John Tirman

The real threat isn’t from Muslims

By John Tirman
March 10, 2011

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IS IT FAIR to investigate the sources of extremism that may pose a threat to US security? That’s what Republican Representative Peter King of New York is doing this week as he holds hearings to probe the “radicalization’’ of American Muslims.

The hearings are controversial, but the link between extremism and violence is worth exploring. The problem is that King has the spotlight fixed on only one group. There is a tangible threat of extremist terrorism in America, but it is not Muslims we need to wonder about.

The START database on terrorism in America, which tracks all incidents of political violence, shows that most attacks in the last two decades have been on black churches, reproductive rights facilities, government offices, and individual minorities. And those have been committed mainly by right-wing extremists. From 1990 to 2009, START identified 275 “homicide events’’ that killed 520 people and were committed by right-wing ideologues. There were many more incidents of destruction of property, nonfatal attacks, and other acts of thuggery by white supremacists, private militias, and the like.

The last two years have gotten worse, at least in hate speech. “For the second year in a row, the radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,’’ notes the Southern Poverty Law Center in a just-released annual survey. Coupled with economic woes, this growth is “driven by resentment over the changing racial demographics . . . and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and other demonizing propaganda aimed at various minorities.’’

The center lists more than 1,000 hate groups in America, the most in its 20-plus years of keeping watch. And yes, it can happen here: Eight of the 10 groups exposed as hate groups in Massachusetts are right-wing extremists, with the other two black separatists. What about Muslim extremism? There have been arrests of Muslims who appeared to have been planning attacks, most all of them far from realization. But the numbers seem to be increasing.

This uptick is noted in a 2010 study from the global policy think tank RAND. But RAND also states that only “46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism occurred in the United States’’ since 9/11, and that “most of the would-be jihadists were individuals who recruited themselves.’’

But why this self-recruitment?

In virtually every incident attributed to Muslims, one reason for their discontent emerged: The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

King should expand his investigation to the largest sources of extremist violence in America — the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis, and their newer versions — and ask how hate speech and war fuel attacks. Those would be congressional hearings worth listening to.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies.