The Vast Majority Myth

We often hear it said that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and reject violence. That proposition is worth examining because if it’s not true there is cause to worry. Of course, you should be worried already. Even if only a small percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are prepared to use violence, that still works out to a large number. However, if the vast-majority thesis doesn’t hold up, you might want to order a Kevlar vest from Amazon, or, if you’re the accommodating type, you could start practicing the Shahada—the Islamic declaration of faith.

There is a good deal of polling data to suggest that the vast majority of Muslims are not just your standard-issue vast majority. For example, Pew polls of public opinion in Pakistan and Egypt show that the vast majority (about 82 percent) favor stoning for adultery, amputation for theft, and death for apostates. So, even if a majority in these countries are not personally inclined to violence, they have no problem with the violent application of sharia law.

But rather than rely on polling data, let’s look at some other ways of assessing the “vast majority” proposition. For some perspective, here are some other “vast majority” propositions that just popped into my head:

Proposition 1. The vast majority of people are peaceful until they’re not.

Proposition 2. The vast majority of people go with the flow.

Proposition 3. The majority of people in any society are women and children.

With the exception of the third proposition, there is no empirical evidence for these propositions, but they seem just as reasonable as the proposition that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful—a supposition which also has no empirical support. However, Proposition 3 does lend credence to the “vast majority of Muslims” thesis since women and children are, for various reasons, less inclined to violence than adult males. It would therefore be reasonable to say of any society that at least a majority are peaceful.

But people who are peaceful today will not necessarily be peaceful tomorrow. It’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of Hutus were behaving peacefully before the Rwanda genocide of 1994 … and then they stopped behaving peacefully. Using clubs, machetes, and, occasionally, guns, the Hutu managed to kill about 800,000 Tutsi in the space of one hundred days. It’s likely that the vast majority did not take part in the killings, but, by all accounts, a sizeable number did, and an even greater number were complicit. According to reports, most of the Tutsi victims who lived in rural villages were murdered by their neighbors.

So, in line with Proposition 1, the majority of the Hutu were peaceful until they were not. And, in line with Proposition 2, the majority of the Hutu went with the flow—the flow, in this case, being in the direction of mayhem. It should be noted, however, that there were powerful incentives to go with the flow. Moderate Hutus who declined to join in the killing were often killed by their fellow Hutus as a warning to others.

Although women took part in the slaughter, Proposition 3 would suggest that the majority of them did not. And if you combine the women with the children, the elderly, and the moderates, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of Hutu did not participate in the carnage. That, however, would have been small comfort to the Tutsi. The more you think about it, the less comforting it is to know that the vast majority of any population won’t take up arms against you.

History is full of examples of peoples and nations who were peaceful and then were not. Prior to World War I, the vast majority of Europeans were behaving peacefully. Then came 1914, and the European nations went to war with each other. The majority, of course, remained at home and were never involved in battle, but it seems safe to say that most of them fully backed their own side in the conflict and welcomed news of enemy casualties.

Given the right circumstances, the majority of almost any population will willingly put itself on a war footing and turn their homeland into a home front. The questions is, is there something about Islamic cultures that make them more susceptible to warlike attitudes more of the time?

Before attempting an answer, let’s briefly consider another historical example—the Spartans. Were the vast majority of Spartans peaceful? In the sense that the great majority, including women, children, and the elderly were not at war all the time, yes. Still, we would be mistaken to call them a peaceful people. Sparta was a warrior culture, and it cultivated a warrior mentality in its citizens.

The Spartans were a unique case, but in so far as Islam has a tendency, it tends in the direction of Sparta rather than, say, in the direction of Sweden—a land which was once host to a warrior culture of its own. But the Vikings are long gone, and their peaceful descendants look like they will be the first European nation to fall to Islam—a culture which has been more or less at war with the rest of the world since its inception.

Why is the sharia penalty for apostasy death? Because Islam understands itself to be an army. And the penalty for deserting an army in wartime is death. But for Islam, all times are wartimes. The basic division in the Islamic faith is between the House of Islam and the House of War. The essential mission given to Muslims is to bring the House of War (all non-Islamic nations) under the control of the House of Islam.

Like the Spartans, the first Muslims were warriors. Their leader was both a prophet and a warlord. Since Muslims are still expected to model their behavior on Muhammad, it’s not surprising that Muslim cultures will be more prone to violence than, say, cultures that take Jesus or Buddha as their inspiration. Our own culture is completely sold on the importance of having role models to emulate, but hasn’t yet grasped the consequences that follow when 1.6 billion people take Muhammad as their primary role model. Indeed, one of the chief appeals of ISIS and company is their promise to return Islam to those glorious days when Muhammad spread the faith by force.

