When exactly did we start to find Islam so frightening?

November 28, 2015 § 2 Comments

I guess I have led a sheltered life and probably one of supreme naivety, so I doubt if I met or even knew what a Muslim was until I was out of my teens. I was on an elderly passenger ship, ploughing the Sydney to Southampton route, which was about to dock in Cape Town. I shared a dining table with a group of similar youthful adventurers and a young Anglican minister on the way to a posting in South Africa. He had spent the previous couple of weeks trying to teach us table etiquette. As the ship was docking, over breakfast he explained that the town was likely to be quiet as it was Ramadan and then went on to explain what Ramadan was. He tried but somehow never altogether managed that subtle divide between earnest well-meaning sincerity and being patronising.  (I hope he was more successful at saving souls in Southern Africa than he was at teaching us table manners. Even now I can catch myself out over the futility of trying to carve a steak with a fish knife!)

I say I probably didn’t know what a Muslim was until that time but in retrospect realise that I had previously undoubtedly met and worked with Muslims because of where I was living as the time. It just didn’t stick in my mind, it was no big deal, they were just people like me who had a different religion. Not that it was that noticeable as they no more talked about being Muslims than I did of being nominally Christian. Perhaps I have failed to develop any cultural sensitivity but that’s pretty much how it still seems to me. Muslims are just like me even if they do have a mysterious different faith which they practise in ways I don’t entirely understand. So just how is it that they have become so scary? Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall I cannot remember any widespread fear of and antipathy towards the Muslim world in general. Okay, we got a bit miffed at the Arabs when OPEC jacked up the price of oil in the 70s and it was generally agreed that the Palestinians were more than just a little careless to keep hijacking all those airlines, but overall there seemed to be little blanket antipathy towards the Muslim world per se.

It was a few days after the event that I heard about the Paris atrocities. We were spending a week in a predominantly Muslim country and after a few days in the bush we were back in wifi range. Sadly, I have to confess that the first site I bought up was Amazon where I was greeted by a front sheet declaring solidarité with France. Surely it is one of the more bizarre ironies that Amazon (and I admit to a minor addiction), one of the notable tax avoiders of the 21st century (I suspect their corporate motto is: “First, pay no tax.”), has the gall to use the deaths of 130 people as a marketing tool. Although Bono’s proclamation that it was the first terrorist attack on music ran it pretty close in the having the gall stakes.(Anyhow, has Bono never come across any post Peter Gabriel, Genesis music?)

While the rights and wrongs of what happened in Paris are almost beyond discussion, the attacks were unequivocally monstrous, there is still that strange nebulous thing called “perspective”. However, perspective itself can be a house of mirrors which can distort as well as illuminate, disorientating us as we seek a path of objectivity. Yet if we are to respond to the Paris (and the Mali) atrocities with anything other than blind, atavistic fear, we must place the events in context. What then is the context? Any action, at the most basic level, can be broken down into three basic components. First, the action itself; secondly, what preceded it, effectively the antecedents; and lastly, the consequences of the event. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification as any event is usually a myriad of actions. So too, there are an infinite number and variety of antecedents and consequences (both psychological and physical, as well as real and imagined) to any event. Nevertheless, it is the case that any action, whether it is at the level of the individual, a group, or society itself, is preceded by a history that increases or decreases the likelihood of the event occurring again. Equally an action itself has consequences which become the antecedents of future events. In effect, there is a chain reaction with any given action being also a cause and a consequence for other events. The Paris atrocities must therefore be seen not just as an event in itself but also the consequence of previous actions as well as being the precursor (the cause) of future events.

Causality is rarely singular, one dimensional, or linear. The antecedents of the Paris killing are complex and any analysis of causality must also consider the role, for example, of the second Gulf War, the cheerleading of western nations as the Arab Spring protests destabilised vast areas of the Middle East and north Africa, the alienation of young Muslims in the face of growing Islamophobia, as well as the fanatical motivations of the killers. Equally, the consequences of the killings will be complex with anything from the popularity of President Hollande, future military spending and the treatment of Syrian refugees being linked to (caused by) the murders in Paris. Any analysis of either the antecedents or the consequence of the Paris killing is for another time, except to say that the response to the killings will in itself either increase or decrease the likelihood of similar atrocities in the future. Rather than discussing cause or effect, I would instead like to focus on the event itself and ask a very simple question, namely, how serious, how momentous were the killings in Paris?

It seems pretty bizarre to be asking how serious the Paris killings are. Brussels is officially locked down, Paris and much of the rest of Europe are frozen with fear. 130 dead in Paris, another 30 in Mali. ISIS is marauding across the Middle East and attracting disaffected young Muslims from European ghettoes. An almost entirely spurious survey in the Sun newspaper claims that 20% of British Muslims have at least some sympathy for young people who go to fight in Syria. Spurious both for methodological reasons and also because 20% is almost the same proportion of non-Muslims who have some sympathy for these young people. In the United States a credible Republican candidate for the presidency (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron) portrays all Syrian refugees as rabid dogs, while another candidate insists that only Christian Syrians should be offered asylum. So yes, it does look serious, even dire. But then surely that’s when perspective should kick in.

