Dear US Government: Your ‘Terror’ map of the Muslim World is from the Time of Shakespeare (Kurzman))

Charles Kurzman writes at Islamicommentary

Screenshot of the National Counterterrorism Center's Interactive Map, April 30, 2013.

Screenshot of the National Counterterrorism Center’s Interactive Map, April 30, 2013.

“The United States is not at war with Islam,” President Obama said last week at the National Defense University, in a speech that declared an end to America’s “wartime footing” in the fight against terrorism. President Bush said the same when he launched the war on terrorism in 2001: “We do not fight Islam, we fight against evil.”

But in America’s sprawling security establishment, not everyone has stayed on message. Until this week, the website of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) — the U.S. government’s primary counterterrorism clearinghouse — featured a map that appeared to identify the entire Muslim world as a terror zone.

All of North Africa, the coast of East Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, the north of India, and much of Southeast Asia was shaded in red. Wherever Muslims are a majority, the map implied, terrorism lurks.

But this map misrepresented the geography of Islamic terrorism, which has been concentrated in only a handful of civil war zones and is rare or non-existent in most Muslim communities.

The map also misrepresented American policy, which has avoided a blanket association of all Muslims with terrorism. The NCTC map literally threw a red blanket of terrorism over the Muslim populations of Africa and Eurasia.

Plus, the map was half a millennium out of date. A month ago, I finally remembered where I had seen it before. It was almost identical to the boundaries of the Muslim world in 1500, as depicted in William Brice’s Historical Atlas of Islam (see below) . Professor Barbara von Schlegell’s webpage has long posted this and other maps as a teaching resource.

Screenshot of the National Counter Terrorism Center Interactive Map , April 30, 2013 (left), and "The Muslim World circa A.D. 1500," from William Brice, An Historical Atlas of Islam (Leiden, 1981), p. 11.

Screenshot of the National Counter Terrorism Center Interactive Map , April 30, 2013 (left), and “The Muslim World circa A.D. 1500″ from William Brice, An Historical Atlas of Islam (Leiden, 1981), p. 11.

As in Brice’s atlas, the NCTC map excluded Muslim-majority regions such as Mindanao in the Philippines and Xinjiang in western China. Both the Brice atlas and the NCTC map included portions of Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Serbia, presumably because they were part of the Ottoman Empire, although they have few Muslims today. Both maps cut a wavy line through the Indian Ocean.

The NCTC map diverged from Brice’s boundaries in a few respects, but not to correct anachronisms. In fact, the NCTC map pushed farther back into history to include Portugal and most of Spain, where Muslims had been expelled by 1492. (The NCTC map also included portions of western Ukraine and the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, areas which were not identified in the Brice atlas.)

Interestingly, the NCTC map ignored the presence of Muslim communities that have developed in recent centuries in Western Europe and the Americas — a diaspora that has undermined the notion of a sharp dividing line between the so-called “Muslim world” and its neighbors.

The map first showed up on the NCTC website in 2007 as a thumbnail-sized graphic, with the caption “Bin Ladin’s notional caliphate.” The adjacent text explained that “Al-Qa‘ida’s stated goal is the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the world.”

While the description was technically correct, the prospect of a unified caliphate was and remains so unlikely that al-Qa‘ida has rarely invoked it. I would have expected this pan-Islamic pipe dream to be less relevant to a counterterrorism center than the actual sites of al-Qa‘ida terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks six years earlier. Yet North America did not appear on the NCTC map.

In subsequent years, the NCTC website gave increasing prominence to this map of Bin Ladin’s “notional caliphate.” (Successive versions of the NCTC Interactive Map can be viewed through the Internet Archive.)

Since 2011, this region, shaded in red, has been the dominant feature of the agency’s Interactive Map, with no indication that it referred only to al-Qa‘ida’s aspirational caliphate. The webpage left the impression that the entire Muslim world constituted a terrorist threat.

Last month, I inquired about the misleading map, and several days ago it disappeared from the homepage of the NCTC Interactive Map.

Screenshots of the National Counterterrorism Interactive Map, April 30, 2013 (left), and May 28, 2013 (right).

Screenshots of the National Counterterrorism Interactive Map, April 30, 2013 (left), and May 28, 2013 (right).

The new map removed the red blanket over the so-called Muslim world, though the boundaries of the “notional caliphate” are still accessible if you click on “Al-Qa‘ida (Bin Ladin’s ‘Pan-Islamic Caliphate’)” at the top of the sidebar. (The new map also moved the Lord’s Resistance Army from Iraq to a more plausible location in central Africa.)

Surely the NCTC is using more accurate maps for its in-house work. Perhaps the agency’s Interactive Map was developed by a graphic designer with limited familiarity with Muslim demographic trends or U.S. counterterrorism policy. Still, it is disconcerting that this was presented for several years as the public face of a major counterterrorism agency.

The case of the faulty map highlights the challenges the White House faces in wrangling the swarm of American national security agencies into a single strategy. More than a decade after President Bush insisted that America is not at war with Islam, the NCTC’s web designers still had not gotten with the program. How long will it take the security establishment to adopt President Obama’s new insistence that we are no longer at war with terrorism?

