June 5, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies, and CAIR's Statistics
In his Autobiography, Mark Twain offers these words of wisdom: "There are three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies, and statistics". When presented anything by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), you usually get all three, with a small helping of truth thrown in for effect.
The most recent example of this is a letter to the editor published over the weekend in my hometown newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, from Ahmad Al-Akhras, national vice-chairman for CAIR and one of my Columbus, Ohio neighbors ("Poll shows that Muslims believe in the American dream") . Al-Akhras is writing in response to the results of a recent survey of American Muslims by the Pew Research Center, "Muslim Americans: Middle-Class and Mostly Mainstream".
As a graduate from the top quantitative analysis political science programs in the country (The Ohio State University), one of the things drilled into us in our political science statistics classes and polling and data research seminars was that sometimes the slightest word change in a survey can make all the difference in the world. My fellow students and I also learned that you have to look closely at what exactly is being asked to understand what is being said, rather than trying to read into the actual question the question set-up (an important rule discussed below). Finally, the most important lesson that was impressed upon us was that it is far too easy to stretch the survey's findings well beyond what the data actually says, so caution is key.
These kinds of political science subtleties are lost on, and otherwise largely ignored by, propagandists such as Ahmad who twist survey results to make them serve their own ends. Let's dissect his representations. Al-Akhras begins by saying,
The poll clearly showed that American Muslims are mainstream, highly educated, middle-class people who believe that hard work pays off. It also confirmed that, overall, American Muslims have a positive view of the larger society. They are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lives in the United States, and most say their communities are excellent or good places to live. The survey found that Muslim Americans reject extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in western European countries. In fact, 78 percent of U.S. Muslims say that suicide bombings against civilians are never justified.
It is fine and agreeable that American Muslims are largely well-integrated and mainstream in their opinions, but he seems to say this in the hopes that you won't choke on what comes next:
Contrast this to the survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes, released in December 2006, which showed that only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are never justified. The Pew research found that only 1 percent of those surveyed reported "suicide bombings against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam" while another 7 percent reported the bombings are "sometimes justified in these circumstances." Again, contrast this to the 24 percent of Americans, reported in the Maryland study, who believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified." (See the Christian Science Monitor's "The Myth of Muslim support for terror").
Yes, he's really trying to claim that Muslims are more opposed to violence than Americans in general, by equating terrorism with conventional warfare. More on that later.
Right up front it should be noted that Al-Akhras doesn't link to the actual study he cites; instead, he refers to an op-ed authored by Kenneth Ballen of the Orwellian-named Terror Free America published back in February by the Christian Science Monitor. When we follow the link to Ballen's article, we quickly discover that Al-Akhras is doing nothing more than parroting Ballen's claims. Compare this paragraph by Al-Akhras:
Contrast this to the survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes, released in December 2006, which showed that only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are never justified.
With this strikingly similar statement in Ballen's previous op-ed:
The survey, conducted in December 2006 by the University of Maryland's prestigious Program on International Public Attitudes, shows that only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified," while 24 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified."
One clear indicator that Al-Akhras has done nothing more than cut-and-paste (what we writing professionals call "plagiarism") from Ballen's article, is that he makes exactly the same mistake as Ballen, calling it the "Program on International Public Attitudes", but in fact, the center is actually the "Program on International Policy Attitudes" (PIPA). Here we have confirmation that Ahmad Al-Akhras leaves the heavy thinking for others, but the low quality of analysis by Ballen gives us an idea of the level of scholarship Al-Akhras relies upon.
When we get around to looking at the actual PIPA study and survey questionnaire they refer to, which was supposed to examine Iranian and American attitudes, we find that both Al-Akhras and Ballen violate one of the cardinal rules of polling analysis by trying to read the question set-up into the actual question that was asked.
In fact, in the PIPA study, those surveyed were not actually asked about "attacks intentionally aimed at civilians". The specific question (found on page 17, Q-I23 of the questionnaire) was:
"Do you personally feel that such attacks are often justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?"
Had they thrown the word "intentionally" into the question, there is reason to believe that there would have been a greater negative response. It is also important to note that they are being asked a question about justification, not support, though Ballen and Al-Akhras are trying to subtly equate the two.