The data on the number of terrorist attacks and subsequent deaths in Europe is surprisingly ambiguous. Nevertheless, data from such sources as Europol suggest that in the past 50 years there have been a little over 1000 deaths from terrorist attacks in the European Union, which includes the attacks in Paris on the 13th November. While both the 2015 Paris attacks highlight the role of fundamentalism, this in fact distorts the overall picture of the extent to which Muslim fundamentalism poses an existential threat to western culture. The Centre for Research on Globalisation points out that in both the United States and the European Union Muslim acts of terrorism are in fact very small. Global Research also quotes an FBI report that suggests that in the years between 1970 and 2012 only 2.5% of terrorist attacks in the USA were carried out by Muslims. Indeed there were more attacks from Jewish extremist groups…4.9%…than Islamic. The report further suggests that the profile of terrorism in the European Community up to 2012 is very similar with separatist groups and Jewish extremist groups forming a greater threat to public safety than Islamism.

The picture for both the European Union and the United States is stark and unambiguous. The chances of being caught up in or killed by a terrorist attack are infinitely small, with the chances of being killed in an Islamic attack far far smaller. Between 2001 and 2013 there were 3030 people killed in the United States as a result of all forms of terrorism (this includes the 2996 killed in the twin towers attack). A further 350 US citizens where killed overseas in terrorist incidents. So between 2001 and 2013 a total of 3380 residents or citizens of the United States were the fatal victims of terrorism. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention 406,496 people died by firearms on US soil during the same period. This includes all types of death, murder, accident and suicide. In other words, you are 120 times more likely to be the fatal victim of a shooting than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack. Given the escalation of Islamophobia since 2001, it’s worth noting that if you exclude 9/11 and look at the data since then, an American resident or citizen is 1028 times more likely to be fatally shot than to be the victim of terrorism. The odds climb significantly higher if only applied to Islamic terrorism. There is more than a slight irony to these figures given that the most vocal American Islamophobes also tend to be the same people most virulent in their support of the right to bear arms.

The FBI calculated there were around 16,000 murders in the United States in 2013. As a rough extrapolation, that means that since and excluding 9/11 an American resident is 500 times more likely to be murdered than to be the victim of any terrorist attack. The murder rate in Europe is around a fifth of that in the States, 1 per 100,000 compared with the US figure of 4.7 per 100,000. Eurostats most recent figures showed there to be 5,211 murders in the EU in 2012. Again, a rough extrapolation suggests that a citizen of the EU, over time, is 250 times more likely to be murdered than to be the victim of any form of terrorist attack.

Death does undoubtedly stalk the streets but it is incredibly rare that it takes the form of an Islamic terrorist. In the first 24 days of 2015 there were 59 fatal police shootings in the United States. This contrasts with 55 fatal police shootings in the past 24 years in the United Kingdom. (The Guardian 9th June 2015) The figures for police shootings in the States are difficult to determine as there is no reporting requirement but it’s estimated that there were 1100 such deaths in the past year. That is, in one year the American police have shot and killed more people than have died from terrorism over fifty years in Europe. Statistically this means that if a European goes on a one week vacation to the United States there is a higher probability of being shot and killed by a police officer during that week than there is of being killed in a European terrorist attack over the course of an entire year. (although it is fair to say that the odds of being shot by a police officer in the States do increase significantly if you are a young black man and decrease significantly if you are a middle-aged white man waving a Confederate flag at a gun rally).

So given that you are statistically at least fifty times more likely to be shot by a police officer during a one week vacation in the States than you are to be killed by any form of terrorism by staying in Europe, why are we so terrified of terrorism? One of the reasons is that human beings are terrible at assessing and determining probabilities. We invariably ascribe high levels of probability to high visibility evocative events with strong dramatic and visual elements. Thus we are fearful of flying even though the most basic probability analysis demonstrates that by far the most dangerous part of an air trip is the drive to the airport. Thus, both car travel and road fatalities soared in the year after 9/11 and then settled back to the previous patterns. Gerd Gigerenzer at the Max Planck Institute was able to calculate precisely the number of Americans who died as a result of this shift. 1,595 additional Americans died directly as a result of changing their travel patterns from flying to driving the year following 9/11. In other words, more than one half of the number of people who actually died in 9/11, were killed in road accidents on the basis of flawed probability analysis.

It is the very evocativeness of terrorism, particularly our response to it that makes us grossly over- estimate its probability. The threat from Islamic terrorist to citizens of the United States or the European Union is incredibly small, indeed far smaller than being shot by a trigger-happy American cop. It could be suggested that Islamic groups like ISIS are so psychopathically intent on destruction that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Would that it were so. The fundamental essence of increasing or decreasing the likelihood of any future event is an accurate understanding of its present probability. The gross overrepresentation of terrorist acts together with the demonization of the Muslim community only serves to increase the likelihood of future attacks rather than protecting us. Even Tony Blair is (you know, kind of) finally coming around to acknowledging that the invasion of Iraq, with its up to one million loss of life, may have increased the risk of terrorism. So too, will the draconian responses to young Muslims and the demonization of whole communities only serve to further alienate and drive the foolhardy into the arms of extremists.

