08/23/2011 07:06 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

As 9/11 Anniversary Approaches, a Call for Balance

Even before a Norwegian madman named Anders Behring Breivik opened fire this July on fellow citizens he believed were abetting large-scale Muslim immigration, it was clear that Islamophobic propaganda, much of it from American politicians and activists, was having a poisonous effect on Western societies.

And the revelation that Breivik had imbibed much of the propaganda that motivated him to murder 77 people, most of them children, from Americans like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller sparked much soul-searching on the part of responsible commentators and other observers here. After all, this is a country where a former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, felt comfortable comparing Muslims to Nazis, and where politicians in a dozen states have worked to pass needless and fear-mongering laws against the use of Islamic Shariah law in U.S. courts.

But the fact that Islamophobia is on the rise across the West as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches -- and that bigotry is stoking violence in both the United States and Europe -- should not blind us to the fact that Islamic terrorists do represent a very real threat to America. With that in mind, after publishing a special issue devoted to the rising tide of Islamophobia, the Southern Poverty Law Center today released a new issue of our investigative magazine, the Intelligence Report, focusing on homegrown Muslim extremists.

The truth is that intelligence experts with far more integrity than Gingrich or others who have specialized in demonizing Muslims agree that homegrown jihadists now pose more of a direct threat to America than al Qaeda.

This spring, National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Senate committee that the United States is seeing "disturbing instances of self-radicalization among our own citizens." Clapper added: "While homegrown terrorists are numerically a small part of the global threat, they have a disproportionate impact because they understand our homeland, have connections here, and have easier access to U.S. facilities." Janet Napolitano, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, offered similar congressional testimony in February.

And Bruce Hoffman, the respected director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, told the Christian Science Monitor recently: "Over the past two or three years, there has been a significant uptick in the number of Americans who have gone abroad to receive terrorist training, attempted to go abroad for terrorist training, or attempted attacks in the United States."

The radical jihadists aim to create some kind of global caliphate ruled by Muslim fundamentalists. They are also driven by an animus toward human rights -- especially when those rights serve to protect Jews, gay people, and women. Each of the 10 men we profile in the new Intelligence Report seem clearly motivated, in part, by the same kinds of hatreds that drive American neo-Nazis and Klansmen.

That there is a serious threat from domestic Islamist radicals -- whether born in this country or legal immigrants -- is undeniable. But that doesn't mean most Muslims are dangerous to America. That is very clearly false.

Charles Kurzman, a University of North Carolina professor who has studied Muslim terrorism extensively, said in a report published by the respected Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security earlier this year that there were 20 Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators in 2010 -- and slightly more than 20 terrorist plots by non-Muslims in the same period. Kurzman also found that of 120 Muslim-American terror suspects since 9/11, 48 were first identified to law enforcement by fellow Muslims. That's quite a contrast to the picture painted by people like U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), an Islam-bashing politician who held hearings earlier this year that seemed meant to simply demonize all Muslims.

In fact, Kurzman's new book, published this July, is entitled The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists. Worldwide, he estimates in the book, something like one in 100,000 Muslims become radical jihadists.

"The bad news for Americans is this: Islamic terrorists really are out to get you. They cannot be deterred by prison sentences, 'enhanced' interrogations, or the prospect of death," Kurzman wrote. "The good news for Americans is this: there aren't very many Islamic terrorists, and most of them are incompetent."

A 2010 Rand Corporation report, "Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001," made a related point. "While radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism are cause for continuing concern, the current threat must be kept in perspective," it said. "The volume of domestic terrorist activity [which was then mostly left-wing] was much greater in the 1970s than it is today."

Jihadist extremists were responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 1, 2001 -- a fact that should never be forgotten, especially as the anniversary of that tragic event approaches. But the idea that Muslims are dangerous because they are Muslims -- pushed by the likes of Gingrich and other public figures who have opposed virtually all mosques in this country -- is false.

Not only that, it is un-American. John F. Kennedy had that right in his famous 1960 campaign speech taking on bigoted anti-Catholic critics.

"[T] his year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist," the future president said. "Today I may be the victim -- but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril."

Correction: This post originally referred to Rep. Steve King as the politician who held hearings earlier this year purporting to investigate the radicalization of American Muslims. The politician who held said hearings was in fact Rep. Peter King, a Republican congressman representing New York's 3rd district.

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