From the Comments: Debunking Myths About Islam and Violence

Jacques, a retired sociologist and university professor, has been repeating himself over and over again for the past fifteen years or so. His gripe? The imminent danger of Islam. Or Islamism. It depends on when you began reading him. Until recently, until the time that Delacroix decided to try and pick on me, Jacques’ venom was directed at Islam. Nowadays, it seems his poisonous arguments are directed at Islamism, the political movement. This is a step in the right direction. And yet, though his target his changed, his argument has not. The argument runs something like this:

  • Most, or much, of the violence in the world today is associated with Muslim groups of some kind or other.
  • Therefore, Islam, or Islamism, has an inherently violent penchant that needs to be removed using any method at the West’s disposal (including torture, a separate judicial system for Muslims suspected of being terrorists, and outright war).
  • In addition, Muslims who are not inherently violent (notice: Islam has an inherently violent penchant, except when it does not) are still responsible for terrorism because they do not snitch to government authorities when their fellow Muslims begin growing beards, and they do not speak out against Muslim extremists.

I have already gone the rounds with Delacroix on this narrative. He has been nothing but obstinately ignorant about his own argument, including the pseudo-facts that they rest upon. Maybe I shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m just a lowly blog editor, after all, and a self-admitted libertarian to boot. The ‘comments’ of the two guys I’m about to highlight should be taken seriously, though. They are both college professors, and both do not self-identify as libertarians (though I think they are). Here is Dr Khawaja attempting to talk some sense into Jacques:

The first point is predictability versus explanation-in-retrospect, and I think you’re proving my point. I agree with your general account of the traits and biographical trajectory of terrorists. They’re often just as you say they are. The problem is, there are lots of non-violent losers with identical traits and trajectories, and no way to sort out the violent from the non-violent before the fact. The explanatory patterns typically emerge after the fact, which is when people tend to jump from explanation-after-the-fact to predictability-ex-ante. I guess I’m just flatly denying that the trajectory of the non-Islamist crazy is–in Western countries–all that different (ex ante) from the Muslim ones. The only “distinguishing” feature is that the latter are Muslim, and alienated from traditional Islam, and born again into something radical. But an enormous number of people have those traits, and simply waste their lives on being born-again Muslims of that sort without ever doing anything violent. My point is, when people–typically young men–start to move in that direction, it usually causes some concern. But “concern” is not the same as alarm at an imminent or even pending attack, and contrary to your suggestion, there is almost no way to predict those unless you’ve been taken into confidence by the would-be perpetrator. And of course, given what he wants to perpetrate, he’d have to be very incompetent to take a would-be snitch into his confidences.

Proviso: what I’m saying above refers to Muslims in Europe and North America. Things are different elsewhere. In the West Bank, if X’s brother, father, uncle, or cousin has been killed by the IDF, X is likely to commit a terrorist act, and if X becomes very religious, you can infer that he’s a member of Hamas. Similar moves are open to someone living in Pakistan. But those are different contexts than France of the US.

I’m not dogmatic enough to insist that the French cleric you quoted must absolutely be wrong. Maybe he has some way of detecting jihadists. But I really doubt it. The problem with French clerics of that sort is precisely their proximity to the government. They tend to speak with a view to pleasing this or that constituency, and what your cleric says is what the French government and people want to hear.

On immigration, granted that you didn’t literally come out and oppose all immigration by Muslims. But that isn’t quite what I accused you of, either. My point is: here we have a humanitarian crisis involving refugees who want asylum in this country. I’m the first to admit that if we admit a large number, some of this number will be terrorists and will perpetrate attacks on us that wouldn’t otherwise have happened (if we hadn’t let them in). My point is: now that we have this crisis, Americans have suddenly decided that a mass influx of refugees has to be constrained by border controls that would ensure that the mass influx remains a trickle. Imagine facing a potential influx of Syrian refugees and applying your stricture that none of them be Muslim literalists. By the time you operationalized that policy, and hired the border control staff to operate it, the year would be 2023, and the refugee crisis would be over. Or to take your other policy: can you really imagine teaching Syrian (or any other) refugees First Amendment law at their point of entry into the US? It can’t be done. It’s just not the way refugee operations work or can work. Imposing strictures like that on refugees is just a way of ensuring that the US never becomes a sanctuary during refugee crises.

