Beyond impressions: actual views in the Muslim world
As Bill Maher and Sam Harris are getting slammed for “Islamophobia”, it might be helpful to look at the numbers behind their assertions, which are being largely misreported or ignored — misreported by those who are criticizing Islam, ignored by those defending it. For the record, the relative authority of various possible sources on the matter of Muslim belief is as follows. The highest is logic; below that would be a complete survey of the world’s Muslims; then, a representative sample of Muslims employing modern statistical techniques; and finally, the lowest, most unreliable level: the personal impressions of any individual based on interaction and anecdotes. This is important: some people may have more familiarity than others with Islam and Muslims owing to personal history, and may thus rate their personal impressions higher than those of others; but none of these impressions is nearly as reliable as public-opinion surveys. If surveys exist on a question, we no longer need your personal impressions, regardless of what you believe, whom you know, or where you grew up.
A primary source being cited by Maher, Harris, and their supporters is the 2013 Pew Research Center survey. The results are reported by country, surveying Muslims only. The key findings apply to a subset of the respondents. The survey asked all respondents if they favored “making Sharia the law of the land.* It then asked a series of follow-ups of those who did favor making Sharia the law of the land. It is the numbers in this subset that are being misreported; survey users (Maher included) are typically citing those figures as if they represented all Muslims in a given area, rather than just those who favor the implementation of Sharia. But even the adjusted numbers are shocking.
According to Pew, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and that figure or something like it is widely used. But these are, at best, cultural Muslims, as the figure includes children being raised as Muslims but without the foggiest idea of what Islam is, who can’t reasonably be said to believe in either the moderate tenets of Islam or the extreme ones. Islam is a very young, growing religion, so the figure for adults may well be less than a billion. In fairness to Pew, it is probably impossible to identify a consistent age at which belief becomes independent (if it ever does), and thus specify the number of genuine believers. The fact that there are hundreds of millions of children who are counted as Muslims without having made up their own minds and are subject to the charge of apostasy makes the penalty for apostasy a matter of even greater concern. Rather than attempting to parse out how many of the populations in each country are real believers, I have calculated percentages based on the entire population, which, if not absolutely justifiable, is at least relatively justifiable. And bear in mind that anything over 30% of the world’s Muslims, as all the key percentages are, is still hundreds of millions of Muslims.
Assuming Pew’s survey is representative**, we can say that 32% of all Muslims believe that Sharia should be applied to their countries’ entire populations, 54% believe that religious courts should settle family and property disputes, 42% believe in corporal punishments (such as hand amputation for stealing), 45% believe that adulterers should be stoned to death, and — a key in the Maher/Harris argument — 35% believe that apostasy, or leaving Islam, should be punishable by death. This last fact and its corollaries are what prompted Maher to compare Islam as an institution to the mafia — leaving is not permitted. The Qur’anic support for that seems to be 4:89. And it doesn’t matter so much if you or a Muslim you know reject this interpretation of Islam; hundreds of millions of Muslims believe it. Notably, Pew surveyed Indonesia, Reza Aslan’s favorite example of a “liberal” Muslim population, where nonetheless 36% of Muslims want Sharia applied to the entire population, 51% want religious courts to settle family and property disputes, 32% favor corporal punishment like hand amputation, 35% want adulterers stoned to death, and 13% want apostates to be executed. That means that in Indonesia, where according to Aslan women are “100% equal”, there are 75 million adult Muslims who would insist that women go through (notoriously anti-feminist) religious courts for family issues. There are 50 million adult Muslims in Indonesia who favor the death penalty for adulterers. And there are around 20 million adult Muslims, just in Indonesia, who want apostates to be killed.
Not only, then, does Ben Affleck not understand the difference between race and culture, between skin color and belief, but he has no sense of the scale of the problem being discussed. In his view, the extremists are a tiny minority. He condemns them, sincerely I’m sure. He just doesn’t understand how many of them there are. He thinks only of ISIS and the Taliban and the like — those who are actually carrying out these extreme beliefs. This is like blaming Jim Crow on the sheriffs and city councilmen of the Deep South, but wholly excusing the voting majority of Southern whites who supported it, who indeed demanded it. Affleck would never do that.
Those who are oppressed in the name of Islam in many parts of the Muslim world — women, gays, liberal and unconventional Muslims, and apostates — are far better served by the liberalism of Maher and Harris than the liberalism of Affleck and Aslan. In his eagerness to defend Muslims against Islamophobia, someone like Ben Affleck disregards the scientifically-measured facts about public opinion in the Muslim world. Presumably he is just ignorant. The alternative is that he gives a pass to hundreds of millions of Muslims with actual extremist beliefs. That’s gross.
— O.T. Ford
* In Russia and Thailand, respondents were asked whether they favored making it the law of the land in Muslim areas. In the case of Thailand, respondents were only sampled from the five southernmost provinces where Muslims, mostly Malays, predominantly live.
** Pew did not survey anyone at all among such large Muslim populations as India, Iran, and Algeria. It did not ask many of its important questions in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria. It provided complete numbers for just twenty countries, excluding almost half (47%) of world Muslim population. But an examination of the omitted countries suggests to me that, on the whole, they are unlikely to have brought the final percentages down significantly.