How often have you heard statements along the lines of jihadi terrorism posing an existential threat to society? So prevalent has this narrative become that many people take it for granted. Headline-grabbing terrorist attacks carried out by self-styled guardians of Islam fuel this narrative. Ill-informed or agenda-driven opinion-makers, especially on the right, help sustain this dangerous and, frankly, terrorist-friendly narrative that sparks paranoia, prejudice and bigotry. A recent column in The Indian Express by one such opinion-maker, Tavleen Singh, inspired me to put on my researcher’s hat; what I found was a revelation.
In her column, ‘After Pathankot what?’, Singh asserts, “Jihadi terrorism is the biggest threat to civilisation as we know it.” Do such statements have an empirical basis? Should we even question such statements? Is that not being friendly with terrorists or with proponents of radical Islam? I will get to these questions later, but first, based on available evidence, “jihadi terrorism” is not “the biggest threat to civi-lisation as we know it”.
The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Mary-land in the US is the most comprehensive repository of information on terrorism incidents around the world. According to the GTD, between 2000 and 2014, India suffered 6,023 terrorist attacks in which 8,613 persons died. The number of incidents linked to terrorist groups operated by Muslims were 436 (7 per cent of total) and the fatalities were 1,650 (19 per cent of total). Mind you, some of these groups may not necessarily draw inspiration from radical Islam as much as they do from nationalism, as in the case of a few Kashmiri groups. Nevertheless, I lumped all of them together to cast the net as wide as possible to capture this jihadi element.
Some may make the case that jihadi terrorism is a bigger problem now than it was earlier. Well, let’s look at more recent data. In the five-year period from 2010 to 2014, India suffered 3,468 terrorist incidents resulting in 2,515 fatalities. The so-called jihadi terrorists were responsible for 146 such incidents (4 per cent) and 236 fatalities (9 per cent). This suggests that the share of terrorist incidents and fatalities attributed to jihadis has in fact declined.
While jihadi terrorism leaves an indelible mark and creates fear, the numbers are hardly reflective of an existential threat. For the overwhelming majority of Indians, the threat of violence is likely from other sources of terror. But, even for them, terrorism is not an existential threat. US President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union address may have articulated the real existential threat. While acknowledging the threat posed by terrorism, he was emphatic in stating that climate change was the “greatest threat to future generations”.
Is the terrorism inspired by radical Islam a major problem? Sure. You won’t find much disagreement on such questions. In fact, Muslims around the world are beginning to see the threat radical Islamists pose to, well, themselves. Not only are Muslims the biggest victims of Islamist terrorism in countries like Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, they (or let me say, we) are viewed stereotypically as potential terrorists. Is it any wonder then that a recent Pew Research Centre survey of 11 countries with significant Muslim populations found that people “overwhelmingly expressed negative views of [the] ISIS”? With almost 200 million Muslims in India, a narrative of civilisational conflict is likely to create an environment of mistrust and prejudice, a dream scenario for terrorists. If this is not a recipe for a weaker India, I don’t know what is.
That six terrorists managed to engage us in an air force base in Pathankot for so many days is not because they were superhuman. They were just looking for a fight and a speedy dispatch to hell. It is our incompetence that gave them sufficient time to start dreaming of heaven.
If a bunch of terrorists is all that is required to make India worry about its existence, they have already won. Let me assert that India is one of the biggest economic and military powers in the world. Period. Terrorists, jihadi or otherwise, as an existential threat? It is not even close.