Monday, May 30, 2011

How to argue with an Islamist

A few days ago I chatted with an Islamist, a young Pakistani man who dreamed of establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate stretching across the Muslim world and based on the ancient laws of Muhammad. This young man voiced ideas that would have shocked me once, but which I have become familiar with over years of online discussions. A mutual friend, however, was appalled and baffled by his theocratic notions so I decided to put together this list of tips for debating with Islamists.

These tips should not be used thoughtlessly. I often see Islamists and other political radicals regurgitating simplistic arguments taken from radical blogs without ever bothering to consider them. Here I encourage readers to introspect and question their own prejudices. You should not try to brainwash your Islamist friend. Rather, this post will help open-minded people to expose the contradictions and fabrications relied on by Islamist propagandists.

For sake of brevity, I will assume your Islamist friend is male and use ‘he’ instead of the more awkward ‘he or she’. Also, this article is intended for a Western non-Muslim but could be used by anyone, including a Muslim who rejects the political ideology of Islamism.

1) Ask for examples
Islamism is a radical political ideology. We are surrounded by wealthy liberal democracies so we already know what life is like in them. The onus is on your Islamist friend to convince you that his radical religious alternative is better, so ask for an example of a modern Islamist society. This will probably provoke one of two replies:

a) He will give real examples like Saudi Arabia or Iran. If he does, you may be able to use these later. As real-world examples Saudi Arabia and Iran are - like all countries - flawed. It can be helpful to explore those flaws.

b) He will argue that no Islamist society exists today, but that it did in the past. This is a very likely response, and it shows your friend to be a Utopian thinker, dreaming of a perfect political system that would be correct in all circumstances and for all people. It is harder to debate with Utopianists because you can’t compare real countries with their imagined alternative, but simply pointing out his lack of a modern example might get him thinking about it.

2) Don’t attack Islam
The religion of Islam is not your concern, the political ideology of Islamism is. Remember that a great many Muslims are comfortable with relatively secular government, including some who consider themselves devout and serious believers. Attacking Islam is off-target and could provoke anger from potential allies.

A second reason is that your Islamist friend is probably more knowledgeable about Islam than you, unless you happen to study or practice it yourself. I have not studied Islam so I prefer to avoid getting bogged down in scriptural arguments.

3) Pick your fights
Related to this, remember that you don’t have to disagree with everything your Islamist friend says. Even successfully challenging a few points could inspire him to introspect and question his prejudices. Many Islamists will bombard you with loosely-related, or irrelevant, information. Don’t feel that you must answer each point he makes: focus on some central issue.

You can also play to your strengths. If you are an evolutionary biologist, you can tackle their Creationist beliefs. If you like geology, you can explain how we know that Earth is billions of years old, not thousands. If you know about politics, pick apart their dream theocracy. Just finding one weak point could undermine the whole ideology.

4) The West doesn’t exist
Islamists will sometimes define their ideal society by contrast with a corrupt, godless West. Yet this relies on the understanding that there really is a single uniform Western society.

There is not. The borders of the West are utterly unclear. Is Russia Western? Japan? Industrialised China? What defines Westernism? If it is industrialisation, democracy or women’s rights then no European countries were Western a few centuries ago. Dissect Islamist generalisations by exploring this. They complain sometimes about Western Crusades but is the West they oppose medieval Catholic theocracy or modern secularism?

Many political radicals like to deal with monolithic political alternatives: black and white, right and wrong. Yet reality is fractured and complex. No perfect society exists. No culture ends discretely at the political border without leaking some way across or being influenced by its neighbour. The West is a broad and ever-changing concept that today rarely refers to Christendom and usually implies a set of modern values that are as comfortable functioning in Japan or South Korea as Western Europe. Islam, for that matter, is no different.

5) Dissect Islam
Some Islamists use two different standards to calculate the number of Muslims in the world. The first is broad and inclusive, so that anyone who claims to be Muslim is included. When Islamists boast about Islam being the ‘fastest growing religion’, they use this inclusive estimate.

The second is exclusive, and insists that only a minor core of believers are ‘true Muslims’. In that estimate, individuals who drink alcohol, listen to music, wear revealing clothes, associate with non-Muslims or have pre-marital sexual relations are excluded. Also excluded may be all Muslims who do not belong to the sect of that particular Islamist. Ahmadis and Sufis are out, Sunni or Shia may be excluded too.