A first year political science student would immediately observe another problem with the wording of the survey's question - the use of the subjective terms "rarely" and "sometimes" that would get the question tossed out of any professional polling script (though it would be commonplace in push polling). To many people, these two terms could mean the very same thing while others might read into it a difference in degree, precisely what Ballen and Al-Akhras are trying to do to make Americans seem more supportive of violence against civilians, which is why we must also remember that the question is one of justification, not support. The question is measuring something entirely different than what Ballen and Al-Akhras want it to say.
The very next question in the survey (Q-I24b) sheds some light on the previous question's results. When asked about justifying attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, 13 percent agreed that such attacks were justifiable - the very position taken by CAIR that Palestinian terrorism is legitimate resistance. Here we see that most of the responses that Al-Akhras is supposedly deploring are in fact being offered by his own ideological allies! Presumably, some of the same Muslims who said attacks against civilians were justified in the Pew study are also represented in the PIPA study.
There is some obvious sloppy methodology going on here as well related to the follow-up question. The poll never asked Americans two of the four follow-up questions about attacks on Iraqi civilians (Q-I24c, with no qualification of who is doing the targeting) and American civilians living in the US (Q-I24d). You might think that a survey trying to gauge American attitudes on attacks on civilians would ask a question of Americans about a war our country is actually engaged in, but you would be wrong. (Interestingly, 53 percent of Iranian respondents justified attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians, which directly refutes the premise of Ballen's op-ed, that only Nigerians in the Muslim world advocate violence against civilians more often than Americans.)
This all raises an important question: why were these questions never asked of American respondents and why did PIPA use poorly worded survey questions unworthy of an introductory political science statistics class? One answer might be that when you look at the PIPA staff profiles, only one person out of nine staff members is actually a trained social scientist. The rest have academic and professional backgrounds in international policy and the media, not polling and data analysis. This might explain some of the amateurish mistakes in the survey.
And when we look at who is funding PIPA, we get a picture of an ideologically-driven organization funded by a "Who's Who" of radical Left foundations, including the Tides Foundation (chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry) and the Ben and Jerry's Foundation. This should give us pause to consider the possibility that PIPA may not be focused on the unbiased truth.
It is important here to note what's going on behind the curtain: Al-Akhras is engaging is the very moral equivalency that he and his CAIR colleagues constantly deny that they ever make, equating suicide attacks with conventional and internationally recognized methods of warfare. Most Americans would agree with the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the bombing of German industrial centers during WWII. But what Al-Akhras has in mind are Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli pizza parlors. The two are substantially different in the minds of most Americans. I would also note that it is US policy to never intentionally target civilians in combat.
The Pew Study refutes two of the most regular claims offered by CAIR. The first is the 8 million Muslim myth - the attempt by CAIR and other Islamist organizations to inflate the Muslim population to claim greater political clout. But Pew estimates only 2.35 million Muslims - less than one percent of the total population. This is in line with most other official studies conducted over the past decade by Pew, the University of Chicago, Columbia University and others.
The second myth propounded by CAIR destroyed by this study is that Muslims in America are everywhere oppressed and alienated by non-Muslims. Al-Akhras himself claims that American Muslims are well-integrated into society, and the Pew poll finds that Muslim-American personal income and education are comparable to the public at-large. This is hardly the portrait of a victimized community, and is evidence that the fear-mongering which is the staple of CAIR's public statements has no basis in fact. The support by Ahmad Al-Ahkras for the Pew study findings contradicts some of the very claims he has made about the downtrodden Muslim community in the past.
As I've recently written about elsewhere, CAIR is increasingly non-representative of most American Muslims ("CAIR by the Numbers"). Based on the most recent IRS Form 990 that CAIR has made publicly available, I estimated that actual CAIR membership in 2005 was approximately 2,615, which was down by almost half from the year before (4,761 members in 2004). Thus, CAIR actually represents only one out of every 1000 Muslims in America. What the Pew study tells us, when combined with CAIR's own data, is that CAIR's radical agenda is being rejected by the vast majority of American Muslims.
This is why we see CAIR officials such as Ahmad Al-Akhras so desperate to get in front of the media claiming to represent the entire community. It is fair to question the amount of attention given this small radical fringe by the mainstream media. Less media attention to CAIR spokesmen would be a positive step to improve the image of American Muslims.