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September 10, 2010

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Greg Sargent's column draws a conclusion so obvious, one wonders why it was written. Of course, people with unfavorable views of Islam are more apt to oppose the GZM. And, given that half the people have an unfavorable view of Islam, it follows that PWUVOI constitute the majority of those opposed to the GZM major. The surprise in that poll is that 13% of PWUVOI don't oppose the GZM.

Sargent admits there's no way to tell whether anti-Islam attitudes are the direct cause of opposition to the GZM. To try to give his column some meaning, he creates a straw man. He implies that some GZM opponents disagree with the poll's unsurprising results. Of course he doesn't identfy any such people.

Why bifurcate the 66% who oppose the GZM? Why not simply note that a big majority of Americans oppose the GZM? I have a feeling that Sargent thinks that PWUVOI don't count as much others. I suspect Sargent thinks that having an unfavorable view of Islam makes one a bigot, and bigots shouldn't be listened to.

The Washington Post-ABC poll to which Greg Sargent refers has an interesting question that reveals more about those who designed the poll than it does about those who answered it. Question 28 reads:

Every religion has mainstream beliefs, and also fringe elements or extremists. Thinking of mainstream Islam, do you think mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, or is it a peaceful religion?
The contrast the question draws between "mainstream beliefs" and "fringe elements or extremists" clearly implies that mainstream is good and extremists are bad. That value judgment alone ought to be avoided in questionnaire design. Beyond that, how are we to define "mainstream" and "extremist"? If a tenet is embraced by a majority of a religion's adherents, does that make it mainstream? Should we consider what is mainstream by reference to the views held by a majority in a given country or worldwide?

Is there any real doubt that the questionnaire designers consider the right answer to be that Islam is a religion of peace and only extremists within that religion favor violence? Doesn't the question as written beg for that response?

How should we characterize the willingness to punish gays and adulterers harshly that appears to be widespread among Muslims? Are those attitudes held only by extremists, by a fringe, or are they mainstream? We can pretty much guess what the poll designers would say: liberal attitudes toward such things are mainstream, oppressive attitudes are extremist. Sadly, the world doesn't always conform to such simplistic Manichean analysis.

If the poll designers are interested in public perceptions about Muslims, they'd do well to define whether they're referring to American Muslims or Muslims worldwide, to use value-neutral words like "majority" rather than "mainstream," and to forgo introductory editorializing.

Great post, Rob!

I would add that numbers matters. E.g., some anti-abortion extremists have resorted to violence. The number who have done so is perhaps a dozen or two -- surely less than 100 violent anti-abortion extremists.

OTOH if, say, 1% of Muslims are extremists who believe in using violence, that would add up to around 15,000,000 violent extremist Muslims.

The introduction to Question 28 seems designed to mask size considerations. The survey doesn't allow respondants to address the possibly differing magnitude of various religion's violent fringe groups.

Nor does the survey invite respondants to note that that some fringe elements support vioilence, while other are weird, but not dangerous.

The Hill column was just awful, by the way. How many working class families with union ties are sitting around the kitchen table at dinner time talking about Elizabeth Warren?

Sometimes a man just needs to see the forest for the trees and realize that not all of your ilk knows the same people inside the beltway.

As Rob points out, a substantial fraction of Muslims are taught to punish gays and adulterers harshly. Other practices taught to many Muslims include anti-Semitism, female circumcision, and forcing women to be subservient to men.

These sorts of behavior are abhored by liberals. Yet many liberals deny having unfavorable views of Islam and even characterize such unfavorable views as bigotry. The discord between liberals' view of Islam and their view of common Islamic practices creates cognitive dissonance. Wikipedia says:

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.

...In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior.

cognitive dissonance related to Islam would seem to be a problem in Germany, based on an article in Spiegel.

Political Correctness Is Silencing an Important Debate
A Commentary by Matthias Matussek

German central banker Thilo Sarrazin is being pilloried over his polemic chastising of Muslims,... the case of Thilo Sarrazin has grown far bigger than Sarrazin. It's much bigger than the man or the Islam-critical book he wrote.

...Sarrazin has become code for the outrage over how the politically correct branch of Germany's consensus-based society have dispatched their stewards to escort this unsettling heckler to the door. On their way, they seem to be trying to teach him a lesson, as well: "We will beat tolerance into you."

...his findings on the failed integration of Turkish and Arab immigrants are beyond any doubt....

But what all these technicians of exclusion fail to see is that you cannot cast away the very thing that Sarrazin embodies: the anger of people who are sick and tired -- after putting a long and arduous process of Enlightenment behind them -- of being confronted with pre-Enlightenment elements that are returning to the center of our society. They are sick of being cursed or laughed at when they offer assistance with integration. And they are tired about reading about Islamist associations that have one degree of separation from terrorism, of honor killings, of death threats against cartoonists and filmmakers. They are horrified that "you Christian" has now become an insult on some school playgrounds. And they are angry that Western leaders are now being forced to fight for a woman in an Islamic country because she has been accused of adultery and is being threatened with stoning.

Fortunately American Muslims by and large are integrated into American society. However, in both America and Germany I believe we are seeing irrational and destructive behavior symptomatic of cognitive dissonance.

Good points, David. Returning to Washington Post/ABC Question 28, my guess is that the authors of the poll were trying to explore public perceptions of Islamic views about violence, but to do so in a way that would be so politically correct that no one could take exception to the asking of the question. (Some may say this renders me guilty of swami-ism, but I think I'm just drawing a logical inference from the facts.)

In addition to the problems with the question I raised in earlier comments, there's an additional problem of a false dichotomy. The choices it presents are of Islam being a peaceful religion or of it encouraging violence against non-Muslims. But the possibility exists that even if Islam doesn't encourage violence against non-Muslims, it is not a peaceful religion. (Those who have been stoned may have an opinion on that.) When a questionnaire poses an A/B choice, its authors should be careful to make the choices true alternatives.

George W. Bush famously described Islam as a religion of peace. He might have said this as a scholar of Islam (unlikely), as a platitude-spouting politician (very possible) or as a slightly cynical tactician trying to marginalize violent Islamists and isolate them from the masses, without regard to whether the statement is actually true (perhaps most likely). It may be, as the Washington Post/ABC poll suggests, that a majority of Americans shares Bush's conclusion. We'll never know, because the question they asked is so deeply flawed.

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