Charles Kurzman is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (2011) and Muslim-American Terrorism: Declining Further (2013).

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Mirrored from Islamicommentary

15 Responses

  1. I live in a military town in one of the most Republican (as opposed to “conservative”) Congressional Districts in the country.
    I asked the Pastoral Council in my Roman Catholic parish for support as I tried to create a community forum for Muslim – Catholic dialogue. The Council was not interested. After the meeting, one Council member with a military haircut told me that Islam was our enemy. I was rebuffed by the Diocese, and ignored by the US Council of Catholic Bishops.

    I only know of one Catholic leader who isn’t afraid to recognize the dignity and humanity of Muslims, and Bill Maher says he is not long for this world – too progressive.

  2. A little speculative history: what would such a map have looked like in the late 1940’s and drawn up by the old European colonial powers. It would include Africa, India, and much of Asia. It would include all of the territory of the old European empires (curious)! Now, half a century later, most of those countries do not pose a terrorism threat to the West. Curious how that worked out!

    Now we have a map of Islamic world defining it as a source of terrorism. We need not quibble about how that dividing line is drawn; we know where the threat originates from. We should ponder the cause of today’s terrorism and learn from the last time around. The solution to this terrorist threat is the same as it was for the old colonialists; get out!

  3. Ah for the old days when war was God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Maybe she’s quite given it up as a hopeless task.

  4. “Sophisticated” used to mean “spoiled, adulterated.”

    “DEFENSE” used to mean, you know, “DEFENSE.” A long time ago…

    “TRILLION” used to mean, like, “BILLION.” The coming meaning is “QUADRILLION,” of course.

    “DEATH” and “DESTRUCTION” and “FUTILITY” and “IDIOCY” still sort of mean the same thing they always have meant.

    Particularly for those who get “sophisticated” by “DEFENSE.” They are called stuff like “BUG SPLATS” and “SOFT TARGETS.”

    Isn’t language fun?

  5. Extremely discouraging … it’s beyond tin-eared … just as so many congresscritters appeared to take pride in their ignorance about who’s who in the Sunni/Shia conflict in Iraq, the endless continuing conflation of the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida … always these cries that the “good Muslims” must denounce the “bad guys” coupled with evidence like this presented, that no one really cares and we’re still stuck on an American crusade against Islam… as if anyone remembered the Crusades …

    It really is too bad … in many ways the current fundamentalist expansionism reminds me of the Crusades … Islamic this time … Irony of ironies … the reestablishment of the caliphate is an idealized pipedream, much like returning to Eden or “our roots” … Most cultures, even the Chinese, likely look back longingly to some better time — I think it was idealism of Ancient Greece when I was a high schooler.

    Regardless, it is too forgiving to call this sloppiness … if “loose lips sink ships” this sort of misrepresentation of Islam and Islamic extremism beings to my mind the WWII anti-Jap anti-Kraut American propaganda … oh yes, and the Rape of Belgium.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Things really are going to hell in a handbasket … subopoenas for reporters, denied by the attorney general who signed the orders … just when you think it cannot get worse …

    On the “bright side” — I suspect the potential “homegrown jihadis” everyone fears so are probably no better educated than most Americans and would fail to be as outraged by this as they might be…. regular Muslims, I suspect, would just sigh and feel a bit more hopeless.

    • “the WWII anti-Jap anti-Kraut American propaganda”

      You reference “WWII ant-Jap anti-Kraut American propaganda,” yet you cite a wikipedia article (Wikipedia is not the best of sources for historical accuracy, but that’s another story) on the Bryce Committee which investigated British anti-German propaganda in World War I! There are several points to be made about your comment.

      A. To cite a report dealing with World War I propaganda to substantiate alleged activities in World War II is a non-sequitur. It does not apply. You have either deliberately or inadvertently conflated two different wars.

      B. Ironically, the Wikipedia article states, in part, “The findings of the Report (concerning alleged activities during World War I) have been substantiated by several scholars in the 21st century,” thus undermining the point you wished to make with your non-sequitur.

      C. And finally, to cite a report on British anti-German propaganda in WWI in an attempt to substantiate your charge of alleged “American anti-Jap anti-German” propaganda in WWII is to stretch your non-sequitur even further.

      • Just a correction to my comment above. The Bryce Report contributed to (vice investigated) British anti-German propaganda in WWI. Although the British effort was described as propaganda, the Wikipedia article states, as noted above,”The findings of the Report have been substantiated by several scholars in the 21st century.”

    • and, with all resepct for those who died and were injured and lost family on 09/11, a truly stunning lack of sense of proportion … it’s like we’re tearing down the house because someone saw a mouse or two …. and apparently we’re not going to be done until it’s leveled … maybe then we’ll set it on fire to add to our carbon emission contribution to world well-being …

  6. Interesting. Until this post, I’d had no idea that FARC and Greek Domestic Terrorism were both Islamic.

    or maybe the interpretation of the map is a tad off?

  7. My favorite part of this map: the Basque area of Spain is not included in the Terrorism Zone, but the rest of Spain is.

    Sure, why not? That makes sense.

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