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.”

Making Cole-slaw of history

For a trained historian, even in Middle Eastern studies, Juan Cole is scandalously incompetent when it comes to cause and effect. Here’s his latest gaffe, made in the context of the London bombings:

According to the September 11 Commission report, al-Qaeda conceived 9/11 in some large part as a punishment on the US for supporting Ariel Sharon’s iron fist policies toward the Palestinians. Bin Laden had wanted to move the operation up in response to Sharon’s threatening visit to the Temple Mount, and again in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argued in each case that the operation just was not ready.

Did Cole read the same 9/11 report as the rest of us? There’s not a single passage in the 9/11 report mentioning Sharon’s (or Israel’s) policies, and I challenge him to produce one. Cole just made it up. And in point of fact, the report’s narrative definitively contradicts him.

The report makes it clear that 9/11 was conceived well before Sharon became prime minister of Israel in March 2001. Chapter 5, section 2 (p. 153) says the following, based on the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad (KSM), the 9/11 mastermind:

According to KSM, he started to think about attacking the United States after [Ramzi] Yousef returned to Pakistan following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing…. He maintains that he and Yousef…speculated about striking the World Trade Center and CIA headquarters as early as 1995.

The idea was fully hatched by early 1999 (p. 154):

KSM acknowledges formally joining al Qaeda in late 1998 or 1999, and states that soon afterward Bin Ladin also made the decision to support his proposal to attack the United States using commercial airplanes as weapons…. Bin Ladin summoned KSM to Kandahar in March or April 1999 to tell him that al Qaeda would support his proposal. The plot was now referred to within al Qaeda as the “planes operation.”

The election of Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister in May 1999 didn’t put a crimp in the planning. To the contrary: preparations proceeded apace, and Bin Laden pushed even harder for the operation, which wasn’t quite ready. Bin Laden did so again after Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. But that visit took place on September 28, 2000, when Sharon was leader of the opposition. He only became prime minister five months later.

In short, the 9/11 operation could hardly have been “conceived” as a response to U.S. support for Sharon’s “iron fist policies.” It was conceived, its operatives were selected, and it was put in motion, long before Sharon took the helm.

And what of Cole’s claim that Bin Laden wanted to launch the attacks “in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless”? The Jenin operation took place in April 2002, seven months after 9/11. Apparently, in the bizarre universe of the Colesque, Sharon’s horrid deeds are always at fault for 9/11, even if he committed them after the event. (Hat tip to the vigilant readers of Tony Badran’s latest Cole-smashing post.)

Cole has been summoned by certain media to pronounce on the motives of Al-Qaeda in striking London. He hasn’t got a clue. He can’t keep the basic chronology of the 9/11 plot straight, and he doesn’t have any notion of overall Middle Eastern chronology, which means he regularly mangles cause and effect. Reason? Bias trumps facts. If historians could be disbarred, Cole would have lost his license long ago. Instead, the Middle East Studies Association has elected him its president. So much for scholarly standards.

Addendum: Experienced Cole-watchers know that when he makes a mistake, he just goes back and tidies up his postings. So he’s purged the Jenin reference. Instead, he writes that Bin Laden wanted to move up the operation “in response to Sharon’s crackdown in spring of 2001.” That’s not what the 9/11 report says. It says Bin Laden may have considered speeding up the operation to coincide with a planned Sharon visit to the White House (p. 250).

Knowing Cole’s habits, I saved the original posting. It’s here. The doctored version is here. Blogger etiquette demands that substantive errors be fixed by adding or posting an explicit correction. Cole exempts himself, as he must, given the gross inaccuracies that plague his weblog. So you quote him at your peril: his words might change under your feet. Here, for example, is a poor Cole admirer from Pakistan who quoted Cole Sahib’s Jenin revelation. I don’t have the heart to notify him that his hero got it wrong. (See Jenin update below.)

Further reading: See my Cole archive, where I revisit some of Cole’s wackier interpretations of Al-Qaeda. See especially the entry entitled “Dial 911-COLE,” which unearths his comparison of the 9/11 perpetrators to the Applegate people—UFO nuts. A year after 9/11, he dismissed Al-Qaeda as “an odd assortment of crackpots, petty thieves, obsessed graduate students, would-be mercenaries, and eccentric millionnaires.” No wonder Cole has had so much trouble digesting the 9/11 report.

Update: An intermediary wrote to Cole to bring his attention to his flawed representation of the 9/11 report. Cole’s response: “T.P. points out by email that I should have said that the 9/11 Commission concluded that the timing of 9/11 was attributable to Sharon, not that the operation was largely conceived in response to him. This is correct; one writes blogs in haste and my phrasing was insufficiently careful.” Actually, this isn’t correct either: the 9/11 commission found that operational readiness determined the timing of 9/11. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad rebuffed Bin Laden’s attempts to move it up.