Our response to the tragedies in Paris seems to reflect an impotence of the intellect. An impotence in which rather than grapple with a complex jigsaw of ambiguous pieces and incomplete knowledge, we force together stereotyped shapes that invariably reinforce our darkest fears and reach for the Viagra of draconian civil suppression, drone strikes and military might. Rather than the tortuous and time-consuming delicacy of developing understanding, we are able to at least reassure ourselves that we can still get it up. In the remarkable documentary The Fog of War the former American Secretary of War, Robert McNamara, wisely reflected on the mistakes that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War and applied the lessons to the so called War on Terror: “ If we are to deal effectively with terrorists across the globe, we must develop a sense of empathy-I don’t mean “sympathy,” but rather “understanding”—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.”

We cannot understand or develop empathy for Islamic groups by grossly overestimating their impact and then demonising entire cultures. Certain Laws of Probability may assist us in attempting to predict the occurrence of future events but causality is rarely linear, it is instead comprised of an infinite complexity in which the withdrawal or introduction of sometimes the smallest of variables can fundamentally affect the likelihood of something happening. Moreover, even our response to an anticipated event, the so called self-fulfilling, or self-defeating hypothesis, will increase or decrease the likelihood of something. For example, we hear on the radio that the ring road will be heavily congested, so we, together with a few hundred others, take the train to work. Hence the trains are crowded but there are no traffic jams. Alternatively, we hear the ring road is flowing freely and we all jump in our cars and cause traffic jams. Equally, did fear and the swingeing draconian laws passed by the French government in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre increase or decrease the likelihood of future terrorist attacks? Did arresting children or locking up drunken men with learning disabilities for several years for saying the wrong thing contribute to the vaunted French value of assimilation? The French notion of assimilating all into some contrived notion of French identity is of course both spurious and ill-defined. The French seem to have forgotten that the Normans were in fact originally Viking raiders from Denmark and Norway. Even their president’s surname reflects the fact that his ancestors came from somewhere else, in Hollande’s case, the Netherlands. And wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when the Académie française has its latest discussion on “le weekend”. Although you would be unlikely to understand the debate as French as a second language is slowly dying out!

Caricatures of cultural and ethnic groups, whether by Charlie Hebdo, Donald Trump or ISIS, are never helpful and only serve the agenda of those doing the drawing. The response to the Paris killings not only substantially overestimates the threat but also in stereotyping and demonising the Muslim community makes acts of terror both by and against the community much more likely. (In the UK racial hatred crimes against Muslims increased 300% in the week after the Paris killings)


Say what you like about Arnold Schwarzenegger, he always brings plenty of breadth and height to the one dimensional characters he plays. Okay, there is never any moral depth (or any depth at all for that matter) but that’s Arnie for you. And so it was for the film True Lies, which, when released in 1994, was the most expensive film ever made. Directed with aplomb by James Cameron it was hard not to be carried away by the sheer entertainment of secret agent Arnie battling the forces of pure evil as Islamic extremists contrived to explode a thermonuclear device in the heart of The Great Satan, the United States. The magnificent Art Malik’s performance as a swivel-eyed fanatic made the soon to be notorious Osama Bin Laden seem like a studiously courteous Swiss maître d’. The film was made around the time of the first World Trade Centre bombing and released three years after the first Gulf war. A war in which a mainly western allied force fought on behalf of two of the most conservative Muslim nations, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to evict Iraq (at the time a largely secular nation) from Kuwait. Ironically, it was the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the war that Osama Bin Laden used as the primary raison d’être for 9/11. On leaving the cinema after watching True Lies, even though it was partly billed as a comedy, you were very, very afraid of Muslims. The stereotyping of Muslims was gross, poor Art Malik must to this day hang his head in shame at his incredible over-the-top performance. Sadly, such stereotyping has become so much the norm, I suspect that if a 21 year old saw the film now they may well believe it to be a documentary.

So just when and why did we discover that Muslims are so terrifying? True Lies was something of a marker although I suspect that our fear began to escalate around the time when the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own ennui, an event which was swiftly followed by the first Gulf War. So, given all the other far more substantial existential threats, why the Muslims? It’s the nature of fear that sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t any logic to it. Perhaps after Nazism, the Yellow Peril, fluoride in the water, AIDs, Rock and Roll, Feminism, Y2K (remember that, it was a doozy?), mini-skirts, Mad Cow Disease and Communism, it may just have been Islam’s turn. When you truly look at the evidence it seems no more rational than that.

Of course, putting things into context doesn’t always assuage our fears. The day of the Paris atrocities we flew into the bush to check out the wild life. Although I hadn’t heard the news about Paris, it was Friday the 13th. The cramped ancient single engine Cessna was piloted by an overly cheerful young black Muslim man.

I hope my prejudices have eroded to a reasonably tolerable level (for me at least) and I can, with my eyes closed, silently recite a pretty good mantra on probability theory and the likelihood of high impact, low incidence events but (I repeat, it was after all Friday the 13th!) as we approached the narrow stretch of corrugated dried mud that the pilot claimed was an airstrip, I have to say, I was cacking myself.


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