When boasting about the population of Muslims many Islamists take the former estimate, but when discussing the correct behaviour of Muslims, they shift to the latter. It may be useful to question this, and to find out how your Islamist friend decides which individuals are Muslim. If he tries to switch between the two estimates as it is convenient for his argument, point out the inconsistency.

6) Use sources he accepts
If he challenges one of your claims, you need to be able to point quickly to a reliable source, and it needs to be a source that he accepts. He may dismiss inconvenient statistics or news by attacking the source, so this is important. Will he accept UN statistics? World Health Organisation? World Bank? OECD?

One way to do this is to use the same sources as he does. For example, many Islamists will denounce the US for killing ‘millions’, ‘hundreds of thousands’ or ‘over 650,000’ people in Iraq. The latter figure actually comes from a survey by the medical journal Lancet, published in 2006. If he uses their figures, you can infer that he accepts Lancet as a source. This is a perfect opportunity to undermine his simplistic understanding of the Iraqi conflict because the Lancet survey explains:

Deaths attributable to the coalition accounted for 31% (95% CI 26–37) of post-invasion violent deaths.

46% of violent deaths were caused by unknown actors while 24% belonged to ‘others’. The implication here is that a great many of victims in Iraq were probably not killed by the US-led coalition, challenging his anti-American assumptions.

Likewise, see what news media he accepts. Many Islamists believe that ‘Western media’ is deliberately biased against Muslims, or that it is controlled by Jews. In reality channels like Al Jazeera cover quite similar ground to major Western sources like BBC or Reuters, so use sources like Al Jazeera rather than getting side-tracked trying to convince him of the merits of BBC.

7) Don’t defend the invasion of Iraq
The biggest anti-war marches in history happened in Europe, before the invasion of Iraq. Mention the three million people who marched in Rome against the war. (Ask your Islamist friend if he also protested against the war! In reality the European protests vastly outnumbered those held in Muslim-majority countries.) These protests undermine Islamist claims about an anti-Muslim West, itching to go to war against Islam.

I was among those marchers and I still think the invasion was unwise and harmful. However even if you supported the invasion, recognise how it strengthened the Islamist narrative of a Crusader West fighting against Islam. Try to break that narrative down, perhaps by highlighting Saddam Hussein’s violent repression of Shia Islamist group Da'wa. Hussein was a brutal secularist, hardly a hero of Islam.

It helps, though, if you oppose the Iraq war.

Radical political movements like Islamism need a nemesis, something to push against, someone whose perfectly opposing views gives Islamists a sense of identity. Anti-Muslim Westerners who boast about Western supremacy and revel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide them with that. Knowing when to yield and to agree with your Islamist friend renders their bitter defiance unnecessary. If they push and you step aside, they fall over. Destabilise and surprise them with agreement, and you force them to think. Cracks in the implacable structure of Islamism will follow.

7) Don’t defend imperialism
Much modern Islamism dwells heavily on European colonialism, especially the colonisation of Muslim-majority lands. Islamists have to explain why most Muslim-majority countries have failed so far to develop wealth to the extent of the West or Far East, and one way is to blame economic stagnation on Western imperialism. The Europeans supposedly only became wealthy by looting the wealth of their innocent Muslim neighbours.

This is a very simplistic view of imperialism, but rather than argue over the details, you can puncture their argument with a few simple points.

First point to the fact that most European countries didn’t have colonies, at least since 1800. In fact a great number of Europeans live in countries which were colonised by their own neighbours: including Ireland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary and Romania. Millions of Europeans live in countries once conquered by the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks too: Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Cyprus and so on.

Ireland is a useful example because it was colonised by Britain for far, far longer than any Muslim-majority country: its occupation by Anglo-Normans began in the 12th century. If British colonialism is to blame for modern poverty in Egypt or Pakistan, then Ireland should be truly abject. In reality there is no clear link between British colonialism and modern wealth. Here are some former colonies along with UK, from the CIA World Factbook’s list of countries by GDP per capita, PPP:

Singapore: $57,000
Ireland: $37,600
UK: $35,100
South Africa: $10,700
Bangladesh: $1,700
Zimbabwe: $400

In the long-term, imperialism seems to be a poor way to generate wealth, while victims of imperialism can outgrow their former oppressors. Switzerland never had colonies and hasn’t been to war since 1815, yet today is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Don’t actually defend colonialism, however. Centuries of oppression and looting may not make future economic distress inevitable, but they leave bitter memories – here in Ireland as much as in Muslim lands.

