Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shooting at Fort Hood raises fresh questions about Muslims: Part 1

Disclaimer to protect myself from Human Rights Commissions (normal people need not read this paragraph):  I hereby solemnly declare that I do not harbour any hatred or anger towards any religion or religious group, especially not Islam or Muslims.  I do not advocate any form of violence, hatred or discimination against Muslims.  I am simply concerned by the statements made by Muslims themselves to the effect that they support terrorist acts.  I am therefore exploring the implications of their position on the public good of Canadians and the world.

This is not an easy post to write.  It will contain facts that some people will consider "politically incorrect", "hateful", "xenophobic" or "intolerant".  I can understand that opinions can be designated with such adjectives, but facts shouldn't be subject to censorship just because they raise difficult questions that people would rather avoid.  Catholics are called to be courageous and to face the facts.  So let's get with it.

The shooting at Fort Hood has re-opened the discussion about whether Islam is truly a "religion of peace" as some scholars claim.  First of all, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to all the families of the victims.  

The media as reported many disturbing facts about the shooting at Fort Hood.  The shooter was a Muslim.  He shouted "God is great" as he started emptying cartridges on unsuspecting bystanders.  He had some sort of connection with some shady extremist Muslims, although the extent of the connection is not entire clear.  He also seemed to be upset with the war in Afghanistan and about the U.S. killing his brother Muslims over there.

As an economist who has conducted a lot of research and analysis, I don't get too excited about isolated cases such as this.  Researchers call that "anecdotal evidence".  It's very risky to generalize from anecdotal evidence because it's just one case.  For example, some people will argue that cigarettes don't harm you because their uncle Billy-Ray-Bob smoked since he was 15 years old and nevertheless lived until the ripe old age of 94. Although I'm very happy for Billy-Ray-Bob, I wouldn't generalize from one example.  Researchers need lots of data gathered from a big enough sample to enable more accurate generalizations.  That's why, for example, when you read in the newspaper about the latest political poll, you will rarely find a survey that questioned less than 1,000 people. 

That's enough statistical talk for now.  Back to Fort Hood.  Just because one Muslim shot all these people, I wouldn't consider that sufficient to make a blanket statement about Muslims.  Just like it would be unjust to make generalizations against Christians when some nutcase shoots an abortionist.  Just like it would be unfair to consider all postal workers to be dangerous just 'cause a few people have "gone postal" over the years.  We need more data.

Fortunately, we do have more data.  I will report the first piece of evidence in this post.  Subsequent posts will discuss other evidence.  

In 2007, the New York Post published the results of an extensive survey on Muslims living in the United States.  The article was entitled "Time Bombs In Our Midst". Here is a key quote:

One out of four young U.S. Muslims believe suicide bombings against innocent civilians are OK to defend Islam, a disturbing new poll revealed yesterday.

The nationwide survey - one of the most exhaustive ever conducted of American Muslim attitudes - also found widespread doubt that Islamic terrorists carried out the 9/11 attacks.

But at the same time, three out of four U.S. Muslims are worried about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world - and more than 60 percent are "very concerned" it will grow in America.

The survey - revealing possible radicalization of homegrown American Muslim youth - included more than 1,000 of the nation's estimated 2.35 million Muslims and was conducted in English and several foreign languages.

The most shocking responses came when those surveyed were asked whether suicide bombings and other violence against civilians can be justified "in order to defend Islam from its enemies."

Thirteen percent said it can be justified, at least on rare occasions.

Among those under age 30, that 13 percent doubled to 26 percent.

The survey discussed by this New York Post article was conducted by the Pew Research Center.  The full report is available here.  (For all those statistical geeks out there, I have included a footnote with methodological details at the bottom of this post.) 

Notice the question discussed above was not about violence against military people.  Even Catholics would admit that in a just war violence can be used against enemy soldiers.  No, the question was specifically about suicide bombings against civilians. That's very unsettling.

Let me do the math for you.  There are 2.35 million Muslims in the U.S.  If this poll is accurate, 13% approve of suicide bombings against civilians in some circumstances.  That works out to 305,500 Muslims in America that support killing innocent people in such a way.  Now the margin of error in this survey was +/-5 percentage points.  So the percentage approving of suicide bombings could be between 8% and 18%, which would mean between 188,000 and 423,000 Muslims.

Remember that it only takes one or two guys to blow up a shopping centre and kill hundreds of people.  

This isn't a story about Billy-Ray-Bob.  This is a rigorous statistical survey.  It's safe to make generalizations here.  Don't be afraid.  This isn't stereotyping or prejudice.  This is science.  I'll be presenting more evidence in the near future that corroborate these findings and present even scarier data for other countries... 

I'd love to believe that Islam is a "religion of peace".  However, the data are suggesting that there are enough fringe elements to warrant some concern. We'll continue to explore this subject soon.  Stay tuned.

Statistical footnote:

The overall margin of error is +/-5 percentage points at a 95% confidence interval.

This is the exact wording of the question asked regarding suicide bombing of civilians:

"Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"

Just to clarify the results presented in the New York Post, which were awkwardly worded:  8% of respondents said thatsuicide bombings against civilians was justified "often" or "sometimes", while an additional 5% said it was justified "rarely".  That's how you get the total of 13%.  78% said it is "never" justified and 9% refused to answer or didn't know.