Cole goes on to say that it is still “my conviction based on intensive study of Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Khalid Shaikh Muhammad” that they saw 9/11 as “punishment for the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem.” I think it’s much deeper than that, based on my own “intensive study,” but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is that the 9/11 report doesn’t make or endorse Cole’s argument. And now that we know Cole works in haste, thus misreading a plain English text, what should we think of his hasty translations (renditions?) of Arabic? Take them with a grain of salt, or just bring along the entire salt shaker.

Jenin? No word on that one. (See Jenin update below.)

Update: “Another American,” a diarist at Daily Kos, is working to persuade readers that this critique deserves serious consideration. He’s running into some stiff opposition from militant (and occasionally obscene) Cole addicts. Have a peek.

Jenin Update: The “Pakistani admirer” who quoted Cole’s Jenin claim has cropped up in Tony Badran’s comments, with this: “I contacted Cole regarding his slip-up, and he said simply that it was a slip of the keyboard, which was, I must add, an odd defense.” Oh, it’s not odd. Maybe it’s one of those wireless keyboards, and a transmission from a UFO (you know, flown by the Qaeda-Applegate people) interfered with his computer, and just slipped that Jenin reference in. I think that’s a better explanation than the time warp thesis i.e., that in a parallel universe, Jenin did happen before 9/11. After all, we have entered the Cole-mine, where the usual laws of physics are suspended, and magical things become commonplace.

Another update: Cole now announces his editorial “policy,” which will be news to readers of his weblog (who still haven’t been told about the Jenin fix). “I post late at night and sometimes am sleepy and make mistakes. My readers are my editors and correct me. If the corrections come the same morning, I make them directly to the text, as a ‘second edition.’ If the posting has been up a few days, I put a footnote when making a correction. That is, I consider the text correctable for the first day or so. That is my editorial policy. Like it or lump it.” Got it? For the “first day or so,” an entry is just a draft! But wait a minute… don’t most people read the entry on the “first day or so”? Isn’t that when it’s most likely to get quoted? And what if a reader doesn’t want to be Cole’s editor? (I’ve got my own stuff to edit, thank you.) So here’s my policy and it’s simple: you broke it, it’s yours; you post it, it’s yours. Like it or lump it.

Updated again! Believe it or not, Cole has repeated the offense: the “sleepy” explanation has been purged from his site! Here is the original entry (which I saved, of course), and here is the purged version. (He also cut a nasty personal attack on me, which I’ll treat separately.) Well, he can keep deleting. I’ll keep storing.

Tit for tat: I go to all this trouble to correct Cole, and he attacks me personally. So here’s my rejoinder.

Default analysis and the F-16 theory

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

“Why do they hate us?” The suicide hijackers did nor say, leaving Americans to ponder what drove so many men to commit such horrific acts and sacrifice their own lives in the process. As the evidence accumulated and the identities of the hijackers came into focus, a fascinating picture emerged. Most of them came from the edges of Saudi Arabia, the prime recruiting ground for Saudi-born Usama bin Ladin. Later in the fall, his own recruiting video went up on the website of Columbia University Press, along with a detailed content analysis. “Make no mistake,” wrote one of the editors. “First and foremost bin Ladin is concerned about his home front in Saudi Arabia. His main goal is to challenge and deny the very legitimacy of the Saudi royal family in order to topple it.” Palestine came second in emphasis, Iraq third.4

But the rest of academe decided otherwise. To the question “Why do they hate us?” the professors answered in unison: “Palestine”—or, in many cases, “Palestine, stupid,” a rebuke to Americans for failing to see how U.S. support for Israel had invited the disaster. Few if any of the “experts” bothered to delve into the backgrounds of the known terrorists or analyze the bin Ladin material in video and print. Instead, they did what is done every day in the Middle Eastern studies guild: they fingered Israel, knowing full well their colleagues would nod in automatic agreement. It’s the default analysis, the no-risk explanation, and invoking it requires nothing so onerous as research.

Exhibit “A”: an essay by Harvard social anthropologist Nul Yalman, published in The Harvard Crimson. Yalman lectures to perhaps the most important undergraduate course in the field, “Foreign Cultures 17: Thought and Change in the Contemporary Middle East.” This fall the course was swamped: it had about 250 students (three times the usual enrollment), divided into fifteen sections, taught by ten teaching fellows. (According to a press item, one of the students lost a parent at the World Trade Center.) Yalman was a very big man on campus after September 11.

