(This article originally appeared in Middle East Forum on Jan 14, 2016.)
Every murder is a tragedy, for the victims, their families, and their friends, and that remains true no matter who killed them or why.
That being said, the current administration has persistently worked to focus attention away from Islamist violence and toward right-wing violence and gun control. President Obama's announced executive action plan regarding firearms is the latest salvo in the effort, which has been picked up by media and think tanks friendly to the administration.
After the Charleston church attack, the president quoted Martin Luther King, saying we must be concerned with "the philosophy that produced the murderers." After the Colorado Planned Parenthood attack, Obama warned not to "demonize" the victim organization. After the Boston marathon bombing, he warned people against rushing to judgment "about the motivations of these individuals" (in other words, not to demonize the perpetrators) or "entire groups of people." His administration labeled the 2009 Fort Hood attack "workplace violence." With few exceptions, the president attributes ideological motives to non-Islamist mass casualty attacks, and non-ideological motives to Islamist attacks.
Obama has focused attention away from Islamist violence and toward right-wing violence and gun control.
Last June, the New America Foundation (NAF) – whose president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly held a policy position in the administration – released a study purportedly showing "right-wing" extremism had killed more Americans than "jihadist attacks" i.e., Islamist violence, since 9/11. The study, and media coverage of it, implied popular concern about Islamist violence was overblown, because "the main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists."
The study misleadingly implied that the threat of Muslim violence is less severe than other threats. Preliminarily, the list ignores other types of terrorism.
The list of "right wing" murders mixes several different ideologies, including various types of racism, such as white supremacist, neo-Nazi, anti-black, and anti-Semitic (30), plus anti-government (15), anti-abortion (4), and anti-homosexual (2) beliefs. Three murders had both racist and anti-government motivations; the above numbers double-count them.
By contrast, the list of "jihadist" murders reflects a single ideology, that of radical Islam or Islamism. It may be incomplete. For example, on February 5, 2013, Yusuf Ibrahim beheaded two Copts in New Jersey. In October 2002, Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo killed ten people. There are indications these murders were motivated by Islamism.
Even excluding the twelve Ibrahim and Muhammad-Malvo killings, at least 45 murders since 9/11 were motivated by Islamism, making it the ideology responsible for more deaths than any other in the US.
Furthermore, if we take as expansive a view of Muslim violence as NAF took of "right-wing" violence, we should include victims of the barbaric practice of "honor killings" – killing someone, usually a woman, who allegedly brought shame on her family. Some have Islamist overtones. For example, in July 2002, Alim Hassan killed his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, reportedly because the wife refused to convert from Hinduism to Islam. Since 9/11, there have been at least twelve honor killings in the US. A May 2015 report funded by and submitted to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated that there are 23-27 honor killings in the US each year.
The NAF study implies that law enforcement should devote more resources to right-wing extremism than Islamism.
Adding known honor-killing victims to NAF's list, Muslim violence has accounted for at least 57 deaths since 9/11. Of course, if we add in the 2,977 fatalities from 9/11, that number would be 3,034.
The NAF study and related coverage implied law enforcement should devote more resources to "right-wing" extremism than Islamist violence. That seems consistent with administration policy. For instance, recent DOJ grants to study domestic radicalization required recipients to study several types of extremism, given that the "majority of studies... focused on al-Qaida and other Islamic-inspired violent extremists at the detriment to... other violent extremist ideologies."
It is probably true that more government resources could be devoted to preventing "right-wing attacks," and the public should be mindful of the dangers. It is certainly true that preventing Islamist attacks deserves the lion's share of government resources.
That is apparent from NAF's own data. Its list of "Terror Plots" since 9/11 notes over 150 Islamist plots. It lists but a single "right-wing" plot; presumably the list is incomplete, if only because NAF's list of "right-wing" fatalities identified several other incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies 56 incidents of "right-wing" terrorism between April 1, 2009 and February 1, 2015. Approximately 92 of the Islamist incidents identified by NAF occurred during the same time period. Fortunately, most were foiled, or the casualties would be much higher. NAF also identifies 499 total "extremists," of whom 182 are "nonjihadist" and 317 – or 75% more – are Islamist.
It's also worth noting that the US Muslim population is roughly 1/100 that of its white population (which perpetrated most "right-wing" violence). Per capita, the incidence of ideological violence within the Muslim community is much greater.
Recognizing a problem is critical to solving it, and prioritizing correctly is critical to triaging effectively. Gun violence, and the ideologies lumped together as "right-wing," are serious concerns, but they are not the most dangerous ideology confronting America today. Islamist violence is. To echo Dr. King, at some point, we must be concerned with the philosophy that produces Islamist murderers.
Johanna Markind is associate counselor at the Middle East Forum