The following is a guest post from University of California at Berkeley political scientist M. Steven Fish, the author of the recent Oxford University Press book “Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence.”


Contemporary terrorism is disproportionately Islamist. In a recent book I reported that between 1994 and 2008, the world suffered 204 high-casualty terrorist bombings. Islamists were responsible for 125, or 61 percent of these incidents, which accounted for 70 percent of all deaths.

Just as disturbing is the reaction of ordinary Muslims. The torching of Christian churches in Niger by mobs of Muslims angered by Charlie Hebdo’s insults — a week after Islamist militants slaughtered the paper’s editor and other staff in Paris — understandably irks non-Muslims. And rarely are such demonstrations of rage eclipsed by shows of opposition to terrorism. Most Muslims oppose terrorism, but how often do the streets of Casablanca, Istanbul, Islamabad, Dakar, or Jakarta fill with people chanting “Not in Our Name!” after incidents such as that which rocked Paris on Jan. 7-9? And why do many Muslims even in the West express regret rather than revulsion over murder in the name of their faith?

One explanation we can rule out is that Muslims are violent people. Predominantly, Muslim countries average 2.4 murders per annum per 100,000 people, compared to 7.5 in non-Muslim countries. The percentage of the society that is made up of Muslims is an extraordinarily good predictor of a country’s murder rate. More authoritarianism in Muslim countries does not account for the difference. I have found that controlling for political regime in statistical analysis does not change the findings. More Muslims, less homicide.

And yet, we are still left with the terrorism problem.

Some writers explain it in terms of religious doctrine. According to Robert Spencer, the Koran contains ample rationalizations for violence against outsiders.

But the Old Testament does so as well. For example, it reports Joshua’s conquering armies massacring entire captured cities — putting sobbing children to the sword, hanging people on trees and carrying off the plunder and booty — all under God’s orders. In terms of savagery and divine enthusiasm for the slaughter of innocents, the Koran contains nothing analogous to the account in Joshua chapters 10-11.

Another theory, suggested by Satoshi Kanazawa, blames sexual frustration. The promise of sexual bliss in the afterlife for the fighter for the faith is unique to Islam; and polygyny, segregation of the sexes, and normative proscriptions against premarital sex may make young Muslim men particularly prone to violence.

But what little we know about the sex lives of terrorists leaves room for skepticism. In his sample of Islamist terrorists for whom he obtained family status information, Marc Sageman found that most were married men who had children. The top leaders of terrorist organizations, moreover, have been polygynous rock stars in their own earthly communities. For Osama bin Laden, heaven could wait; for Ayman al-Zawahiri, it still can.

Another explanation finds historical rather than scriptural or social cause for terrorism and casts Muslims as bearers of legitimate, age-old grievances. The Crusades, according to Karen Armstrong, are the supreme cause of Muslim resentment.

Yet attributing current-day violence to events that occurred a millennium ago is questionable, especially since the Muslims under Saladin won the wars against the Christian interlopers and retained the Holy Land.

But the truth is, in the contemporary world, Christians won big. And the frustration and humiliation that Muslims now feel as a result can help explain terrorism. That frustration and humiliation is rooted in politics rather than sex and in modern experience rather than deep history. And it has little to do with the Koran.

Let’s consider a few simple facts: Christians drew the boundaries of the states in which most Muslims live. They named those same formations, from “Senegal” to “Jordan” to “Indonesia.” Currently, people in Christian countries make up one-third of the world’s population, while holding two-thirds of its wealth and nine-tenths of its military might.

Now let’s engage in some extravagant futuristic thinking. Imagine that, over the next several decades, Christendom declines. Imperial overstretch cripples the United States, while Western Europe’s gradual decline continues. Lower hydrocarbons prices and rulers’ boundless greed leave Russia in a position of fading sway as well. Latin America’s yawning socioeconomic inequalities persist, producing chronic instability. Plagued by disease, war and weak governance, Christian southern and central Africa are trapped in poverty and turmoil.

