Saturday, February 26, 2011


It's time for people to start paying attention to the methodologies behind the polls they cite, or the implications of arguments they make, because failing to do so is going to get people killed. The interim government in Egypt is making demands about the new constitution, Libya is on the verge of more violence, and the government of China has deleted all Chinese blogs that mention the word "jasmine" (referencing the various revolutions in the Islamic world). This isn't just a phenomenon distant from its American and European critics - now with calls for live ammunition to be used on the Wisconsin protesters. Being sloppy about who deserves ("Western" or UN or American or whatever) support and who doesn't is going to get people killed - and arguably already has, in the form of massive arms deals with various dictators.

There actually are people making insane, disturbing claims about these recent events. Fred Clark on Slacktivist has already done lengthy and complex responses to John MacArthur's statements in this interview, but his basic argument bares repeating here. He states-
I just think the upshot of all of this is more instability, more chaos, you can’t make a transition to democracy this way; it’s impossible. After all, who said democracy’s the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn’t advocate anything but a theocracy.
That is literally the reasoning behind many of these American and European critics of the various protests in the Middle East and elsewhere as of late. They see the Islamic world as incapable of producing anything other than an at least partially theocratic government system - which either threatens them (among the more libertarian critics) or threatens their competing theocratic systems (as with MacArthur). The inevitable conclusion of this line of thought is that secular government (even if dictatorial) is ordained as a back-up when an ideal (ie: not Islamic) theocracy is the only alternative:
I’m not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I’m not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he’s got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people. But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.
This is the best of all possible worlds, so they say. God has blessed the Muslim world with brutal dictatorship, so they say. Naturally, this argument has to admit that it doesn't care about what life is like under such circumstances, with MacArthur explaining, "I don’t think religious freedom is even an issue in the advance of the church. If you look at China, I don’t know what the numbers are, tens of millions of believers in China when it was forbidden." He not only supports dictatorships but openly acknowledges that this requires caring less about the quality of life for... well... everyone. Or rather, as I'm sure he thinks about it, it matters more what type of life you lead with relation to the next life than what type of life you lead with relation to the present. MacArthur goes beyond that though and explains that he even prefers some persecution, because he sees it as a purifying force:
Look at Japan which was open and free and you’ll search forever in any city in Japan to find one Christian. So democracy, freedom of religion or persecution, if you had to pick your poison I think you might want to pick persecution because you get a purer church.
Note the subtle allusion there - you pick your poison, choosing between persecution (of some in determinate group of people, if not everyone) and freedom of religion. Freedom of religion isn't just compared unfavorably to persecution - it's seen as something bad and without the benefit of creating zealous would-be theocracy supporters.

Beyond these ideological problems, there's been misused statistics to back-up many of these claims. Some of this is deliberate, but in some cases the fault lies with flawed analysis or explanation within supposedly impartial polls themselves.

Take the example of this series of Pew Research polls, which contains this lovely graph:

a chart

Can you spot the problems? There's an assumption that what varies between these countries is merely people, not the forms that Islam has taken in their life, let alone their political culture. Egypt and Pakistan are distant countries, but they're united by (until recently) both having an openly American-backed secular dictatorship. In those conditions, political reforms in the name of Islam are quite attractive - they're responsive to local needs, legitimize themselves with appeals to justice, and are often more democratic than the secular status quo (even if they are radically less democratic than other secular options). This contrasts with places where the secular status quo is more democratic (namely Turkey) or Islamic social movements have had distinct negative impacts on the way of life (namely Lebanon, where Islamist attacks resulting in the recent Israeli occupation). It's telling that these surveys never asked these various Muslims why they have the opinions about political Islam that they do.

But beyond those blatant flaws, there's clear methodological flaws that went into the creation of these figures. As the article explains (if you follow the asterisk!):

an explanation

I suppose that might word, for those that see Islam as playing a large role (if that's bad, then it's because Islam is playing a negative role - whereas if that's good, then it's because it's doing good things). But, I don't follow the train of thought when it comes to analyzing those that see Islam as playing a small role. If Islam is playing a small role (supposedly), and that's a bad thing, how can you rule out that it playing a role at all is what respondents have a problem with? Why assume that problem with that is that Islam is playing an inadequate role? All this emphasis on the metaphorical size of Islam in certain places seems to just obscure what various Muslims see Islam as even doing.

In the end, this entire section of these polls seems framed around not actually asking the Islamic world what they want, and then inferring from what little questions were asked very broad determinations. That's irresponsible. What's more, cavalier representation like that is what's getting people killed.

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