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Monday, 16 November 2015

Scapegoats and Statistics

I know, I know - every half-wit on the internet has their own opinion on the recent terrorist atrocities in Paris. Personally I find the commentary by Google's Yonatan Zunger to be probably the closest to the truth. If I might make a humble effort to simplify this (but you should really read it yourself), it would be something like this : the causes of terrorism are complicated and cannot be attributed only, or even mostly, to religion - other factors, such as poverty, war, and government collapse are all to blame. I would also strongly urge, nay insist you also read this article on the cause of the Arab Spring.

Zunger further contends that Muslims haven't integrated into some European societies because they have been prevented from doing so by laws and prejudice. Whereas Charlie Hebdo provoked violent terrorism from some Muslims, The Life of Brian merely provoked anger from some Christians. This wasn't because Christianity is innately more peaceful, but because Christians didn't really feel threatened by Monty Python. They weren't "integrated" into society, they were and are society.


Some Muslims do not feel like that. They don't see satire as satire; they see it as part of a much larger attack not just on their beliefs, but on them. That is not to say they are correct, only that if they felt truly a part of society, they wouldn't react violently to legitimate criticism. Which is evidenced by a surprisingly small proportion (albeit a majority) of Muslims who believe that violence in response to cartoons is never justified. Maybe they feel this way because as Zunger suggests, they are constantly excluded from society and "their" extremist element reacts in the same way extremist elements react in all groups.

Because I know full well that I am not an expert on international politics or psychology, I am going to try and limit the scope of this post as much as possible. I do not want to examine in detail the cause of or the solutions to the problem. Instead I have only one point to make with this post : terrorist attacks caused by Muslims are not occurring because the instigators are Muslims.

There are an estimated 2-6 million Muslims living in France today. Since 2000, there have been a total of 14 terrorist attacks, nine or ten by Muslim extremists, involving a total of perhaps twenty individuals. Twenty ! Out of maybe five million Muslims ! Islamic terrorists are outnumbered by innocent Muslims by something like two hundred thousand to one*. Fearing Muslims makes no sense.

* EDIT : As rightly pointed out in the comments below, the number of extremists may be somewhat higher than that, especially given that around 1,000 individuals have left France to join ISIS in the Middle East. Still, the number of individuals who have remained within France and actually want to hurt France is vanishingly small.

Let that ratio sink in. It's exactly equivalent to saying that you wouldn't visit Luxembourg or Rouen or Swansea or Venice because you'd heard there was one murderer present. Or better yet, to say, "Sir, before you enter this establishment, I have to check if you're from Venice."

Gondoliers : you just can't trust 'em.
And yes, there have been protests in which large numbers of Muslims said really, really stupid things. But how many of them acted on that ? Practically none.

"But," you might say, "you just said that most of the attacks were carried out by Muslims. Doesn't that mean that we should hold Muslims in greater suspicion when looking for terrorists, even if it is only a tiny minority that commit terrorism ?"

No. You still haven't grasped the scale of how very, very few terrorists there are. The numbers are so low it makes no sense to be more suspicious of Muslims than any other group. If you have an event at which you're concerned about terrorism, you need security procedures that detect terrorists. If you resort to using someone's religion to determine if they're more likely to be a terrorist or not, you've basically admitted you have no idea what you're doing.

Let's consider the terrorist attacks in France in the 20th century :
1900 - 1950 : Five attacks, all politically motivated, none by Muslims.
1950 - 1975 : Seven attacks, all politically motivated, none by Muslims.
1975 - 2000 : Fifty one attacks, thirty two by Muslim extremists (how many were French and how many were foreigners is unclear).

The attacks by non-jihadists include a wide variety of causes, from mental illness to various ideologies such as communism and nationalism. So jihadists form the largest single group responsible for French terror attacks in the 20th and 21st centuries. And they have escalated in recent years : i.e. there was a time not so long ago when Muslim terrorism was just not a thing. EDIT : It's worth bearing in mind that when considering the number of attacks overall in Europe (unfortunately I don't have data for France alone) - that is, the attempts that were foiled - the number of attacks by Islamists is negligible compared to those by other causes.

Something grimly interesting emerges when reading the list : the stochastic nature of the attacks. 1994 saw no less than nine Jihadist attacks, whereas from 1997-2003 there were none. If merely being Muslim caused a propensity toward violence, we might expect to see a more consistent level of violence. In fact it tends to occur in bursts, often caused by organizations. There are a few lone extremists, but they are by far the minority.

