It's sad to read the apologists who worry that for instance Australia deserved the bombings in Bali after Australia joined the US as a result of "propaganda". As if the many attacks that were met with muted response prevented the attacks on September 11th. Reality however, is a little different.

In “The Missing Martyrs,” Charles Kurzman suggests that even before Osama bin Laden was killed, his movement had failed utterly. Al Qaeda’s ideological trademark is to exhort ordinary Muslims to engage in individual acts of violence against those deemed enemies of Islam, specifically Americans, Jews and the infidel rulers of Muslim-­majority states. And yet very few such attacks have occurred in the United States since Sept. 11, and certainly none comparable to the devastating events of that day. To emphasize just how surprising this is, Kurzman cites a 2006 online manual for aspiring jihadists that lists 14 “simple tools” that “are easy to use and available for anyone who wants to fight the occupying enemy” — they include “running over someone with a car” and “setting fire to homes or rooms at sleep time.” Kurzman, a sociologist who has written widely about Islamic reform movements, asks: “If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists? In light of the death and devastation that terrorists have wrought, the question may seem absurd. But if there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don’t we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?”

Kurzman’s answer is that Al Qaeda and its violent kin have failed so dismally simply because they have been unable to attract large numbers of recruits to their cause. He acknowledges the disturbing polls showing that large percentages of Muslims (outside the United States) have approved of Bin Laden. In his view, however, such sentiments should be understood not as actual identification with Al Qaeda’s tactics and methods, but rather as evidence that Bin Laden and his group were a form of “radical sheik.” By this, Kurzman means that Al Qaeda became a symbol of anti-imperialism, Islamic authenticity and a general thumbing of one’s nose at the brutal political order in which so many Arabs and Muslims live. Indeed, many of those who express approval of Bin Laden in polls also demonstrate enthusiasm for pop music or political democracy — both anathema to Al Qaeda.

Over time Al Qaeda has alienated most Muslims, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is the killing of large numbers of fellow Muslims in its terror campaigns. Such killings are taboo under Islamic law, and Al Qaeda’s efforts to legitimate them have had little success. Most Muslims reject Al Qaeda’s theology, a virulent form of Salafism, or a strictly literalist approach to revealed texts, that brands fellow Muslims unbelievers if they are not sufficiently pure in their beliefs and practices. This theology gives Al ­Qaeda a cultish quality that precludes it from becoming a mass movement, though it is not clear that it ever aspired to become one: a professed vanguard, Al Qaeda describes its members as the “Strangers,” an allusion to the few Muslims who will remain true to the religion at the end of time.

Kurzman also notes that Al Qaeda has had to contend with competition from other Islamic groups and ideologies, including localized movements that do not have a global agenda. Hamas and the Taliban may espouse violence and radical Islamism, but they have little interest in attacking the West, and their interpretations of Islam often come into conflict with Al Qaeda’s. (In contrast to the media-­savvy Bin Laden, the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar has not allowed himself to be photographed.) Equally important, Al Qaeda faces competition from liberal Islamic groups that combine at least a measure of support for political democracy with culturally conservative views on the role of women and the scope of Islamic law.


Most important, however, are certain features of American Islam that render it largely immune to Al Qaeda’s appeal. It is a heterogeneous and vibrant community — over a third are of African-­American descent — and many of its members enjoy economic success and partake in the American dream. Unlike in Britain, France and Germany, Muslims in America do not live in what amount to ghettos and are not socially ostracized or economically marginalized. These achievements make Al Qaeda’s siren call fall on deaf ears in the United States. But Al Qaeda’s defeat will be complete only if the Arab Spring uprisings bring more accountable governments, personal dignity and greater economic opportunity to the peoples of the Arab world. If these revolutions fail to do so, Al Qaeda will find receptive ears and resurrect itself, regardless of whether it succeeds in attacking the United States again or not.