militants swear allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a ceremony in Basilan, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines. Photo Courtesy: International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore

Of 167,221 terrorism-related fatalities reported from 2001 to 2015, almost all — 163,532 or 98 percent — occurred outside the United States and Western Europe, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. The U.S. government-funded GTD is the world’s largest public database on terrorist attacks.

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The database does not sort victims by religious affiliation. But GTD data on 25 Muslim-majority countries from Iraq to Malaysia reveal that these countries account for 75 percent of all fatalities from terrorist attacks from that period. The United States and Western Europe, with a combined 3,689 fatalities — including 2,977 from the attacks of September 11, 2001 — account for just 2.2 percent of terrorism-related deaths during the period.

Not all victims of terrorism in Muslim-majority countries are Muslims. In fact, the fatalities have included Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities just as there have been many non-Christians among casualties of terrorism in the U.S. and Western Europe. But it is safe to assume that the majority of victims in Muslim countries are Muslims, according to Michael Jensen, GTD data collection manager.

Driven by more than religion

The GTD data vary wildly from country to country. While Iraq accounts for more than 50,000 fatalities, Malaysia shows only six deaths for the past 15 years.

In many cases, the motive never becomes clear but the discrepancy in terrorism-related fatalities among Muslim countries suggests that “it’s not just religion driving it,” Jensen said. “It has to be something else.”

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Researchers at the Institute for Economics and Peace have combed the GTD data for patterns and identified two features common to countries where terrorism thrives. According to their research, 92 percent of all terrorist attacks in the past 25 years have occurred in countries with widespread state-sponsored political violence, while 88 percent of attacks have occurred in places with violent conflicts.

“The link between these two factors and terrorism is so strong that less than 0.6 percent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror,” the researchers write in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report.

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In most Muslim-majority countries with a significant level of terrorist activity, one or both of these features are present. Iraq may be the most extreme example of a country with a long history of state-sponsored violence and conflict over political authority. At the other end of the spectrum is Egypt, where authoritarian regimes have long sanctioned violence against political opponents.

Categories of targets

Historically, terrorism travels in waves. In the 1960s and 1970s, with wars raging in Vietnam and Algeria and a conflict in Northern Ireland, the epicentre of terrorism was Western Europe and to a lesser extent, the U.S.

In the 1980s, the focal point shifted to Latin America where insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador, and Colombia spawned a wave of terrorism in the region. Since the 1990s, the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa have served as the hotbed of global terrorism, as jihadists, emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, have sought to bring down regional governments.

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GTD’s Jensen said that in Muslim-majority countries, as in most other countries with a history of terrorism, militants often strike three categories of targets: Private citizens and property represent the largest target of terrorist attacks, followed by security forces, and government and diplomatic officials and institutions.

In Afghanistan, “you have a classic example of a progressive expansion of the categories of targets so that you see not only the Taliban but also other groups … progressively have begun to target individuals that they feel are associated with the government,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

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The victims include teachers and bus drivers “so it’s become a much more expansive category in a lot of cases and you see that replicated in other parts of South Asia, in parts of North Africa and in the Horn of Africa,” Rondeaux said.

The violence has involved Islamic State militants killing Kurds in Turkey, Sunni suicide bombers targeting Shiite mosques in Pakistan, Shiite extremists assassinating Sunni religious figures, Taliban bombs killing civilians in Afghanistan, Islamic State suicide bombers blow up Shiite shrines and massacring members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, and Boko Haram militants killing peaceful Muslim worshipers and restaurant guests in Nigeria.

“I think in a majority of cases where Muslims are victims of terrorism, they’re largely targeted not because they’re Muslim but because they’re police officers or soldiers or happen to be in a public place,” said Jensen.

Political motivations

Nevertheless, he said Sunni-Shiite sectarianism “is a big part of it.” Proportionally, Shiites, who make up about 10% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, are killed in increasingly large numbers as Sunni extremists from Iraq to Pakistan target members of a minority sect they view as heretical, according to Bulliet.

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While not all Shiite groups have been targeted by Sunni militants, ‘’it is striking how often in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, you have terrorist outrages that really focused on Shiites,” Bulliet said.

Terrorism. Image source: io9.gizmodo.com
Terrorism. Image source: io9.gizmodo.com

At its core, the violence is part of a broader struggle over power in predominantly Sunni societies where questions over political and religious authority as well as the relationship between religion and modernity longer unsettled decades after European colonial rule and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With Sunnism collapsing as a unifying state institution, Islamists have turned to religion to combat authoritarian regimes, Bulliet said.

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“Sunni Islam… is falling apart drastically, and I think this is the source of a great deal of the violence,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s the problem: If you have an entrenched state, can you get rid of it without violence? If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, then violence becomes the alternative option.” (VOA)

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Triple Talaq Now Banned In India

While most Hindu personal laws have been overhauled and codified over the years, Muslim laws have been left to religious authorities and left largely untouched.

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Indian Muslim women talk while walking through a market in Ahmadabad, India. VOA

India’s government on Wednesday approved an ordinance to implement a top court ruling striking down the Muslim practice that allows men to instantly divorce.

The government decision came after it failed to get approval of Parliament a year after the court ruled that the practice of triple “talaq” violated the constitutional rights of Muslim women.

Most of the 170 million Muslims in India are Sunnis governed by the Muslim Personal Law for family matters and disputes. The laws include allowing men to divorce by simply uttering the Arabic word “talaq,” or divorce, three times — and not necessarily consecutively, but at any time, and by any medium, including telephone, text message or social media post.

Muslim
Triple Talaq continues to plague lives of  women, VOA News

The government will have another six months to get Parliament’s approval for the ordinance to become law. But in the meantime, suspects can be prosecuted using the ordinance.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that nearly 22 countries, including neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, have banned the practice and appealed to the opposition to approve the Muslim Women Protection of Rights on Marriage Bill.

India’s Muslim Law Board had told the court that while they considered the practice wrong, they opposed any court intervention and asked that the matter be left to the community. But several progressive Muslim activists decried the law board’s position.

Muslim
Muslim women hold placards during a protest against a bill passed by India’s lower house of Parliament last week that aims at prosecuting Muslim men who divorce their wives through the “triple talaq,” or instant divorce. VOA

After the Supreme Court verdict, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced a bill criminalizing the practice and it was approved in December by the lower house of Parliament, where his party commands a majority. But it couldn’t get the approval of the upper house, where the opposition controls the majority of seats.

The main opposition Congress party is opposing a three-year prison sentence for the offenders and wants a parliamentary committee to discuss the issue to reach a consensus. It favors a lesser sentence.

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In India, triple talaq has continued with the protection of laws that allow Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities to follow religious laws in matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption. While most Hindu personal laws have been overhauled and codified over the years, Muslim laws have been left to religious authorities and left largely untouched. (VOA)