Saturday 14 November 2015

Getting murder into proportion


A mourner pays his respect outside the Le Carillon restaurant the morning after a series of deadly attacks in Paris that killed at least 127


After the atrocities in Paris last night, it may seem the wrong time to talk about statistics, yet much of the subsequent commentary has involved statistical considerations, albeit implicit. A common concern is that because the terrorists chanted Islamic slogans it might be interpreted as proving that all Muslims are terrorists. Hence the frequent explanations that not all Muslims are terrorists. If anyone draws that conclusion, they would of course be mistaken.

Most Muslims are not suicide bombers.

However, that does not end the statistical discussion, because there is another statement which is equally true.

Most suicide bombers are Muslims.

The following commentary on those two observations is hardly snappy, but it covers the observed facts: Most Muslims are not suicide bombers. Suicide bombers are a statistical rarity among Muslims. However, if you look at the last 20 years of suicide bombing (people with bombs strapped to their bodies, who may also carry other weapons with which they kill members of the general public) then the majority are Muslim. Yes, those deaths are few when compared to other deaths, including violent deaths, but these murders have a particular extra sting of intentionality: they are conducted at random against people for for simply being what they are: civilians going about their lives.

People are not fools. They can understand the normal processes of disease, and of the accidents that sometimes happen. They understand that national murder figures include criminals fighting each other over territory. They find it much harder to accept being attacked by someone bent on the pitiless destruction of their society.  Hence the reason why members of the public are often alarmed by militant Muslims, fear them, and want to avoid them. They do so fully knowing that most Muslims are not terrorists and also knowing that most political, random violence attacks against them are carried out by Muslim terrorists. Being Muslim is a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary terrorism directed against the West. It is very, very weakly predictive, but it is not zero, and people tend to think in general categories, not in statistical gradations.

During what were euphemistically referred to as The Troubles, the mainland bombings  and gun attacks on the United Kingdom were carried out by Nationalist, Northern Ireland Roman Catholics with Irish Republican Army membership. Their being Christians, at least nominally, was not a distinguishing feature, though Roman Catholicism in Northern Ireland was arguably a relevant aspect of their upbringing. (Schooling was largely religiously segregated). British citizens were variously worried about Catholics, nationalists, and the Irish in general. They knew the bombers were a minority. They suspected that they had covert support from many Catholics in Northern Ireland, and big turnouts at IRA funerals seemed to confirm that. Irish accents were not a prized characteristic.

Political murders aside, the proportions of murderers vary considerably from one nation to another. Murder rates per million range from 3 in Japan, to 10 in the United Kingdom and France, roughly 20 in North Africa and Middle East (Syria before the war 22), 30 in Taiwan, 40 in Fiji, 50 in Mauritania, 61 in Ghana, 71 in Eritrea, 80 in Eastern Africa, 90 in Russia, 100 in Middle Africa, 111 in Madagascar, 120 in Ethiopia, 133 in Grenada, 147 in the Cayman Islands, 152 in Myanmar, 170 in Guyana, 184 in Botswana, 193 in Equatorial Guinea, 200 in Nigeria, and then upwards through the Caribbean, Africa and Central America, till we get to 308 in Columbia, 412 in El Salvador, 526 in US Virgin Islands, 537 in Venezuela, and 904 in Honduras.

Not everyone in Honduras is a murderer (merely 1 in 1106 Hondurans), but there is an appreciable 300 fold increase in the risk of being murdered when compared with Japan. You are perfectly entitled to avoid Honduras and holiday elsewhere. Indeed, it is up to you at precisely what murder rate you choose not to visit a country. As an adult you can set your own risk preferences, and act accordingly.

To get things into proportion, this new attack on Paris is a very significant event. Some reports say that the perpetrators clearly had French accents. That is also very significant.  The wider issues of the slaughter in Paris were prefigured in January, with the attack on journalists and a Jewish supermarket.

I said then: Islam has a prominent militant wing, a death meme which finds resonance in many a self-important young idiot.

I do not know how one achieves a Reformation in fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, or even if that is possible, but I hope that someone does, soon.


  1. My family is a mix of Protestants, Roman Catholics and atheists. One cousin was subjected to an indoctrination in hating Protestants in a Roman Catholic Primary School. Nothing of the sort happened to the atheists or Protestants. I have a second family story of Roman Catholic beastliness that might be better untold, also unmatched among the Protestants and atheists.

    Anyway, the upshot is that I don't believe a word directed to arguing that the Roman Catholic church and its adherents in Northern Ireland (or Britain) had no essential connection to the IRA. By analogy, it also makes me dubious about equivalent arguments about Islam. Of course, I have argued that the behaviour of some Muslims today is reminiscent of some Roman Catholic behaviour in medieval and early modern times, but that thought hardly cheers me up.

