Among the many favorite techniques used by New Atheists and conservatives alike–there’s not much of a difference–to demonize Islam is the cherry-picking of polling data as empirical evidence for their troubled narrative: Muslims as barbarians at the cusp of the West, key threats to our safety and way of life that must be eliminated. In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, New Atheist celebrity Bill Maher cited a Pew Research poll of Muslims in Egypt that found that, according to Maher, “81% said that stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery.”
However, these polls are extremely cheap propaganda tools that serve as seemingly irrefutable evidence in the moment. Indeed, many debaters aren’t even familiar with the study methodology itself; it’s impossible to stay ahead of the endless barrage of polling data like this. To see just how misleading this technique can be, let’s unpack some of the information behind this statistic.
For starters, it only looks at Muslims who believe Sharia Law should be the law of the land, which is a complicated religious topic with many interpretations that shouldn’t be reduced to a mere polling question. Further, only 55% of Muslims in Egypt think Sharia should apply to non-Muslims–Egypt is on the higher end of the spectrum in this regard.
A quintessential fallacy of using these polls in this way is obviously that there’s no attempt to isolate the independent variables: American Muslims would respond to the stoning question very differently. Thus we see that the independent variable is clearly not Islam, but state institutions, regions, cultures, shared histories, etc.
Answers to polling questions will be heavily colored by existing law in the polled country. Pew even points this out in their Executive Summary: “Support for making sharia the official law of the land tends to be higher in countries like Pakistan (84%) and Morocco (83%) where the constitution or basic laws favor Islam over other religions.” Thus, polling questions like these merely elicits the patriotic approval of already-existing state institutions. Americans would give similar support for state practices–think of support for the death penalty. In the case of Egypt, the government expressly attempts to draw legitimacy from codified Islam. Egypt already has a government that legally prosecutes “adultery” with jail time. Therefore, Egyptian Muslims are merely vocalizing their support for state institutions.
Further, “adultery” has a legal definition in Egypt that is difficult to apply to males. According to Amnesty International, “[t]he law discriminates against women, as “adulterous” husbands can only be criminally liable if the act was committed in the marital home. The maximum sentence for “adulterous” husbands is six months’ imprisonment (Article 277), whereas for married women it is up to two years in prison.” In fact, a male can actually catch his wife committing adultery and kill her and her partner while serving as little as 24 hours in jail. The double standard in opinion was confirmed by Pew: when asked whether it was justified to kill a fellow family member for premarital sex or adultery, 18% said it was “often justified” for females, while 4% said so for males. When injustice can hardly apply to half of the population, there’s less support for abolishing it. We’ve seen the way Americans react when they know certain laws or situations will never happen to them.
In addition, Islamophobes conveniently leave out many of the mitigating results that diminish their worldview that appear in the very same studies they often cite. Consider Pew’s statements on Muslim’s general disapproval of suicide bombings that appears under the headline, “Extremism Widely Rejected”:
Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies. In most countries where the question was asked, roughly three-quarters or more Muslims reject suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians. And in most countries, the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.
Pew even points out that support for Sharia Law does not increase support for violence in the name of Islam, which suggests that something other than religious adherence may be at play when it comes to violence. The cherry-picking becomes obvious when you realize that Egypt is among the worst human rights violators in the Muslim world.
Finally, believing in something and actually promoting it as a program of political action are two very different things. There’s the problem with self-reporting: a lot of people “think” they know what their values are, but their behavior belies a different set of values. There’s the problem of contradictory beliefs that don’t show up on a single poll. What you “believe” or “think” you will do may be different when you’re confronted with the actual decision. This is why we don’t criminalize attitudes or beliefs. America was founded on the idea that people can have any crazy, wild ideas, but that public policy must preserve the rights of individuals with differing ideas. Many people might “think” that something should morally deserve a certain response, but actually stop short of making it state policy.
What the Pew study was really concerned with was how attitudes and beliefs of Muslims varied across countries and whole regions. What Islamophobes have done is take snippets of these polls to paint a picture of what Islam is “capable of,” rather than make serious attempts to understand the much more general factors that lead to the opinion polls they frequently cite. This is an attempt to demonize and scapegoat Islam to justify U.S. policy abroad and to distract from the causes of our problems at home.