Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Blaming Innocent Muslims for Terrorism

It's 5 in the morning. I can't sleep. Yesterday, governors around the country declared that they would oppose having Syrian refugees in their states. And people loved it, especially in the red states. There was an outpouring of fear, hate and xenophobia on social media like nothing I've ever seen in this country. To get a feeling for it, check out the comments following the announcement by Asa Hutchinson, the governor of my home state of Arkansas.

If you know me, or read this blog, you know I'm no fan of fundamentalism--especially hateful or violent fundamentalism. I just flat out don't like it. Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, whatever--I think the world would be far better off without it. But what I dislike even more than fundamentalism is blaming innocent, nonviolent religious people--even fundamentalists--for the actions of a few extremists. I don't blame any of the Christians I know for the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan (yes, the Klan is emphatic about its Christianity). I don't blame the Jews I know for a few Jewish extremists in Israel. And I don't blame the Muslims I know for Al Qaeda or ISIS. Why? Because I don't think it's fair to blame the innocent majority for the actions of a criminal minority.

This doesn't just go for religion. It applies any time you have people blaming whole groups for the deeds of a few, and it is always wrong. You shouldn't blame all men for the few men who are rapists. You shouldn't blame all cops for the actions of a few brutal ones. You shouldn't blame all gun owners for the actions of a few murderous nuts. Why? I'm sure it's obvious to most readers, but let me state it clearly: because most of them are innocent. They didn't do it! The vast majority of them wouldn't do it.

This is not to say that you shouldn't point it out if a particular group has a problematic subculture, or that all groups shouldn't oppose their own rogue elements. The police, for example, have some rogue elements who think it's OK to brutalize certain people. Other police should speak out against that, as should citizens in general. Men should speak out against rape and sexual assault. Christianity has extremists like Westboro, or Kevin Swanson, who last week said that gays are "worthy of death"...at a conference attended by three presidential candidates. (That's why I'm more afraid of Christian extremists than Muslim ones--because they have the ear of powerful American politicians). People should absolutely speak out against this sort of thing, and should ask why those candidates didn't object to this kind of venom. Decent Christians in particular should speak out against it, partly because they're the ones the extremists might actually listen to (though I doubt it).

Likewise, I think it's obvious that there is a violent extremist subculture within Islam. It's a problem, and a big one. Islamic terrorists have done terrible, terrible things, and decent Muslims, and all decent people, should speak out against it. And they do! Every week I eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant owned by Syrian-American Muslims. They have pro-democracy banners around their restaurant, and Islamic magazines I read while waiting for my food. Those magazines routinely denounce terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda--calling them "barbarians" and saying they are harming Islam and Muslims (which they are--the majority of people killed by Islamic terrorists are Muslim, and every terrorist attack sparks an anti-Muslim backlash). So, yes, Muslims are in fact denouncing the extremists. That doesn't mean they've stopped them, but have Christians stopped the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK? Have decent gun owners stopped the mass shooters? If you're a gun owner, should I blame you for the fact that you haven't put an end to mass shootings?

Anyway, in terms of Syrian refugees, of course they should be screened, as all immigrants are screened. But are we really going to preemptively blame them for terrorism? For the very terrorism that they are fleeing, and which they have seen much closer than most of us have? Is that your idea of American values? Does that honor traditions like "innocent until proven guilty", "freedom of religion", and the words on the Statue of Liberty? Is this who we are?

Besides, do we want to give the actual terrorists what they want? They want us to live in fear. Are we going to oblige them? They want us to fear and hate refugees, because they want strife between Islam and the west. They want an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Do we really want to play along with a bunch of fanatical psychopaths trying to bring about the end of the world? I don't know about you, but I'd rather not.

But let's not stick with abstractions. Let's look at numbers. Earlier, I mentioned that it's wrong to blame men in general for the actions of a few rapists. I think most people would agree with me, and I think most men would feel pretty aggrieved if we started assuming they were guilty of being rapists until proven innocent. I know I would. But yesterday I started wondering how the numbers add up if you consider rape vs. terrorism. Is it as unjust to accuse the average Muslim of being a terrorist as it is to accuse the average American man of being a rapist? Actually, it's a lot more unjust. According to the US State Department, in 2014, terrorist attacks killed or injured 67,518 people worldwide. That sounds like a lot, but it's only about one per 100,000 people--most American cities would love to have a violent crime rate that low. Of course, Muslims are not behind all terrorist attacks, but Islamic extremist groups do account for the majority of terrorism casualties around the world (see State Department report). But let's briefly and unfairly assume for simplicity that all terrorist casualties are caused by Muslims, and look at the numbers. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Terrorist casualties in 2014 amounted to one casualty for about every 23,700 Muslims.

Let me repeat that. One casualty for every 23,700 Muslims. That doesn't suggest to me that the average Muslim is very likely to be a terrorist. Does it to you? If so, consider this...

Rape estimates can vary widely depending on the definition, but a decent medium-range estimate is an average of 293,066 rapes per year in the United States (over four times the number of terrorism casualties worldwide). There are currently about 150 million men in the United States (of course, not all rapes are committed by men, but the majority are). Do the math, and you find that in the United States every year, there's about one rape for every 511 men. Compare that to the one-per-23,700 statistic for Muslims and terrorism. It would be pretty unjust to call all men rapists, but it would be a whole lot more unjust (statistically speaking) to call all Muslims terrorists.

Admittedly, those are quick calculations based on the research I've done in my free time since yesterday morning. It isn't a sophisticated analysis, but I think it still makes a point. If you think it's unfair to assume men are rapists until proven guilty, or that gun owners are mass shooters, or that cops are murderers, or that Christians are bigots, and so on and so on, then you should think it's unfair to assume innocent Muslims are terrorists. Now, could a Muslim refugee commit an act of terror? Of course. But so could an American-born Christian like the Westboro admirer who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater recently. And a cop might murder somebody, and a previously-law-abiding gun owner might become a mass shooter. Sadly, these things will surely occur. We should do all we can to prevent them, but we have to realize there's a certain amount of risk to living in a free, open, and just society. Living in such a society--a society like ours at its best--can be scary and even sometimes dangerous. But it's worth it.