It may well be that a great many Muslims today just want to be left alone to go about their business. But one of the built-in features of Islam is that, if you’re a Muslim, it won’t leave you alone. It wants to force you to be good. However, the only way to know if you’re good is if you conform to sharia. Thus, where Islam is practiced in its purest form, the virtue police patrol the streets, and everyone understands that if they convert to another religion they can be executed for apostasy—that is to say, desertion.

This is where the second proposition comes in: the vast majority of people go with the flow. The flow of Islam today has returned to its historical channel. It flows in the direction of militancy. Many of the secular governments in the Muslim world have been overthrown, or are in danger of falling to militant theocrats. The caliphate has been re-established in the form of the Islamic State, and the combined might of Russia and the Western powers has been unable to defeat it. Moreover, the seeming impotence of the West is matched by its decadence, and, according to your local imam, the two go together. The current parlous state of the West is just the sort of punishment that Allah visits on those who ignore his laws.

Imagine that you’re one of those moderately disposed Muslims who just wants to go about his own business. You look around and see that all the predictions of the more militant mullahs and imams are coming true. You want to be left alone, but you also want to be a good Muslim. And more and more it seems that being a good Muslim is what the militants say it is. After all, they can buttress their case with dozens of passages from Islamic scripture. And even if you’re not inwardly persuaded, there are still those outside pressures to be considered. Just as the extremist Hutu killed off the moderate Hutu, so also, extremist Muslims have a habit of murdering moderate Muslims who won’t go along with the program. After a while, the radical position won’t seem so radical. In fact, it will start to make sense.

Such a change of heart is not purely a matter of cowardice. No one likes to think of himself as a coward, and so we have ways of convincing ourselves that we are acting out of good, even virtuous motives, rather than cowardly ones. Thus, a moderate Muslim who is moving in a radical direction may persuade himself that it is pleasing to Allah for him to discriminate against non-Muslims. Eventually, he may convince himself that he has a duty to Allah to kill infidels. This shouldn’t be too hard to understand, because we in the West have ways of persuading ourselves that our continual attempts to cater to Muslim sensibilities is due to our tolerance and open-mindedness, rather than to fear.

Now that the Islamic State has established a caliphate, all the arguments for the more militant form of Islam have been strengthened. Nothing succeeds like success, and the many successes of ISIS seem to prove that Allah’s power is behind them. Fr. James Schall, S.J., puts it this way:

Briefly, the assigned mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah. Submission to Allah is the highest human good. Any means to carry it out is good if it is successful. Carrying out this mission, in this view, is a Muslim’s vocation. With the re-establishment of the caliphate, this mission can now recommence.

In short, the rebirth of the caliphate may be the signal that obedient and orthodox Muslims have been waiting for.

The vast majority of people go with the flow. Or, to change the metaphor, they wait to see which way the wind is blowing. In Islam, the wind is blowing once again in a radical direction. As we know from history, a relatively small number of radicals can pull the majority along with them. The problem is compounded in Islam because, judging by the numerous terrorist attacks in every part of the globe, we may no longer be facing a relatively small number of radicals. It is also likely that the violent radicals now have the sympathy of far more Muslims than we in the West will admit. Fr. Schall again:

Many Muslim countries are “peaceful” only in the sense that their governments, usually military dictatorships, keep down that radicalism that would overthrow them and is overthrowing them in many places. Muslim masses wait to see who is winning. They know even within Islam that they cannot afford to be on the losing side.

It is often argued that if Western societies take a hard line toward Islamic aggression, both military and cultural, it will have the effect of driving the moderates into the radical camp. So we yield to demands for burqas in public, censor the “Islamophobes” in our midst, and avoid using “offensive” terms such as “radical Islam.” But the majority of Muslims aren’t waiting to see which side is the most tolerant or which side takes in the most refugees; they are waiting to see which side is winning. As long as the West continues on its current course of accommodation and appeasement, the moderates will continue by some strange alchemy to morph into radicals.

The other day, the Daily Mail carried a photo of a smiling young man in Muslim garb holding a large sign that read “I am Muslim … do you trust me enough for a hug?” If that were the end of the story, we could all reassure ourselves that he had thoroughly grasped the cherished Western concept “arms are for hugging.” But shortly afterward, Craig Wallace, aka Muhammad Mujahid Islam, sent an online death threat to a Tory MP who had voted to authorize military action in Syria. Wallace was peaceful … until he wasn’t.

William Kilpatrick

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William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com

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