Muslims and Methodology

May 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew Research Center this week published a poll that asked Muslims in the US and other countries their views on several political issues. News stories here focused on the US results, but whether those results were cause for relief or alarm depends on who was reading the poll.

The mainstream press (aka “the mainstream liberal press”), ran headlines like these:
In many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream America (Christian Science Monitor)
Muslim Americans in line with US values (Financial Times)
Survey: U.S. Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism (The Washington Post)

The right-wing press picked up on one number in the poll:

Or as the Washington Times put it in an op-ed piece by Diana West, “According to Pew's data, one-quarter of younger American Muslims approve of the presence of skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence in civilian life as a religious imperative —‘in defense of Islam.’”

For some on the right, 26% was a lowball estimate. Here’s Rush Limbaugh:
“Two percent of them say it can often be justified, 13% say sometimes, and 11% say rarely.” So let’s add it up, 26 and 2 is 28, so 31% think to one degree or another, suicide bombing is justified. If you add to that the 5% that don't know or refuse to answer, it's even worse. So almost a third of young American Muslims who support in one way or another homicide bombings according to the Pew poll.
(If Limbaugh had taken a basic statistics course, he could have inflated his estimate even more. There were only about 300 young Muslims in the sample, so the margin of error means that the true proportion might have been several percentage points higher.)

When a result can be open such different interpretation, maybe there’s something wrong with the survey methodology. Let’s take a look at the actual question:

Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?
The conclusion of Limbaugh and others is that unless you say that killing is never ever justified, you’re a menace to society.

But what would happen if we substituted “Christianity” for “Islam” and polled Christians in the US? How many Christians would absolutely reject all violence in defense of Christianity? And how many might say that violence, even violence against civilians, is sometimes justified to defend Christianity from its enemies? I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were higher than 26%.

Consider the war in Iraq, which Limbaugh and the others support. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, several thousand of them as “collateral damage” in US operations. The “shock and awe” bombing in the original invasion certainly included “skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence” upon civilians. But at the time, a majority of Americans supported it, and Bush’s position still remains that we went to war to defend our freedom against its enemies.

The survey has many more interesting findings, and it’s especially useful for comparing US Muslims with those of other countries. But of course those matters were not newsworthy.

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