  2. As with all ethnic tendencies to misconduct, the point is that, given any general population of them, a fairly predictable and substantial portion will engage in the misconduct. Accepting that such tendencies have a genetic basis, the only way to minimize the misconduct is to either exclude this general population or implement an effective 'screening' process for them. Such a screening process is practically impossible, since psychological/genetic evaluation is very difficult, and this entails separating qualifiers from their family and relations.

    The problem here is not only Arab/SW Asian/Muslim tendencies to misconduct, but the fact that another ethnic group that doesn't get along well with them has a disproportionate influence in Western (particularly U.S.) foreign policy, and has instigated Western aggressions against Muslim nations aimed at advancing Israeli hegemony, that have naturally inflamed their anger. Hence, we support the rebels/terrorists attacking Assad's government. This same ethnic group tends to promote immigration to the West from the regions they disrupt. The disproportionate influence of this group should be removed and the aggressions ended, which would attenuate Muslim terrorism. However, it's clear that even in the absence of Israeli conflict, these populations have tendencies to inter-clan struggle and intolerance that yield relatively high levels of violence (at the least, incompatibilities with Western values), even in peacetime.

  3. I'm surprised by Taiwan's high murder rate. It seems anomalous for East Asia.

    1. That's interesting. Who does it? Is there, for instance, any difference in behaviour between the aboriginal population, the descendants of the Chinese settlers of centuries ago, and the descendants of the Republic's retreat to Taiwan after defeat in the Civil War?

  4. As a psychologist who works with people, I often think that what I try to do, in a nutshell, is to help them to behave as cleverly and as calmly as they are able to. Clever and calm is what we aim for in our societies (this capacity varies, as this blog continues to demonstrate). As something of a pessimist (who has his doubts about our current culture), I think that our cognitive, economic and ruling elites vastly over-estimate the cleverness and calmness of their fellow citizens. This leads them to make bad laws, in the interest of treating the world as they wish it to be (sing John Lennon's 'Imagine' here).

    So, the wish for a Reformation in Islam may founder anyway, while Western leaders continue to try and keep the 60's alive by polishing their universal, peace and love values. In the meantime...told you I was a pessimist.

  5. You wrote:

    I do not know how one achieves a Reformation in fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, or even if that is possible, but I hope that someone does, soon.

    Christianity's Reformation as instigated by Martin Luther was "SOLA SCRIPTURA", back to the Bible and the Bible only. So Reformation is about interpreting scripture only. In that sense fundamentalist is a Reformation. The follow the Quran and the Quran only.

    What you are hoping for is not Reformation of Islam, it's the opposite.


    1. On reflection, I think I am hoping for the Enlightenment.

    2. I’ve heard that said before about Islam. I don’t think it’s quite right.

      In Islam, authority comes from the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith. Of these, the most important is the Qur’an, because it’s supposed to be a perfectly preserved communiqué from God; there will be no more such communiqués until the Day Of Judgement. The Sunnah and Hadith are much less important. They’re hearsay stories, passed down from generation to generation, concerning the lives of Muhammad and the first Muslims. Many of these stories have been considered untrustworthy by Muslim scholars ever since they were first collected.

      The Qur’an has plenty of objectionable content. Its depiction of Hell (Jahannam) is barbaric, and it justifies domestic violence. But most of the most unpleasant stuff in Islam actually comes from the Sunnah and Hadith, not the Qur’an. For instance, the Qur’an says the punishment for leaving Islam is to burn in hell in the afterlife; it does not mandate killing anyone in the here and now. That mandate comes from the Hadith.

      For this reason, Muslims who want to be more liberal will often say they’re “Qur’an-only” Muslims. This general movement is called Quranism, and sees itself explicitly as the Islamic equivalent of Sola scriptura.

      But there is a problem. On its own, a lot of the Qur’an doesn’t make any sense. It gives us only one character’s voice in a drama; that character’s voice does not unfold in chronological sequence; and there are constant references to quarrels among Arabian tribal groups we know too little about. Imagine a Book of Exodus which consists only of the words spoken by Moses - to Pharaoh, Aaron, Miriam, the Israelites etc - but not the other characters replies; imagine his words are not in chronological sequence; and imagine we have no background information on who exactly he’s talking to.

      High IQ intellectual Muslims may well relish this unmoored, fragmentary, narrative-free, post-modern Islam. But I suspect a mass faith needs a narrative - a simple story. So the Hadith will probably stay.

    3. Re: enlightenment - many reviewers say that Houellebecq's famous new novel 'Submission' is a meditation on the end processes of the Enlightenment, as it has played out in France. I have not read the book yet, but plan to when I visit Europe in several weeks - it would seem like appropriate background reading.

      As such, I would see Islamic fundamentalism as a clear, and (from their perspective), well-reasoned rejection of the Enlightenment, as described by Houellebecq. Hard thinking needed, ahead.

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