Dispelling the myths: Is Islam the biggest cause of terrorism?

Anybody who’s heard of a far-right anti-immigration party or listened to a speech by Sam Harris will be aware that Islam gets a lot of criticism for its apparently inherent terrorist qualities. While the specifics of these Islamophobic arguments vary wildly, as do the motivations of the speaker for saying them, the broadly shared notion is that Islam is disproportionately responsible for terrorist atrocities around the globe. Chances are (these individuals and groups claim) if you hear about a terror attack, in all likelihood it was either justified by Islam or committed by a Muslim.

Of course, very few claim that all Muslims are potential terrorists, but the general point is that Islam is incompatible or hostile to the ‘Western’ way of life, as proven by terror attacks. They don’t like our morals, they can’t integrate into our culture, and they have a propensity to express their discontent though violence. Some even go as far to call Muslims uncivilized, then quickly insist there’s no racial element to their statements.

A gross mischaracterization of 1.6 billion people by any standards, but it’s increasingly become a talking point among intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum.

Singular events like 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, and the Times Square car-bomb attempt always provoke outrage and condemnation of the Muslim faith, and ‘terrorism’ has so often become synonymous with ‘Islamic extremism’, even though the most Islamophobic and hawkish among us surely recognize that terrorism is not a solely Islamic phenomenon.

So purely based on numbers, this blogpost is an attempt to dispel the notion that Islam has a monopoly on violence, that Muslims are inherently ‘savage’, and that Islam is always somewhere close-by when civilians have been targeted.

Examining every single terrorist act across the globe would be an exhaustive attempt, so instead the results here are based on terrorist incidents in the U.S. and UK, followed by a qualitative explanation of terrorist atrocities committed in the Middle East. The results, I hope you’ll agree, are quite unprecedented and seem at odds with the media narrative that we are so often fed.

Terrorism in the U.S.

Finding reliable and independent resources which document the motivations for terrorism in the U.S. is quite difficult, so I have taken my cue from two sources: One, an FBI report which details the motivations for terrorist atrocities committed on U.S. soil from the period 1980-2005, and two, just a Wikipedia page which lists terrorist incidents by year. Here are the collated results:

The cause of each terrorist incident on U.S. soil from 1980 - 2014 (The “Other” category consists of: miscellaneous, unsolved or individual acts (92.5%), Croatian separatists (1.7%), Colombian terrorism (1.1%), Haitian terrorism (1.1%), Christian terrorism (0.8%), Iranian revolutionaries (0.8%), Libyan revolutionaries (0.5%), anti-Semitic terrorism (0.5%), anti-Islamic terrorism (0.2%), anti-Nazi terrorism (0.2%), Italian fascists (0.2%), anti-nuclear energy terrorism (0.2%) and Sierra Leonean terrorism (0.2%))

So based purely on numbers, Puerto Rican political groups have been responsible for the most terrorism on U.S. soil. Islam comes in 8th. What’s even more interesting about these results is that of the 343 incidents included, only 36 had religious motivations. That means that terrorism committed on U.S. soil has an overwhelmingly political source, not a religious one, with environmental groups and animal welfare groups taking the silver and bronze medals for terror.

That means environmental groups have been responsible for more terror than Muslims, Jews and Christians combined, even though a lot of Christian incidents also come under the ‘white supremacy’ category. Given these results and these results alone, Communist groups pose a bigger threat to the U.S. than Muslims do, that is to say, not a very big one.

But of course, these numbers are by no means the full story. For one, they do not take into account death tolls, and one would be right to argue that the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001 and the Iranian Free Army pipe bombing of 1980 are not comparable. One killed nearly three-thousand people, the other killed two.

And admittedly, since 1980 the two deadliest terrorist attacks have been motivated by Islamic extremism, while the Oklahoma City bombing takes a grisly third place. For individual acts, Islamic extremism is the most deadly. That is unless one adds up each incident’s death toll by each group, in which case the Puerto Rican separatist group Ejercito Popular Boricua Macheteros takes second place behind Al-Qaeda.

Perform a nationwide survey of which groups pose the biggest threat to the U.S., and I doubt very much environmental groups, Communist groups, or Puerto Rican separatists will take the top spot. I doubt they’ll make the list at all, and yet collectively they’ve been responsible for nearly half of all terrorist incidents in the U.S. for the last 35 years.

Tumblr user ‘kb-saransar‘ used a different data set and found strikingly similar results:

According to the FBI, there have been 129 confirmed white Christian terrorists in the last 20 years. That includes Timothy McVae, the uni-bomber, the Atlanta Olympics bomber and dozens of family planning centers and abortion clinics. Muslims? 19. Which would make white people the most likely demographic to commit a terrorist attack.

Indeed, no matter what statistics one gathers up, Muslims always account for a relatively small number. Washington’s Blog took a different, bigger data source for this issue, and their numbers show that only 2.5% of U.S. terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2012 were carried out by Muslims.

