Data show that Muslim countries are experiencing a rapid and sustained drop in violent conflict
It's not hard to understand why Americans tend to associate Muslim countries with violence. The past decade has seen two Muslim-majority nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, consumed by sectarian warfare (though both were sparked by U.S. invasion) that has also cost many American lives; we hear news reports of terrorism in Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Chechnya, Somalia, and are sometimes targets of this terrorism ourselves; we are bombing Libya in an effort to steer the civil war that has erupted there.
And it's true that Muslim countries are, on average, more violent than non-Muslim countries. A study by the Center for System Peace found that, per capita, Muslim-majority countries experience approximately double the level of armed conflict as non-Muslim countries, according to a variable they call "summed magnitude scores," which measures the severity and frequency of conflict.
But the study, evaluating 1945 through 2007, also found that armed conflict in Muslim-majority countries is experiencing a rapid, sustained decline. Violence in Muslim-minority countries, defined as any country with more than 5 percent but less than half of its population Muslim, is also dropping, though not quite as quickly. Though we in the U.S. might sometimes perceive the Muslim world as increasingly violent, especially after September 2001, this data suggests the opposite.
It's also interesting to see when the Muslim world did become more violent -- the mid-1970s through 1990. There are a number of reasons for this, but the two over-arching themes are post-colonial conflict and the proxy battles of the Cold War. Post-independence Algeria, for example, fought a terrible civil war; so did a number of Muslim nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. But some of the 1980s' worst violence -- Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war -- was driven by the U.S. and Soviet Union vying for influence in the Middle East and in Central Asia. It's no coincidence that after the end of the Cold War -- marked in the chart above by a vertical dotted lined -- Muslim conflicts began their still-continuing decline.
That's not to say that Western powers should be categorically blamed for violence in those regions, of course -- no one forced the terrorist group Islamic Jihad to bomb the U.S. barracks in Beirut in 1983 -- but the lesson is that the Muslim world may not be as inherently violent, or as perpetually violent, as we in the U.S. can sometimes perceive it to be.