Similarly, while the anti-religious ilk are quick to point out that the Crusades and Inquisition as being agents of Christian medieval terror (quite correctly), we don't often think of the Catholics as being violent terrorists today. But it does happen. You might not like Catholic ideology, but few people worry about the Catholics plotting to blow up Parliament, because Catholic terrorism is just so vanishingly rare. Yes, once it was considered a serious threat. It isn't any more, even though Catholicism has hardly gone away. So Catholicism looks to be very unlikely as the root cause of terrorism.

Sometimes antitheists say to me, "Just because a theist donated money to charity doesn't mean you can infer that theism is a good thing." That's very true. And by exactly the same token, just because some theists kill people doesn't mean you can infer that theism is a bad thing either. Since theism can cause people to do both good and bad things, to judge whether theism is a good or bad thing you'd need at the very least a statistical estimate of how many good and bad things (whatever those are) theists and non-theists commit. Do you have one ? No, you don't. You only have anecdotes. This is not a sensible way to judge religion or the religious.

Right, yes, as opposed to, say, poverty and oppression. This is an example of sciolism : giving an opinion on something well outside one's area of expertise. I suppose I'm doing it too, of course.
When certain Irish republicans were waging a campaign of terror against the United Kingdom, no-one said they were doing it because they were Irish (except for racist bigoted idiots). Nor was believing in an independent Ireland cited as the cause of the violence. It was what they were trying to use violence to achieve, but it wasn't what made them violent. Rather it was their unquestioning devotion to that cause and the extremist belief that anything they did was justified that made them violent.

When a Christian murders someone, should we automatically assume that it was Christianity that made them do it ? Does anyone honestly think that during every single murder, someone who happens to believe in God is thinking, "Jesus told me it's OK !", or that Christian thieves rob houses because they think the Angel Gabriel commanded them to ? Is it not at least plausible that in some cases, religious people do evil things for reasons completely unrelated to their religion ? Poverty seems a far more likely cause of theft, anger a more likely cause of murder, than a book telling people not to kill or steal.

Maybe, just maybe, hungry people steal food because they're hungry. That they happen to follow a religion can have nothing to do with it.

Murderous people can always come up with an ideology to "justify" murdering people, be it religious or otherwise (communism comes to mind). If it wasn't religion, it would probably be something else. Lunatic idiots will always be lunatic idiots.

Not that it's quite as simple as that though. True, sometimes religion can turn good people into evil people -  the Aztecs surely weren't all born with a desire to rip out people's hearts, but they did so on a massive scale to appease their gods. Yes, this was due to religion - a very specific kind of ultra-extreme religion into which people were brutally indoctrinated. Aztec religion was a form of extremism in itself. It wasn't the belief in the gods that made them sacrifice human beings on an industrial scale, it was the belief that those gods needed to be fed human hearts to keep the world from ending.

ISIS are equally extremist. It isn't the belief in Allah that's making them kill. It's because they are, when you get right down to it, a bunch of nutjobs - unlike the millions upon millions of Muslims who are absolutely no threat to anybody.


Terrorism exploits two things : fear (please read), and our terrible natural skills at analysing statistics. We are not designed to think statistically. If anything, quite the reverse : we have evolved to see more threats than there really are, because escaping threats that aren't there is far safer than not spotting threats that are there.

The total number of fatalities due to terrorism (of all causes) in France in the whole of the 20th and 21st centuries is 305. Even if all of those had occurred during a single year, as an individual you should be more scared of hot weather. Literally. The 2003 heatwave is estimated to have killed over 14,000 people in France alone. Yes, terrorism is evil and yes, we should try to stop it. But with a French population of over 60 million, the chances of any individual being killed in a terrorist attack in France are close to nil. EDIT : You are far, far more likely to drown, die because of nasty weather or a transport accident or because you fell over, than by a terrorist attack of any motivation. Statistically, terrorism is not much more dangerous than getting pregnant. 

The conclusion from this is inescapable : it does not make sense for us to feel unsafe. Our reactions are driven by gut emotions, which are there for a very good reason but are not logical. In the jungle, almost all tigers are dangerous, so it makes sense to run away from them. In modern European cities, practically no Muslims are dangerous, but our hyper-inflated pattern recognition abilities tell us otherwise.


From the excellent Spurious Correlations.
The real danger comes from our reaction to the terrorist attacks. If we give in to hate and start discriminating against European Muslims, we will make the problem worse. ISIS will say, "look how they hate you" and more people will join their cause, not because they are Muslim but because they are hated. I agree with Zunger that in the Middle East, military action may be the only way to stop ISIS - but it will utterly fail in the long-term if we don't also look at the underlying causes. The challenge in Europe is to differentiate any foreign military intervention from the treatment of Muslim citizens of Europe.