As Christendom declines, non-Christian nations rise. China’s economy continues to soar, and China replaces the United States as the world’s most influential country. In an effort to access mineral wealth, expand foreign markets to absorb its exports and resist competition from a declining West, China undertakes a long-term program of investment in the Arab world, Iran and parts of Muslim Africa. The Middle East and Muslim Africa grow in economic power and global political influence.

Turkey and Turkic Muslim Central Asia, spurned by Europe and pressured by Russia, turn south and east. They embrace Chinese tutelage in exchange for investment and security guarantees. Arabs and Persians, many of whom associate Turkish military leadership with the long centuries of caliphal glory, welcome the Turks into the fold.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia move from their medium-high tempo of economic growth to Chinese-style expansion. They assume regional leadership as the Philippines, Thailand and Burma remain mired in chronic political instability. With their Muslim majorities and Chinese minorities, Indonesia and Malaysia embody and bolster ties between China and the Muslim world. Singapore, with its Chinese majority and Malay-Muslim minority, aligns itself with China, Indonesia and Malaysia. In South Asia, India’s rise founders on the rocks of social inequality and bureaucratic torpor, and in any event the country’s influence is counterbalanced by Pakistan and Bangladesh, which enjoy close ties with Muslim countries and with China.

In order to participate successfully in the global economy as well as scholarly discourse and cultural production, Americans, Frenchmen, Brazilians and Russians now must master Mandarin and Modern Standard Arabic — with Turkish and Indonesian strongly recommended. Arab countries easily dismantle the state of Israel. The occasional invasion and occupation of parts of Russia, Southeastern Europe and the Philippines at moments when China or the Muslim countries believe they detect a security threat from those Christian lands becomes part of the rhythm of global politics. Such actions spark outrage in Christendom. But they do not prompt concerted, effective counteractions, since Christian countries no longer have the ability or will to resist.

In fact, many leaders in Europe and the Americas cannot resist financial enticements offered by China and the Muslim states, which help fund electoral campaigns and personal consumption. The lucre cools Western leaders’ passions for resisting what at any rate seem like inexorable trends in world politics.

Would everyone in Christendom accept these developments calmly? Some might not. Disregard for their cultures, languages, forms of government, products, services and security concerns may even ignite a widespread, slow-burning rage. The suspicion that even some of their own leaders were complicit in their countries’ degradation might be the final straw.

The final straw, that is, that broke a healthy human abhorrence of deadly violence against innocents and a normal human capacity for distinguishing between innocents and oppressors. Under such conditions, is it difficult to imagine that some self-proclaimed soldiers of Christianity would lash out by committing terrorist acts? Might not Eric Robert Rudolph of the Christian Identity movement, who carried out the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and a string of other bombings to protest abortion and homosexuality;, and James Charles Kopp, an affiliate of The Lambs of Christ movement who murdered a physician who performed abortions in 1998, turn their ire on those whom they regard as enemies of their country and faith? Is it not possible that Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, might target Muslim overlords rather than the Feds?

And might not some Christians countenance such acts — or even applaud them? The slaughterers just mentioned enjoyed vocal support among some extremist groups as well as quieter, more diffuse sympathy among broader sections of the American population. Rudolph was feted in popular music and lore and shielded by local communities in North Carolina where he hid during his years as a fugitive prior to his 2003 arrest. McVeigh was lionized by some antigovernment extremists and became an object of fascination among many others. In the hypothetical scenario sketched here, isn’t it possible that some Christians would sympathize with terrorism against Muslims and non-Muslims who they regard as collaborators?

True, the peaceable Christian majority might inveigh tirelessly against attacks on innocents. But even these good people might refrain from vigorously condemning the radicals in their midst out of fear of being identified with the oppressors.

The realism or likelihood of our scenario is of little importance. What matters is first, recognizing that it simply flips the power relationship between Christians and Muslims that actually exists in today’s world; and second, pondering what Christians’ reaction to a reversal of fortunes might be.

There is no justification for slaying and maiming innocents. Terrorism can never be justified. But it can be explained.