The Tipping Point

Curt Schilling was suspended over a tweet which compared the percentage of extremist Muslims to that of fervent Nazis — but research shows that to change the mainstream, only a small minority need be committed to an idea.

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Curt Schilling in 2006 when he played with the Boston Red Sox (photo: Googie Man/GNU 1.2)

In the United States, the sports presenter Curt Shilling has been suspended from ESPN for retweeting a picture that says “It’s said only 5-10 per cent of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7 per cent of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” Shilling added “The math is staggering when you get to true #’s”.

In 2011, Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York published research showing that when 10 per cent of a population are strongly committed to a viewpoint, the view rapidly becomes the majority. The researchers studied how ideas spread between people with different connections. Below the 10 per cent threshold, marginal ideas are suppressed by their very unpopularity and the desire of people to fit in and get along. But when the number of the committed increases beyond 10 per cent, a barrier is passed, and those who would have avoided the belief due to its unpopularity will now be drawn to it by the same dynamic.

This is one of those scientific studies that formalizes something reasonably well known. A small number of determined radicals can determine how a much larger population behaves. To stay with the example of the Nazis, Victor Klemperer was a German Jew who kept a diary of every day of the Third Reich.  Reading it, what is remarkable is how few true racist fanatics are encountered — in fact, I can only remember one such encounter — set against countless acts of decency and solidarity from ordinary Germans. Yet the fact that Nazi fanatics were a distinct minority does not make it wrong to say that Germany and Germans as a whole were enthralled by racism and war-worship.

In one way, though, the comparison between today’s Ummah and Germany in the 1930s and ’40s falls flat. To be German is an accident of birth; to be religious is to commit to a set of beliefs. A better parallel would be with political movements. There were many good Communists — those who fought against apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. There were even many good Nazis — some of the decency Klemperer records is from former party members who had no truck with anti-Semitism but just joined out of anger over joblessness and rampant inflation. One prominent Nazi named John Rabe is celebrated as the “Living Buddha of Nanking” for his role in saving a quarter million lives during the Japanese invasion. The decency of so many Communists and National Socialists doesn’t change the fact that Communism and National Socialism are movements of total evil.

This bears directly on the refugee crisis. That so many Europeans don’t want to accept the refugees is written off reflexively as racism, but that’s just doesn’t work. Slovakia is saying that it will accept refugees, but only Christians — which is another way of saying “No Muslims please”. Slovakia is expressing a feeling that is very widespread in Europe, that refugees and immigrants are welcome, but not if they’re Muslim. Nor are the only ones concerned native Europeans — with Islamist attacks on Hamburg’s Yazidi community, Syrian Christians being driven from Swedish asylum shelters, or the story of Christian refugees being thrown overboard to drown in the Adriatic, there are many immigrant communities within Europe who share those sentiments.

While you can argue whether it applies  here, excluding the illiberal from a society is a foundational principle of liberalism. Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man, was clear that a bill of rights is also a prescription of duties, the duty to actively defend the rights for others. Similarly, John Locke, author of A Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that Britain should practice tolerance among different protestant sects, but should exclude Catholics, because the Catholic Church of the day made no secret that it desired reconquest of the Isles. More recently, in 2011 the German Ministry of Economy authored a white paper arguing that all neo-Nazis should be expelled from the Federal Republic, not least because this would save the state a hundred million Euros a year in counter-terrorism costs.

Taking these points together, one asks the question, what percentage of the world’s Muslims are extremist? It is hard to get reassuring  figures on this.  In an interview with CNN, the researcher Doug Saunders placed the number of radicalized European Muslims at 10 per cent. John L. Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, has estimate the number at 7 per cent.

Those numbers are bleak, not just because they are close the critical threshold, but because both Esposito and Saunders argue are dismissive of the idea of an Islamic threat. Saunders’ book is called The Myth of the Muslim Tide and Esposito has been criticized for deliberately reducing his estimates.  Both are the target of much scorn from the counter-jihad blogger Robert Spencer.

The image is much worse if one considers that “extremist” is one of those terms that conveys a sense rather than a meaning. A better question would be to ask, what percentage of Muslims reject the fundamentals of human liberty?  Here the numbers move from depressing to horrifying. A 2007 Policy Exchange poll found that 7 per cent of British Muslims admire organizations like Al Qaeda, 28 per cent would prefer to live under Sharia, and 37 per cent of Muslims aged between 16 to 24 thought that apostasy should merit death.