So much for the Islamification of America.

Terrorism in the UK.

For UK terrorism, I’ve used the Global Terrorism Database. I would have used this for the U.S. too, but the FBI database is always preferable to a second-hand source, no matter how reliable that source may be. The results are as follows:

UK terrorist incidents 1980-2013

(The “Other” category consists of: miscellaneous, unsolved or individual acts (45%), Palestinian terrorism (10%), Armenian terrorism (10%), Communist terrorism (10%), black militancy (7.5%), the English Defense League (2.5%), Sikh separatists (2.5%), Iranian exiles (2.5%), Jammu and Kashmir separatists (2.5%), and Jewish terrorism (2.5%))

Before it’s suggested that terrorism in Northern Ireland somehow doesn’t count, remember that N. Ireland is British territory and therefore classed as UK soil. Discounting The Troubles is akin to moving the goalposts, and won’t help the argument anyway: Even if one ignores the incidents that took place in N. Ireland, Islam still doesn’t come close to taking the terrorist top spot.

Again, this chart does not factor in death tolls, but even if it did, Irish groups like the IRA would still take first place, given the repeated nature of their attacks. In fact, religious terrorism only accounts for 17 of the total 347 incidents included in this chart, 16 of which were motivated by Islam, 1 motivated by Judaism. The rest are political in one way or another, so long as one classes incidents in N. Ireland as having a chiefly political motivation, not a religious one. That is subject to some debate, but the underlying point is that Islam doesn’t even come close to a regularly-cited motivation for terror.

But what about terrorism in the Middle East?

It wouldn’t be right to have a discussion about the origins and motivations for terrorism without examining the Middle East, given that it’s one of the most volatile regions on the planet, or, at the very least, that’s the image we’re spoon-fed.

To examine why there’s so much terrorism in the Middle East could be an intellectually exhausting exercise. After all, the causes of any political or religious violence have many roots and many knock-on consequences, and we’d be doing a disservice to the discussion if we didn’t examine the regional and even national politics of each Middle Eastern nation, from Saudi Arabia to Israel, to see what’s gone on in the past.

As I say, that would be a lengthy exercise more worthy of a book form than a blogpost form, so instead I think the best route is to examine the immediate chief motivation for an act, under the two broad categories we’ve discussed previously: Political motivations for terror, and religious motivations for terror.

To properly categorize a terrorist incident, one needs to know the chief motivation. If an Evangelical Christian assaults an animal testing centre, is it because of their political beliefs in animal welfare, or their religious beliefs in protecting God’s creatures, or is it a combination of the two?

After all, if the person in question just happened to be a Christian whilst assaulting the testing centre, the incident cannot really be proof that Christian terrorism is on the rise, or some such thing. The religious beliefs of any given terrorist surely must not be ignored, but nor must they be automatically sited as the main motivation for whatever crime was committed.

With that in mind, consider the quintessential form of terror so often talked about in the Middle East: Suicide bombings, which, according to different studies, amount to about half of all deaths caused by terrorism. While suicide bombing is by no means a Middle Eastern phenomenon (Kamikaze pilots, Tamil Tigers), it seems to have formed an integral part of the fighting between different groups, and was certainly a recurring theme during the illegal American-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Palestinian militants employ this tactic out of desperation too.

So consider this, from the Electronic Intifada:

[Hezbollah and Hamas] directed attacks [which] succeeded in compelling U.S. and French troops to leave Lebanon in 1983. They also prompted Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985 and quit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995. The Tamil Tigers succeeded in winning major concessions from the Sri Lankan government from 1990 onward using this tactic.

So successive invasions or colonial forces have been removed through the use of violence. Justified or not, it seems to work. And indeed, University of Chicago’s Robert Papp’s research shows that suicide bombing has been overwhelmingly politically motivated in the Middle East, not religiously motivated. Hezbollah, Hamas, and The Tamil Tigers (who are actually opposed to religion) have not enacted violence against their enemies because of religious motivations (although these can legitimize or bolster the cause), but because of what they see as oppressive regimes interfering in their affairs.

However unjustified the use of violence against civilians is, it seems to achieve limited political goals. Indeed, the University of Chicago’s Robert Papp has conducted research which shows that suicide bombings are so often committed because of an on-going political situation, such as an invading Western force, a greedy and corrupt central bureaucracy, or oppressive and authoritarian regimes. Indeed, suicide bombings in Iraq only sky-rocketed in number once coalition troops arrived to topple Saddam.

A more contemporary example than the Iraq would perhaps be the Obama administration’s ‘Disposition Matrix’, an extra-judicial assassination programme used to neutralize perceived threats and terror suspects without the need of extractions or lengthy trials. Data shows that this drone strike programme has killed anywhere between 546-1105 civilians since 2004, in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Of course, it would be deliberately misleading to dismiss any presence of Islam in these attacks, and indeed, faith can bolster and give further justification for heinous acts against civilians, but Islamic terrorism is not a spontaneous phenomenon with no political background – Muslims do not just wake up one day and decide to make a car bomb. There is no “terrorism gene”.