8) Mention Muslim imperialism
In the 1960s Muslim-majority Indonesia took control of Christian-majority West Papua, which the Dutch colonial power had been preparing for independence. Indonesia began widespread mining in West Papua and large-scale migration of Muslim Indonesians followed, prompting separatist violence by the natives. Indonesia also invaded Catholic-majority East Timor in 1975, and brutally suppressed its people until, with a final burst of violence, the state became independent in the 2000s.

Morocco has a similar experience, seizing Western Sahara after the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial power, and suppressing a separatist movement there. Islamists are not likely to discuss these matters because they are inconvenient: depicting Muslims as imperial aggressors instead of victims.

Further back into history Muslim Barbary Pirates living in North Africa terrorised European shipping for centuries, raiding as far north as Iceland to seize Christian slaves for the Arab slave market. Much is made today of the pan-Atlantic slave trade which took Africans to the US, but millions of African slaves were also dragged north and east into Arabia.

Anti-Muslim bigots try to depict Muslims as being exceptionally violent, talking of the bloody borders that supposedly run everywhere between Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Islamists try to depict Muslims as being exceptionally peaceful, victimised by barbaric – especially Western – invaders. A more honest look at history shows that Muslims are people, and prone to the same failings as all other peoples, including the temptations to invade and loot their neighbours.

9) Question the Ummah
The Ummah is the Muslim World, or all Muslims. Islamists sometimes try to exaggerate the bond unique to the Ummah, which would reinforce their belief that Muslims would one day unite into a single Islamic caliphate.

In reality Muslims are extremely diverse, a point denied as often by anti-Muslim bigots as by Islamists. In modern history there have been multiple wars fought between Muslim-majority states: Muslims divide as readily into national, tribal or local allegiances as any other peoples do.

Considering the special symbolic importance of Palestine to Islamists, it could be useful to point to the Black September incident of 1970, when Jordan brutally crushed Palestinian militant groups like Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation. Thousands of people were killed. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who would become Pakistan’s president (and would work to Islamify that country), led a Jordanian division against his Palestinian fellow-Muslims.

10) In general, though, don’t talk about Palestine
Many Islamists obsess about the conflict in Palestine and some have quite a bit of knowledge (or have internalised lots of anti-Jewish propaganda) regarding this issue.

You can discuss Palestine of course, and seek to show the complexities of that conflict. But to focus on Palestine is to acknowledge that it is a major world issue. In reality the Israel-Palestine conflict is a relatively minor one. The real carnage goes on mostly in Africa, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo that don’t fit easily into the simplistic global narratives we use to interpret events.

The Second Congo War killed around three million, vastly more than the fatalities suffered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few dozen deaths in Palestine attract greater outrage than millions in Africa. I notice Islamists often complain about double standards in the coverage of world events, yet the double standards are their own. If your Islamist friend changes subject suddenly and reverts to simplistic complaints about Palestine, change course too. When he says: ‘What about Palestine?’ you demand ‘what about Congo?’

11) Emphasise non-Crusader conflicts
A final foreign policy point. Many Islamists will become enraged about the ‘Western’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which reinforce their belief that peaceful Muslims are under siege from an expansionary, arrogant West. This narrative requires that they ignore a great many of other conflicts.

For example, in 2009 Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province of China rioted during tensions with Han Chinese. Communist China has a history of religious repression: Islam was persecuted, mosques desecrated and Qurans burnt during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s.

Not all Islamists have ignored this. An Al Qaeda-affiliated website said of the Han Chinese: ‘Chop off their heads at their workplaces or in their homes to tell them that the time of enslaving Muslims has gone’. In online forums, though, I see very little rage directed at China. Instead Pakistani Islamists side cheerfully with China because they see in China a natural rival of their Indian and Western enemies.

American sabre-rattling with China gives Islamists a strange opportunity to pick sides. They could side with the US, where millions of Muslims live and practice their faiths in freedom, or with China, with a modern history of brutal religious repression. The choice should be obvious, but most Islamists are pragmatic enough to leave aside principle when it gets in the way of convenient narratives. So they side with the communists.

