Dr. Esposito and the seven-percent solution

“Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” —Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Professor John L. Esposito runs a slick operation at Georgetown with $20 million of funding from Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The shared agenda of these two is to make us all feel guilty for having wondered, after 9/11, about Saudis, Muslims, and the contemporary teaching of Islam. Esposito now has a new book (with co-author Dalia Mogahed, who runs something called the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies), bearing the pretentious title Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. It’s based on gleanings from the Gallup World Poll.

The core argument of the book is that only 7% of Muslims are “politically radicalized,” and that “about 9 in 10 Muslims are moderate.” On what does this factoid rest? The authors explain (pp. 69-70):

According to the Gallup Poll, 7% of respondents think that the 9/11 attacks were “completely” justified and view the United States unfavorably…. the 7%, whom we’ll call “the politically radicalized” because of their radical political orientation… are a potential source for recruitment or support for terrorist groups.

So an essential precondition for being “politically radicalized” is to believe that 9/11 was “completely” justified. The pool of support is only 7%. Don’t you feel relieved?

Yet a year and a half ago, Esposito and Mogahed used a different definition of “radical,” in interpreting respondents’ answers to Gallup’s 9/11 question. In November 2006, they gave this definition:

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as moderates. Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on the same scale) are classified as radicals.

Wait a minute…. In 2006, then, these same authors defined “radicals” not only as Muslims who thought 9/11 was “completely justified” (5 on their scale), but those who thought it was largely justified (4 on their scale).

So for their new book, they’ve drastically narrowed their own definition of “radical,” to get to that 7% figure. And they’ve also spread the impression in the media that the other 93% are “moderates.” In 2006, their “moderates” included only Muslims who thought 9/11 was “totally” or largely unjustified (who answered 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is “totally unjustified”). But what about Muslims who answered with 3 or 4? Well, they weren’t “moderates” by 2006 standards. The 3′s were neither “moderates” nor “radicals,” and the 4′s were “radicals.” But this year, they’ve all been upgraded to “moderate” class, because they didn’t “completely justify” 9/11. Whether they largely justified it, or half-justified it, they’re all “moderates” now.

That’s certainly how the press has interpreted it. Here, for example, is the Agence France-Presse report on Esposito’s “findings”:

About 93 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews.

Can there be a more distorted interpretation than that? Sure. Here’s the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, reporting the same “findings”:

The overwhelming majority of Muslims—93 percent—condemned the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Ah. So anyone who didn’t “completely justify” 9/11 is now thought to have somehow condemned it.

Because there’s no hard data in their book, just these percentages, the authors are directly responsible for the confusion they’ve created. Do they care? The “9 in 10 Muslims are moderates” mantra (p. 97) is precisely the “statistic” the authors want to stick in your head. To get it there, Esposito and Mogahed simply jiggled their own definition of “radical”—not my definition, mind you, but theirs. In the introduction to the book, the authors write: “Let the data lead the discourse.” What they’ve done is let their discourse dice the data.

So Esposito and Mogahed believe that a Muslim who thinks that 9/11 was three-quarters justified or half-justified (perhaps that’s bringing down just one of the Twin Towers?) is still a “moderate.” This allows them to leap to the conclusion that terrorism in the name of Islam is just… well, an aberration, like violent crime in America. Here it is, perhaps the most absurd passage ever written about terrorism:

Many continue to ask: If Muslims truly reject terrorism, why does it continue to flourish in Muslim lands? What these results indicate is that terrorism is as much an “out group” activity as any other violent crime. Just as the fact that violent crimes continue to occur throughout U.S. cities does not indicate Americans’ silent acquiescence to them, the continued terrorist violence is not proof that Muslims tolerate it. An abundance of statistical evidence indicates the opposite. (p. 95)

Of course, in America we don’t have vast numbers of people who completely or largely or half-justify violent crime. We don’t have bishops and journalists extolling its virtues. We don’t teach our children that they’ll go to paradise for killing a night attendant at a 7-11. And we don’t wait for someone else to fight our crime; we police ourselves. Terrorism continues to flourish in the Muslim world precisely because many of Esposito’s newly redefined “moderates” justify, excuse, and tolerate it—enough to allow it to burrow into the culture. This is why Who Speaks for Islam? is such a dangerous compendium of misinformation. Its purpose is to persuade us that Muslims don’t have to do much of anything, and that the onus is on us—to banish “Islamophobia,” or change our policies, or address the “grievances” of the “radicals.” The book is a slick version of 9/11 denial. Its message is that the terrorists did what they did despite being Arabs and Muslims.

Nowhere in the book, by the way, do the authors say just what percentage of Muslims think that 9/11 wasn’t done by Arabs, which you would imagine should preface any question about whether or not they think it was justified. Gallup, in its first major poll of world Muslim opinion after 9/11, reported that 61 percent of Muslims believed Arabs weren’t responsible for the attacks, and 21 percent said they didn’t know. A very large Pew poll of Muslim world opinion in 2006 reported the following:

In one of the survey’s most striking findings, majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan say that they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The percentage of Turks expressing disbelief that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks has increased from 43% in a 2002 Gallup survey to 59% currently. And this attitude is not limited to Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries—56% of British Muslims say they do not believe Arabs carried out the terror attacks against the U.S., compared with just 17% who do.

How can a book subtitled What a Billion Muslims Really Think not make so much as a single mention of this pervasive 9/11 denial? How many hundreds of millions out of the billion think 9/11 wasn’t justified, because they suspect the CIA or the Mossad did it to smear the Muslims? And how would their believing that make them “moderate”?

On the Gallup website under “consulting,” Esposito is now billed as a “Gallup Senior Scientist.” In fact, there’s nothing “scientific” about the Saudi-fueled advocacy of John Esposito, whose underestimations of deadly trends in Islamism a decade ago contributed to the complacency that made 9/11 possible in the first place. He’s at it again, this time in partnership with the bottom-liners at Gallup. This book should carry a label on its jacket: Warning! Belief in Saudi-backed pseudo-science is dangerous to America’s health.

Update, April 12: Don’t miss Hillel Fradkin’s devastating review of Who Speaks for Islam? at Middle East Strategy at Harvard. “The book is a confidence game or fraud,” Fradkin writes, “of which Esposito should be ashamed. So too should the Gallup Organization, its publisher.”