I wouldn’t mind that attitude if only it were accompanied by a little bit of candor about history and politics. The US is committed never to become a large-scale sanctuary for, say, Syrian refugees. But now listen to the way politically conscious Americans talk about refugee crises elsewhere. The Arabs of Mandate Palestine were reluctant to open the borders of Palestine to European Jews? Well, that makes them anti-Semites. Common assertion: “The Palestinians remain in UNRWA camps to this day because the surrounding Arab countries, in their greed, refuse to take them in.” This comes from Americans who would never dream of taking them in. Israel, of course, has a very generous refugee policy (for Jews); that gets praise without any recognition that the refugees then function as demographic chips in the settlement game. West Bank settlements are full of Russian “Jews” who know less about the celebration of shabbos than I do.

Do I think the US has a Muslim problem? What makes the question difficult to answer is not any reluctance on my part to tackle the issue head-on, but an ambiguity in the phrase “a Muslim problem.” In one sense, it means “any significant problem stemming from Muslims.” In another sense, it means “a high priority issue facing the country as a whole and stemming from Muslims.” My view is that it has the first, not the second. There are several million Muslims in the country, and on the whole they don’t constitute a political problem. There are pockets of fanatics among them that do constitute a political (security) problem. France may well be different, but I think things are essentially in good shape in the US, despite this or that conspicuous Muslim atrocity.

To come at your question slightly differently: there is a sense in which Islam has a problem, the problem of reconciling itself to modernity. Given that, wherever you have Muslims who haven’t reconciled themselves to modernity, you’re going to get a problem (or problems). So yes, even if we had an isolationist foreign policy, that problem would remain. But that problem is least pronounced in the US, where Muslims basically run the same gamut as Reform to Conservative to Orthodox Jews. Literalist Muslims are no more (or less) a national problem than Orthodox Jews. I don’t mean to deny that they’re both a problem. But I wouldn’t say we have an Orthodox Jew Problem any more than I’d say we have a Muslim or Literalist Muslim Problem. Some places might, but we don’t.

Sorry, I said something confusing: “I don’t mean to deny that they’re both a problem.” I meant to say, “I don’t mean to deny that they’re both problematic,” i.e., give rise to problems. What I’m denying is that the problems are the equivalent of a high-level security threat.

Dr Khawaja blogs over at Policy of Truth and teaches philosophy at Felician College. Dr Amburgey tries to talk some sense into Jacques using a different angle:

“I said “probability.” It’s the concept we use, consciously or not, to approximate rational decisions in our daily lives: Select this birth clinic, rely on this baby food, travel by car, get vaccinated or not, go for this class rather than another. etc.”

I agree with Jacques. I’ll go further, I agree wholeheartedly with Jacques. I don’t subscribe to silly notions of human rationality like some of my colleagues but doing the best we can to make rational decisions is desirable both individually and in matters of public policy. As a consequence it’s useful to consider probabilities in our consideration of Jacques proposals.

Firstly, how does terrorism stack up against other risks in a probabilistic sense?

“Indeed – as we’ve previously documented – you’re more likely to die from brain-eating parasites, alcoholism, obesity, medical errors, risky sexual behavior or just about anything other than terrorism.”

Even if we set aside the consequences of our choices [lifestyle or otherwise] terrorism is dwarfed by other things that kill us. Is it rational to spend more on the military than every other form of discretionary spending combined?

Secondly, given that terrorism is a risk how do different forms stack up compared to one another.
According to Jacques…

“We have terrorists of all inspirations in America, I know. The white murderer of black church people in Charleston was a terrorist, pure and simple. He was home bred and home grown. However, we have many, many more terrorists of foreign extraction, almost all with ties to Islam.”

This is, to put it politely, a counterfactual statement. The various public datasets have different observation windows and methodologies. Right now I’m going to use the 1980-2005 FBI data simply because there is a handy pie chart that I can copy from. In decreasing order…

Latino-42%, Extreme left-wing groups-24%, Others-16%, Jewish extremists-7%, Islamic extremists-6%, Communists-5%

The USA certainly has problems. Does it have a ‘muslim problem’? I’d say the numbers speak for themselves.

Dr Amburgey teaches in the business school of the University of Toronto. He doesn’t blog.

Jacques has still not addressed my questions regarding the implications of his policy proposals, by the way, namely that they echo those implemented by the Third Reich. Political Correctness is a corrupting influence on the free and open society (I suspect, in my infinite kindness and generosity, that Political Correctness is Jacques’ real target when he writes about Islam), but so is cultural chauvinism. Two wrongs don’t make a right!