Something similar is true for Burma, where the Muslim minority faces persecution. Since Western authorities tend to side against the Burmese government, many Islamists are quick to abandon their Muslim brethren just to keep the anti-Western spirit alive.

12) Beware of Zakir Naik
Some Islamists I encounter online have very few original thoughts of their own, preferring to copy and paste the arguments made on other Islamist blogs. If you find your Islamist friend’s language suddenly change, or find that they are posting large chunks of text, it can be worthwhile to put a piece into Google and see if it is simply copy-pasted from an Islamist site.

This unoriginality is an opportunity too. You need only show them one or two of the (myriad) internal contradictions of this copy-pasted ideology to get them thinking about it.

One of the common Islamist sources is the Islamic Research Foundation, founded by Zakir Naik. The IRF has a frequently asked questions section featuring exactly the kind of copy-past material used by armchair Islamists, like a ‘Comparative Belief’ section which explains to believers of other faiths why they’re wrong.

I guess that Naik is popular because he tells insecure young Muslims that the culture they were born into is superior: always a satisfying message. Yet his ideas are truly bizarre. Here he argues that eating meat from ‘violent and ferocious’ animals will make people violent! These mad claims are weak points in his ideology. Just point to Japan where people eat ‘violent’ tuna fish, but have a low crime rate!

13) Disprove imagined media bias
Despite the fact that huge African conflicts are ignored by mainstream journalists while politically-sensitive conflicts in Palestine and Iraq get saturation-coverage, many Islamists are convinced that ‘Western media’ are anti-Muslim and pro-Israel. This is easily disproved. Point your Islamist friend to articles by Robert Fisk, for example or any number of editorials in The Guardian. The non-existent pro-Israel agenda by media is one of the more absurd but prevalent Islamist myths.

There are also plenty of Islam-friendly media stories to point to, like Channel 4’s Sharia TV.

14) Question claims about crime
Islamists often deride the West as a failed society riddled with crime, especially sexual violence. First, refer to statistics, which inevitably depict a world far more complex than any Utopianist expects. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime compile occasional estimates for intentional homicide per 100,000 people that throw simplistic Islamist expectations into doubt. For example, below are the ‘high estimate’ intentional homicide figures for some Muslim-majority countries:

Morocco: 1.1
Algeria: 9.6
Niger: 20.2
Kazakhstan: 16.2
Brunei: 1.4
Indonesia: 8.9
Iran: 2.9
Jordan: 6.9
Pakistan: 6.3
Saudi Arabia: 3.2

Meanwhile here are a high estimates for ‘Western’ countries:

Denmark: 1.1
Estonia: 8.9
Ireland: 1.1
Germany: 1
Finland: 2.8
Italy: 1.2
Switzerland: 2.9
Australia: 1.5
United States: 5.9

Most Western countries have relatively low homicide rates. Muslim-majority countries run from very safe to very dangerous. Even the US, criticised constantly for having high crime rates, is safer than Pakistan or Indonesia by these figures.

Remember that the intention here isn’t to show some kind of Western superiority. The US and Estonia really should be more like Morocco or Brunei! Rather it undermines their casual assumption that Western countries are corrupted with violence and crime. In reality, Latin American countries like Jamaica (55.2) and El Salvador (57.5) tend to do worse than either Western or Muslim-majority states in this regard.

Sexual violence is a more difficult issue, since much of it goes unreported. It is plausible that more conservative societies have lower reported rape since victims are scared or ashamed to discuss it. You can point to the wave of Catholic clerical sex abuse cases which emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as evidence that a veneer of religious conservatism could conceal sexual crime - and that cultural liberalism reveals it. They may use Catholic sex abuse to promote anti-Christian ideas: you can use to show how political power corrupts religion.

Also, countries in which marital rape is legal may have distorted figures by excluding all those rapes that happen within marriages. Either way, it can be useful to call your Islamist's bluff by actually requesting comparative statistics, which inevitably portray a more complex picture of reality than they expect. How do they explain an 85% decline in reported rapes per capita in the US since the 1970s?

Some anti-Muslimists insist that rape is endemic among Muslims, while much less common in the West. If you can find reliable evidence for this then discuss it, but it’s likely a grand exaggeration. Remember that you don’t have to denounce every aspect of Islamism. It is perfectly possible that some aspects of Islamist policy could have positive effects. Executing rapists, for example, may or may not reduce sexual violence.