A few months ago I probably would have agreed with most people that Muslims need to be more vocal about distancing themselves from terrorists. Now I'm not so sure. Maybe all our insistence that they stand up and differentiate themselves is just another way of excluding them from European society, potentially creating a problem where none existed. Maybe the answer isn't less tolerance, but more.

4 comments:

  1. I have to point out that the French population of Daesh terrorists is actually higher than terrorists acts on its soil would let you think - if we include the thousand and more French nationals that went to (or still are in) Syria and join them.
    It still makes them a negligible fraction of the French Muslims, so this doesn't change the point made in this article.

    But here is something interesting: many among them are converts, sometimes from stable, well-integrated/long native families and no background in violence or crime ; and most if not all of them have a superficial, twisted understanding or Islam, about as inaccurate as it can be, and a vision of Syria and how the world works born from Daesh's surprisingly professional propaganda.

    Many don't go because they are hated or feel rejected by society, but because it fills a void of meaning in their life, that many apparently stable people have (for varied reasons that would be way too long to detail here).

    "The conclusion from this is inescapable : it does not make sense for us to feel unsafe."

    I can't talk for all of France or even Paris, but that's exactly why I don't intend to let a handful of jerks with nothing better to do with their life than ruin others' make me afraid. That's precisely what they were trying, after all.
    Though contrary to, say, 9/11, many here were expecting new terrorists attacks, and that it was a question of time before a major one. I hope it will be enough to avoid overreactions...

    "A few months ago I probably would have agreed with most people that Muslims need to be more vocal about distancing themselves from terrorists. Now I'm not so sure. Maybe all our insistence that they stand up and differentiate themselves is just another way of excluding them from European society, potentially creating a problem where none existed. Maybe the answer isn't less tolerance, but more."

    Again, I can't tell about other European countries, but in France, things are more complex, or rather bizarre.
    The problem is not "more" tolerance, but "better" tolerance. The government, media and varied political and ideological groups spend a lot of efforts and resources to push for more tolerance.
    The problem is, they negate difference - instead of pushing for accepting difference. It is in fact counter-productive, and the results are dreadful in varied ways (Islamophobia actually on the rise being one of them).

    But it creates another perverse effect: there are Muslims that try to distance from the extremists - many of them! And sometimes, they do it despite the risk of alienating some pretty nasty people of their community, while having no guarantee to become better integrated outside of it.
    But with the naïve ways tolerance is pushed, all blames on Muslim communities are silenced - including those from the Muslims themselves! - if only by giving them no media outreach.
    But in any situation, it is easier for a simplistic, extremist message to propagate than a complex, thoughtful moderate one, so by quashing them both, it gives a disproportionate weight to the extremists.

    Imagine if any talks on, say, the US Treasury debt was quashed as "anti-American", by a well-meaning but clueless Council of Americas. US economists would not be thrilled (and, say, Argentinians wouldn't like the US better).

    So it's not that Muslims should be more vocal about distancing themselves from terrorists, and more generally extremists, it's that the media should give them the outreach they deserve and need to actually improve the situation.

    Of course, things are more complex, but this is a major element that is too easily overlooked.

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    1. "I have to point out that the French population of Daesh terrorists is actually higher than terrorists acts on its soil would let you think - if we include the thousand and more French nationals that went to (or still are in) Syria and join them.
      It still makes them a negligible fraction of the French Muslims, so this doesn't change the point made in this article."

      Excellent point, well-made.

      "Many don't go because they are hated or feel rejected by society, but because it fills a void of meaning in their life, that many apparently stable people have (for varied reasons that would be way too long to detail here)."

      You may well be right about that. I tried not to stray too far from the central idea that it is not religion causing the attacks. What actually _does_ cause it is likely more complicated, and not something I feel remotely qualified to judge.

      I don't know if you've ever seen Omid Djalili, but I suspect you probably should :
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obqG8JQEePM

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  2. Also, I love the way you put an image with big words and a name, as if to support what your articles are saying, to explain right after that how those words are wrong. It's surprising and works well!
    And maybe it helps getting the attention of those disagreeing with you, by suckering them into reading what they would have otherwise scoffed at? :)

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    1. When I shared this over Google+ I had the option of choosing which picture to display. I thought about using the Weinberg quote, but my experience of dealing with people who believe that tends to be that there's no getting through to them.

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