On any account, terrorist attacks committed by Muslims for Islamic reasons don’t even make up 10% of all terrorist incidents on U.S. and UK soil. As for the Middle East, there is evidence to show that much terrorist activity is done out of political concerns and not religious motivations. It would be interesting to see what would happen to terrorism if constant Western interventions in the Middle East ceased. Given the data and qualitative research above, it is hard to ignore evidence which suggests that a majority of Muslim suicide bombers just happen to be Muslim while carrying out their terrorist actions.

The verdict: Terrorism is an overwhelmingly political, not religious, phenomenon, and is usually carried out by non-Muslim terrorist groups.


7 thoughts on “Dispelling the myths: Is Islam the biggest cause of terrorism?

  1. You are ignoring the fact that 54% of all terrorist attacks since 1970 have been perpetrated by groups with a religious fundamentalist ideology, 99% of that being Islamic. Since 2010, there have been over 54,000 terrorist attacks by Islamic groups.

    Since the 2000s the Middle East and North African region along with South Asia region have accounted for 80% of the worlds terrorist attacks. These regions include such nations as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.


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  5. Yeah, nice try…

    You limited your study to the US and the UK and you took a time period for most of which there was no significant Muslim presence in western countries – from 1980 – 2000, there were few Islamic terrorist attacks in the West, though I personally remember the Palestinian attack on the Olympic Games in Munich, a unique event, as no one else had ever had the extremely bad taste of attacking the ONE event that stood for peace and harmony.

    During that period, the IRA was indeed still very active, but the entire Irish terrorism was a very brief period of history, compared to the 1400 years for which Islam has terrorized the world.

    To know how many terrorist acts Muslims are committing NOW, throughout the world, is the only relevant number. To the potential victims on the TGV, yesterday, it’s pretty irrelevant if the IRA was a bigger threat, in the UK, in the 1980s.

    You could look up terrorist acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam on the Relgion of Peace index, which lists each incident since 9/11, with date, location, description and number of victims.

    The current total, today, is 26’727.

    Yes, that’s right, there have been an average of more than 5 Islamic terrorist attacks PER DAY for the last 14 years!


    The number of Muslims in the world has risen exponentially and so has their extremism.

    Did you think to include the terror by Pakistani rape gangs in the UK? I guess you’ve heard of Rotherham, the tip of the iceberg – 1’400 children were abused by Muslims in their “sex jihad”. Continuously, over years!

    Now Muslims are doing the same to Yazidi, Kurdish and Assyrian children in Iraq and Syria. Every evil act committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood etc. is basically a terrorist act as well, as they are all terrorist organizations.

    So is there really ANY other ideology that has been committing even remotely similar acts of terror at a remotely comparable scale?

    No, of course not!

    Islam is once again the most evil ideology on this planet.


    • Yeah, nice try.

      My “limited study” includes a section that takes into account the presence of violence across the Middle East without playing a number’s game that fails to take into account the root cause of terrorist acts (which are overwhelmingly motivated by political concerns, not religious concerns). Contrary to your suggestions, people who commit acts of terror can also happen to be Muslim at the same time – they do not attack people because of their faith. You cite the Munich attack to support your point which is highly ironic considering that was motivated solely by Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and its horrendous treatment of civilians. Israel has used chemical weapons against children, but because that doesn’t add to your Islamophobic narrative, you omit it from your comment here.

      Furthermore, I see you have said nothing about the SECULAR Arab governments of the world that have brutalized people and funded terror networks for decades, all with the backing of the UK, U.S., and Europe at large. My study was focused on the UK and the U.S. because that’s where the vast majority of my readership comes from.

      Evidently you know absolutely nothing about the history the groups you listed, otherwise you’d know that the U.S. armed Bin Laden and the Mujahideen in the 1980’s during their proxy war with the Soviets, you’d know that Israel supported Hamas around the same time to oust the secular nationalist PLO, you’d know that Muslim Kurds are currently fighting ISIS tooth and nail to protect their homeland (uh-oh, some of the people you mentioned are being brutalized by Muslims are Muslims themselves, how inconvenient!), and you’d know that the Assyrian children being attacked with barrel bombs in Syria are being attacked by a SECULAR government.

      All of this takes less than ten minutes to research on the internet, and yet you couldn’t find the time to even Google the groups and people you’re mentioning. You buy into this bogus “clash of civilizations” narrative that is murdering Muslims. Do you know how many people died as a result of the terrorist war in Iraq? Over 100,000, many of them Muslims. Do you know that since 9/11, the assault and murder rate of Muslims living in the U.S. has sky-rocketed? Do you know that the UK and the U.S. have consistently protected Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest funders of terror groups, even praising them for their “improving” human rights record? Either you do know all of this, in which case you are callous and a vicious Islamophobe, or you do not know this, in which case you are entirely unqualified to participate in this conversation.


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