Once upon a time, before Twitter was even thought of, and even before the Web, there existed on the Internet a public domain service called Usenet. This consisted of a large number of threaded discussion groups on different topics – anyone could create a newsgroup, and server space was donated, usually by universities, to allow the system to work. Usenet carried groups covering every subject under the sun, from mountain biking to US politics – and of course porn.
I found US political newsgroups interesting to track. Hate groups proliferated, and even until 2005 or so (when I last accessed Usenet), the prime target for American morons was black people. Coordinated bullying campaigns against Muslims, as we see today on Twitter and the blogosphere, had yet to come into existence. This was the last gasp of organised white supremacy, a centuries-old idea, which flourished throughout US history, until the election of Barack Obama finally killed off their widely held belief that blacks could never make it to the pinnacle of society.
White supremacists were masters of finding (and misusing) correlations that supported their cause, and their favourite correlation of all was that between race and intelligence (as measured by IQ and academic achievement). Educational achievement in the US (and elsewhere) consistently showed a hierarchy: Chinese, then Indians, then whites, and blacks falling last. The statistics were undeniable, and white supremacists used them repeatedly to demonstrate white “superiority” over blacks. They were so determined to “prove” this point that they were even willing to accept the “superiority” of Asians over whites (which kind-of undermines the idea of white supremacy).
Reality of course was somewhat different. IQ (it turns out) is in large part a measure of a society’s degree of education, particularly in science-based areas. IQ scores have increased very significantly over the past 100 years. Within the US since the Civil Rights era, whites have gained in IQ but blacks have gained more – the gap is rapidly narrowing. Furthermore, the statistics on educational achievement weren’t as simple as they seemed. In the UK for example, Indians do outperform whites, but closer examination shows that when treated as a separate group, Bangladeshis (of the same broad racial group) do not. Similarly, African immigrants do much better at school than black immigrants from the Caribbean. The correlation between race and IQ turns out to be about issues of class and culture, not inherited ability.
White supremacy seems to have imploded as a coherent movement. But what happened to the white supremacists? Many of them turned their bigotry, hate and statistical tricks against the new “threat”, Muslims. Of course, not everyone who dislikes or fears Muslims was active in white supremacy. Many confused people genuinely believe in the “Islamic threat” to “the Western way of life”. But those pulling the strings, and creating the propaganda, learned their tricks from the old far-right: fascist and white supremacist groups.
This week, I found myself dealing on Twitter with dodgy “facts” about Muslims (largely from a handful of reactionary Atheists), and was struck at how the old white supremacist tricks are still alive and well (I was also struck with the poor quality of reasoning used by some Atheists, a group from which I tend to expect better).
In one example, I was sent a news link about a poll showing that some young British Asians support “honour killings”. Although the article didn’t mention religion, the person followed up with a tweet claiming that the article showed a link between honour killings and Islam. A quick look at honour killing statistics does show that the majority of cases (though far from all) relate to Muslims.
Is that enough to show a correlation between Islam and honour killings? Well, no – as with the IQ argument linking race and intelligence, the argument doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. Firstly, honour killings happen largely across an area spanning parts of the Middle East, west and south Asia including Muslim, Sikh and Hindu populations. Second, most Muslim countries fall outside this area. The practice appears to be unknown in black African Muslim countries, where women take a more dominant role in society than in many Asian societies. So the correlation between honour killing and Islam breaks down: the correlation appears to be with certain Asian societies, not with any religious group.
The correlation is, of course malicious. Those who began this rumour probably knew perfectly well it was false; but most of those who now perpetuate the myth lack the understanding to realise that they are propagating a lie. Other dishonest correlations exist too: Muslim-baiters like to correlate female genital mutilation with Islam. But this practise is a largely African one, and happens across both Christian and Muslim societies.
A number of reactionary Atheists have this week accused me of “defending Islam” by using arguments like the ones above. But I think I’m defending truth, using scientific reasoning – which is what (I thought) Atheism was based on. I have no love for any religion, and do my best to persuade the religious that their beliefs are wrong. But equally, I believe that everyone has the right to believe and worship as they want, and most importantly I despise bullying, especially of the large-scale variety inflicted on Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minority groups.
Reason is the enemy of barbarity, and the spread of reason is the only thing that can end honour killing, female circumcision, and other brutal practises. But finding such a lack of reason among Atheists has left me sad and disappointed – I suppose I see myself as part of an Atheist tribe, and discovering that members of my tribe can be as ignorant as members of any other has been a useful lesson that we are all fallible.