There are no perfect justice systems. Here in Ireland the largest prison is overcrowded and violent. Prisoners are forced to sleep sitting up in cramped cells – and just over a quarter of Irish prisoners are back in prison within a year of release: nothing to boast about.

The execution or mutilation of criminals can feel barbaric to those of us raised in societies which reject this kind of punishment. But avoid the temptation to talk about ‘barbarism’: leave aside your emotions and try to discuss crime only in terms of what seems to work.

A final thought on crime is that even if it happens in Western countries, it need not be perpetrated by the natives. In 2005 Sweden’s National Council for Crime Prevention found that immigrants were fives times more likely to be investigated for sex crimes than Swedes, and that ‘those from North Africa and Western Asia were overrepresented’. What religion could North Africans and West Asians be?

15) Dealing with alcohol
Be honest about this, there are real and major social problems caused by excessive alcohol use. Here in Ireland we see strong connections between alcohol use and suicide , and alcohol is a factor in ‘97% of public order offences’ and ‘half of all assaults’.

There is no point in hiding or denying these grim facts. Yet some Islamists are confused by differences between high-risk binge-drinking and low-risk moderate drinking. In fact there are positive health effects from drinking alcohol in moderation, like lower rates of heart disease. You can point out the differences between riskier binge-drinking cultures of north Europe with the healthier wine cultures of France or Italy.

The misconception I see the most is a great exaggeration of the immediate effects on behaviour of alcohol, as though just a single drop would drive a consumer into madness. Different people respond to the same quantity of alcohol in different ways and very low doses will not usually make adults go berserk. You can prove this point by knocking back a beer mid-argument and carrying on without making spelling mistakes – just call a halt after one!

The IRF argues:

Many may argue in favour of liquor by calling themselves ‘social drinkers’. They claim that they only have one or two pegs and they have self-control and so never get intoxicated. Investigations reveal that every alcoholic started as a social drinker. Not a single alcoholic or drunkard initially starts drinking with the intention of becoming an alcoholic or a drunkard.

Yet you can easily show that not all social drinkers become alcoholics. If they did, almost all Irish people would be booze-addled alcoholics, which is clearly nonsense. Don’t get carried away here. Your purpose is not to convince your Islamist friend to drink alcohol, but rather to dispel the exaggerations spread by Islamist propagandists like the IRF.

17) Deal with Feminism
One of the weirder tendencies I’ve seen in Islamists is their use of Western feminism to promote a deeply anti-feminist ideology. Western feminists sometimes denounce their own socieities for being misogynist, for having a ‘rape culture’, for dehumanising and sexualising women. Islamists agree. They add that if women were forced for their own good to be covered with hijab or - in extreme cases - niqab, then sexual violence would decline and women would live more dignified lives. The IRF, for example, have this to say:

Western talk of women’s liberalization is nothing but a disguised form of exploitation of her body, degradation of her soul, and deprivation of her honour. Western society claims to have ‘uplifted’ women. On the contrary it has actually degraded them to the status of concubines, mistresses and society butterflies who are mere tools in the hands of pleasure seekers and sex marketeers, hidden behind the colourful screen of ‘art’ and ‘culture’.

This is clearly nonsense but it’s also rather difficult to argue about. In all likelihood you already know lots of women who live active and healthy lives - or you are one - but your knowing this personally may not convince your Islamist friend. You can offer these personal examples first: women you know who work fulfilling jobs, who are valued for their intellectual or artistic skills.

You may need to refer to statistical evidence, however, as a way of comparing the ‘West’ with other regions. This is difficult, as there is no obvious indicator which your Islamist friend will accept. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap, for example, inevitably puts European Scandinavian states at the very top with countries like Pakistan, Chad and Yemen down at the bottom. Your Islamist friend will probably dismiss this immediately as Western propaganda.

The report may be useful for its sub-headings, though. If Western countries treat women as concubines, for example, why do so many Western countries educate their women to as high (or higher) standards as men? Or see the ‘Political Empowerment’ subheading, which shows that women are politically powerless in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Another important point to make is that men and women in Western countries are fairly free to behave as they wish. Yes they can work in pornography, or use sex to sell advertising and pop music. But they don’t have to. (Be clear about the diversity of law on such matters as prostitution, by the way. In some Western countries it is legal, in others it is not.) If a young woman here films herself stripping and puts it online, she will not get her head chopped off. Since some young men and women enjoy this - or enjoy getting paid for it - they do it just as they would in repressive states were they not afraid of being punished. (Meanwhile, inability to put explicit material online doesn't stop anybody from accessing it in repressive states.)