The question of death for apostasy is the perfect measurement for illiberal beliefs. Ask whether someone supports the 9/11 attacks — well, many liberals and leftists say they understand anger at the West.  Ask whether someone wants to live under Sharia — the Jews have Beth Din, don’t they, and what does Sharia really mean anyway? But to sanction the murder of another human being for nothing more than a thoughtcrime — that is a flat rejection of human rights and an endorsement of theocratic totalitarianism. In a widely discussed Pew poll of world Muslim opinions, only two Muslim populations had less than 10 per cent support for killing apostates — Kazakhstan with 4 per cent, and Albania with 8 per cent. The rest ranged from the comparatively moderate Bosnians, only 15 per cent of whom favored death for leaving Islam, to the Egyptians, 86 per cent of whom subscribed to this view.

The problem with the rhetoric about moderate Muslims standing up to the extremists is that there is no example in history of moderates ever succeeding against people who mean it. This isn’t to say that non-totalitarian Muslims are only passively accepting of the radicals’ crimes.  No, while millions of Muslims support violent theocracy, millions of Muslims are also disgusted and furious at the crimes of their co-religionists. What they are doing is one of the most underreported stories of our time. These millions and tens of millions of Muslims are not “reforming” their faith, but leaving it.

In Saudi Arabia, the cradle and the heartland of Islam, a full 5 per cent of those polled in 2012 described themselves as ‘convinced atheists’. When one considers the mortal danger of apostasy, 5 per cent is an immense figure. Even more staggeringly, only 67 per cent of Iraqis polled said they were sure that God exists, with 32 per cent not sure that God exists and 11 percent as atheists.

These newly godless are quite clear on what drove their conversion — the relentless horror of jihad, especially when it strikes their own societies. In 2008, the New York Times interviewed an 24 year old Iraqi who said, “I used to love Osama bin Laden.  Now I hate Islam.”

There’s a lot of talk about “reforming” Islam, but that is another of those empty words. When non-Muslims say they hope for an Islamic reformation, they mean that the Ummah should undergo the same loss of power and fanaticism as did Christianity. But it was not the reformation that did that — Martin Luther campaigned for a more repressive and fanatical church. What ended the power of Christian theocracy in Europe were the dreadful wars of religion that followed. As this isn’t the seventeenth century, it isn’t surprising to find Muslims not switching to gentler and less fanatical versions of their faith, but becoming atheists outright.

That ads yet another wrinkle to the refugee drama. Any Muslim turned away from Slovakia has the choice of converting to Christianity.  It will be interesting to see how many take that option.

The dynamic that one only needs a determined 10 per cent to change an entire society has another worrying implication.  As I have written previously, Islamists are not merely an illiberal force on their own, they inspire other illiberal movements.. There are signs that many non-Muslim nations simply do not want anything more to do with Islam — Austria’s recent measure banning foreign funding for Mosques and insisting all Imams must speak German, Poland following Slovakia’s lead, Moscow’s ban on further mosque construction, China ruling that Muslims must sell alcohol during Ramadan. There are also uglier signs — there’s a viral video of a thirteen year old girl addressing the Indian V.H.P. and saying that India has the armies and the nuclear weapons sufficient to reconquer all of Pakistan and eradicate its Muslim population.

There’s a lesson from history that should be terrifying to all. Historically, the final result of Jihad conquests has been a reaction from the infidel world that is as terrible. The Crusaders, the onslaught of Hulaghu Khan, the rise of Slobodan Milosevic were all directly linked to the jihad extremism of the day. Foolish people often accused Tony Blair and George Bush of being crusaders, even as both went out of their way to profess their respect and admiration for Islam. Yet if history is allowed to repeat itself, we could be sure that there would be no attempts to bring democracy or establish freedom. Instead, it would be true crusaders drawn from every society, armed with the most terrible weapons in human history.

I’m an atheist and think that the end of religion is to be welcomed. When I think about Islam, I am struck with the thought that the question isn’t whether or not it can be reformed, but whether it will fade from the world without getting a lot of people, mainly its own innocent adherents, killed.