And this was Yalman’s assessment of the motive behind the attacks (pardon the fractured grammar): “It was obviously an act of blood revenge, a subject about which anthropologists have long written about in terms of the tribal codes of the Middle East. There is, regrettably, nothing very surprising in this. There had been too much murder going on in Israel and the West Bank for no extreme reprisals to take place.” If only Clinton had succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement, “this disaster could well have been avoided.” And since it was about Palestine, a war in Afghanistan would be pointless. “There are not many men left alive in that unfortunate land,” Yalman calculated. “Most of the population consists of women and children,” and it would be pointless “to bomb ruins further into ruins. In any case, this is a side issue. The main question lies in and around Jerusalem, both in myth, in history, and for the present.”5

Now to my untrained eye, it looked like there were quite a few men still alive in Afghanistan, riding about in tanks and Toyota pickups, and the whole business looked very remote from Jerusalem. But even when it came to al-Qa‘ida and the Arab hijackers, where was Yalman’s evidence that their actions arose from the Palestine blood feud? As it happens, the hijackers left behind only one clue to a possible political motive: their nationalities. These didn’t point to Palestine but to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. One doesn’t have to be a Harvard anthropologist to know that regimes and Islamists have waged bloody feuds over who should rule these two states. They are, respectively, the richest and the most populous in the Arab world, and they are America’s two major Arab allies.

The problem, of course, is that American academe is obsessed with Palestine, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Many professors are tenured homing pigeons. Set their minds aloft anywhere from the High Atlas to the Hindu Kush. They will wind up flying to Jerusalem and congregating on the esplanade of the Dome of the Rock. Every issue must somehow be processed and reduced to an aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the underlying theory is this: Israel is responsible for everything that goes badly in the Middle East, and if the linkage is not apparent, it is the scholar’s duty to claim otherwise—by bald assertions.

As for Yalman, by mid-semester one of his students couldn’t take it any more and sounded off in the Crimson. “The material from Foreign Cultures 17 is not quite propaganda,” she wrote, “but it comes close.” Students were “being indoctrinated, not educated,” and the course had “not delivered what it promised at the beginning of the term.”6 Harvard’s undergraduate tuition and fees this year are $26,019.

Exhibit “B”: an essay for the website of the Social Science Research Council by Said Amir Arjomand, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an expert on Iran. Arjomand offered this hierarchy of “causes”: “the [Israeli] use of American weapons against Palestinian civilians, our continued bombing of Iraq, and our support for compliant Arab regimes who maintain our oil supply.” But the first “cause” was so dominant that Arjomand even suggested an immediate linkage: “Who is to say that if the F-16s had not been so visible in the destruction of Palestinian targets a short while ago, some of the plotters in this highly improbable and risky project would not have wavered and caused its failure, as happened in the attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993?”7

Who indeed? But why speculate in only one direction? For example: many Arab and Iranian public figures sanctified a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings over the summer. If they had done otherwise, casting doubt on the bombers’ reward in paradise, might some of the plotters have wavered and failed? It’s an idle speculation as valid as Arjomand’s (to my mind, even more valid). Perhaps on this basis, the FBI should add all those who endorsed Palestinian suicide bombings to the terrorist wanted list. Perhaps the Palestinian Authority bears responsibility as well.

Of course, sociologists and greengrocers are entitled to speculate; in the absence of evidence, there isn’t any reason to prefer one to the other. The problem arises when a sociologist’s idle speculation is stamped with the imprimatur of the Social Science Research Council, as part of its effort “to bring theoretical and empirical knowledge to bear” on September 11. Is this really the best that the grand presidium of the social sciences can muster?

One could go on, with Exhibits “C” through “Z.” The bottom line is that most of academe performed miserably in providing a context for the attacks. They did somewhat better in explaining the attitude of Arab public opinion but then blew it by exaggerating the volatility of the “Arab street” and the fragility of Arab regimes. The Islam “experts” then embarrassed themselves by urging a suspension of the war during Ramadan.8 Happily, they were ignored, and the Taliban did not outlast the Ramadan moon.

4 Fawaz A. Gerges, “Eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden,” at http://www.ciaonet.org/cbr/cbr00/video/cbr_v/cbr_v_2b.html Yalman, “Terrorist Mayhem in America,” Harvard Crimson, Sept..
5 Nur O. Yalman, “Terrorist Mayhem in America,” The Harvard Crimson, Sept. 21, 2001, at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=121262.
6 Jordana R. Lewis, “Indoctrinating, Not Educating,” The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 15, 2001, at http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=160661.
7 Said Amir Arjomand, “Can Rational Analysis Break a Taboo? A Middle Eastern Perspective,” at http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/arjomand.htm.
8 Prime example: “John Esposito: War during Ramadan?” CNN chat room discussion, Oct. 29, 2001, at http://www.cnn.com/2001/COMMUNITY/10/29/esposito/.