Liberty is usually considered an important part of Western society, yet anti-Muslim Westerners sometimes make foolish boasts about the extent of Western freedoms. The truth is that there are no absolutely liberal countries, only countries with greater or lesser degrees of personal freedom.

18) Stick up for freedom
I often see Islamists raging about the hypocrisy of Western countries in their selective adherence to liberalism. Insulting Islam is legal, they argue, but denying the Holocaust is not. They use this apparent double standard as evidence of an anti-Muslim or pro-Jewish conspiracy.

First, remember again the diversity of law: I don’t know how many times I saw Islamists denounce Denmark for allowing Muhammad cartoons while forbidding Holocaust denial, when Holocaust denial is actually perfectly legal in Denmark. Actually it is legal in lots of Western countries, including Ireland, Britain and the US.

Nonetheless the presence of laws prohibiting Holocaust denial in some European countries does play into the Islamist narrative of Western hypocrisy. This is one reason I strongly support a wider liberalisation of society, especially in matters related to free speech. If one is free to burn Bibles, Qurans and flags then Islamists have difficulty in complaining about double standards.

Prohibitions on Islamic veils also seem unwise. I fear that France’s ban on the niqab lends weight to Islamist complaints about double standards. If an Islamist raises this ban, first point out that niqabs are still legal in many Western countries. Another option is to agree with them that niqab and hijab should not be prohibited, on liberal grounds: the state should not police the appearance of its people.

As it is, all societies are irrational mixtures of liberty and repression, with lines drawn arbitrarily in the sand based on the inheritance of forgotten traditions, or on political compromises. Remember that you don’t have to hide the inconsistencies of different Western democracies. Utopianists are concerned with perfect societies, practical people are concerned with acceptably imperfect societies.

19) Don’t be obnoxious about it
Some Western commentators take an arrogant line in these debates, defending every aspect of their own culture and attacking every aspect of Muslim cultures. This is counterproductive and silly. One of the strengths of Western cultures, after all, has been their ability to absorb and reinterpret foreign ideas and technology. Where would Europe have been without paper, gunpowder, tea, and the compass?

Japan is another country famous for its ability to reinterpret foreign cultures, and another country famous for climbing out of poverty to sit among the world's economic giants. It seems that an openness and willingness to change is a theme common to successful nations. So there may be plenty we can learn from Muslim cultures. Listen to your Islamist friend and think about what he says. Simply seek to get him thinking and questioning his beliefs too. Lead by example.

20) Ask what is wrong with modernity
Political radicals of all kinds have an interest in viewing modern life as being disastrous and in need of revolutionary change. Islamists will complain about supposedly rising poverty: the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The convenient truth for you is that modern life is great. Smallpox was eradicated - by vaccination, not prayer - and modern medicine has reduced the lethality of other infectious diseases. We know this partly because of population growth. Ask your Islamist friend why the world population has grown so quickly in modern times. The correct answer is that massive increases in food production thanks to modern pesticides, fertiliser and mechanisation, and massive decreases in mortality thanks to the mastery of diseases like smallpox, have allowed human populations to expand. In the old days they would have disappeared through starvation and pestilence.

There is ample evidence of massive improvements in living standards around the world. Point out the recent Brookings Institution report claiming that over half a billion people emerged from extreme poverty since 2005. Send him a link to the Gapminder Foundation, with its clear evidence of soaring global wealth and health. Things are improving rapidly under the systems he wants to destroy. Convincing a Utopianist of this is difficult because the world as it is has clear problems, but the world as he imagines it does not.

21) Disasters are natural, not supernatural
Some Islamists blame God’s wrath for natural disasters like earthquakes or floods. Simply point out Ireland and ask why God has left it free from earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes (usually), major tornadoes, snakes, scorpions, wolves, tigers and lions. The weird implication is that God must dislike Muslims in earthquake/volcano-prone places like Indonesia and Pakistan, while He must quite like people living in safe places like Ireland.

This is not to mock Muslims, or those suffering from true natural disasters. Rather it should throw Islamist assumptions into doubt. Disasters are caused by geography, and by the political responses to them, not by divine anger.

22) Question the growth of Islam
Islamists often claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. There are major questions to ask about this.

For example, the percentage growth of major religions like Christianity and Islam tend to be low since they already have high numbers of followers. The Chinese religion Falun Gong increased from one believer in 1992 to two million (Chinese government estimate) or 100 million (Falun Gong estimate) by the end of the decade. That is, it increased by millions of percent over a few years: at this rate of growth all humans should be Falun Gong believers before long!

More seriously, many people identify with a religion without taking it seriously, like the ‘À la carte Catholics’ who attend church only for baptisms and funerals, and fornicate cheerfully most of the year round. The same kind of selective approach to religion can be seen in the alcohol consumption of some Muslim-majority countries. Turkey, for example, is officially about 99% Muslim but this WHO study says that the average adult (above 15) in Turkey drank a total of 2.87 litres of pure alcohol in 2005. Kazakhstan, about 70% Muslim, also features among those countries with the ‘most risky patterns of drinking’, the average adult drinking 10.96 litres in 2005. Kyrgyzstan, 80% Muslim, had 5.09 litres per adult. Tajikistan, 98% Muslim, had 3.39 litres. Turkmenistan, 89% Muslim, had 4.63 litres.

Are these individuals, resisting Islamic prohibitions on alcohol, really Muslims? In some cases non-believers may retain a public pretence of being Muslim to avoid peer pressure or apostasy laws. Considering ‘Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Egypt all have laws on the books that punish apostasy with death’, there should be little surprise that the number of believers appear to be growing. If Islam is treated as a cult or organised criminal gang where retirees are executed, it can only increase in numbers.

A final point relates to demographics. Boasts about growing numbers of Muslims need to take into account differences in fertility: some countries have high fertility rates and rapid population growth, others have low fertility rates and stagnant growth. (In general, richer, healthier countries have lower fertility rates. So those Muslims boasting about population growth are really boasting about poverty and ill health.)

23) Muslims aren’t breeding like rabbits
Nonetheless that theme of both Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots that all Muslims have huge families while non-Muslims (especially Westerners) are dying out is nonsense. All economically developed countries have low fertility rates and as Muslim-majority countries develop they experience the same demographic transition. Already Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon are at or below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. This means that without a return to bigger families, or inward migration, countries like Iran and UAE must experience population decline in the future.

Once again we see that Muslims are unexceptional, responding to rising health and wealth in the same way as all other people. The Malthusian fears of anti-Muslimists and expansionary dreams of Islamists are unfounded.

I’ve tried here to deal with some of the ideas I’ve seen voiced by Islamists over the years. Yet there is nothing unique about my experience with them. I have clashed heads with other kinds of radicals over the years too, including West-supremacists who mythologise European history and try to depict Muslims as natural and ancient enemies of civilisation. By referencing medieval conflicts between Christians and Muslims, like the Gates of Vienna blog does, these West-supremacists strengthen Islamist narratives and make conflict more likely.

When you engage in these discussions with Islamists, be polite, open and honest. Say nothing you cannot back up with reliable evidence.

I like peace, and I try to nudge people away from conflict by exposing the myths they use to stir up hatred. The truth is too complex for people to be constantly outraged. Knowledge should lead to doubt, doubt to calm, calm to truce.


  1. First of all congratulations. This is a perfect article. Thumbs up.

    Here are the comments I promised you:

    About the rape and crime statistics, the numbers depend on the legal system a country has and how efficient does it work. These statistics are based on crimes that are reported. So theorically if you abolish law in your country [i.e. everything is legal], there will be "0 crimes reported" in your country. In other words, your country will look like the safest place on the world. But on numbers only. ;) Likewise, if your legal system is too corrupt that people started dealing with crime on their own, again you will get lower reported crimes.

    Another point is the differences at law. In most European countries and America, marital rape [i.e. your spouse have forceful sex with you] is considered a criminal offense. In Iran and majority of Islamic countries, there is no such law. Even if they did, the family structure in these cultures makes it more difficult for the wives to report their husbands. Once more, this will affect how things look but on the numbers only. The so-called expression that "words can lie, numbers don't" is bullshit.

  2. My second comment is about the number of Muslims. Here is an interesting data for you. According to a poll conducted by Ipsos; "Definitive belief in a God or Supreme Being is highest in Indonesia (93%) and Turkey (91%) followed by Brazil (84%), South Africa (83%) and Mexico (78%)." Let's see. Turkey is 99% Muslim 8-9% of which doesn't have a definitive belief in God? That is impossible.

    The problem with Turkish statistics on religion is that they are based on official records. You see, in Turkey they record your religion on your ID card. So when a child is born and his father goes to register him, they ask "What should I put in his religion?". You can leave it blank if the father wishes to, our put another religion. But you can guess what the baby's Muslim father will say. Few people say "Let him decide when he turns 18". That's why I am officially Muslim on records. I find it pointless to go registry office, fill the forms, do a lot of bureaucratic stuff to change it. It shouldn't be there in the first place.

    Anyway, if people go to streets and question the number of "practicing Muslims", it will be a different number.

  3. Great read Shane! As a regular reader, I put this among the very best you've produced. Super-entertaining! I'm sharing this on Facebook too.

  4. Thanks Umut, and great points. It is a strange thing that increased reports of sexual crime might actually be a good thing, a sign that the justice system (and culture) are dealing with more of the incidents that were once ignored.

    Thanks very much too Nilan, and yes, spread it far and wide! :D

  5. Great information/idea to tackle narrow minded people.

    Thank you.


    A Muslim Tatar group invited to poland in the 14th century, intrinsic part of the polish-lithaunian army for hundred's of years.

    This should hopefully break a few assumptions from both Islamists and anti-muslim bigots.

  7. Thanks Hukum Kumar!

    Perfect example, Rohan. I read just the other day about the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 when Crusader Christian armies were defeated by the Ottoman Turks... and their (Christian) Serb allies.

    Many countries have traditional enemies or rivals. Ask someone in Britain and they would say France. Ask in Ireland and they would say Britain. People were too busy fighting their next-door neighbours to worry about distant non-Christians much.

  8. In the Battle of Ankara (1402) where the armies of Timur (Muslim) trashed the Ottoman forces (Muslim), the Serbian allies of the Sultan [whose wife was a Serb by the way] were the only forces that fought until the end, along with the elite Janissaries [converted Muslim soldiers from the Balkans].

    Near the end of the 17th century the Dutch had a slogan called "Liever Turks dan Paaps" ("Rather Turkish than Papist"). That was because the Dutch were in rebellion to get their independence from the Spanish and the Turks were keeping these Spanish busy by attacking them in the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Africa. At the same time, there was also a Franco-Ottoman alliance against the Habsburgs [the Spanish, Germans and Austrians].

    At the same time the Habsburgs were seeking an alliance with the Persian Safavids (Muslim) to hit the Ottomans from the eastern front in order to ease their pressure.

    In the Crimean War, the Turks, the French, the British and the Italians fought together against Russia. In the WWI, the Ottomans were allied with Germany to keep the Russians busy in the Eastern front.

    Turkey participated in the Korean War against and fought against the Chinese and North Koreans.

    I can go on forever with these examples :D

  9. This is really good Shane.

    One more thing that I can add to this is that what Islamists want has/had been achieved in Iran, Saudi Arabia and former Afghanistan. These are the most wretched places on earth. The Saudis treat the migrant MUSLIM workers from Pakistan or Bangladesh worse than slaves.

    The Saudis and Iranians routinely kill political dissidents. What the Syrians, Bahrainis or Libyans are doing to their own citizens is worse than the worst Israel has done with Palestinians.

    And it hardly ever takes this much to show how hollow the arguments of most Islamists are. But unfortunately, this challenge has to come within Islam. It has to be Muslims like me who need to do this more. Outsiders are easily discredited, just because of being from the 'West' or being Christian or Atheist.

  10. Absolutely Ali. I've been reading recently about the Christian Reformation of the 16th century. The Roman Church at the time was up to its neck in corruption: violent and hypocritical. Then several centuries of Catholic-Protestant violence and repression followed. Secularism didn't emerge because people thought it was better, rather it was a compromise worked out to end the cycle of religious destruction.

    In that sense, there's nothing 'Western' about secularism, it was as alien here as it is for Saudis or Iranians today. It became popular mainly because it was pragmatic, successful in side-stepping the corruption and butchery of religious conflict.

    "It has to be Muslims like me who need to do this more."

    Good luck with that! :D Also, feel free to pass this post around, thanks again for the comment :)


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