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Assessing Muslim Terrorism: Lies, Damn Lies and Glenn Beck’s Statistics

Are you prepared to believe there are 157 million Muslim terrorists in the world? You have a choice: You can take Fox News commentator and radio host Glenn Beck’s word for it — or you can insist on proof.

Pausing in the midst of a meandering condemnation of the mainstream media’s failure to take him seriously last week, Beck delivered up the shocking “fact” that 10% of the world’s Muslims are terrorists to his radio audience.

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a well-known author and expert in international relations who once was managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, didn’t buy Beck’s assertion. On his Sunday news-talk program “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Zakaria called out Beck in no uncertain terms. [Editor’s full disclosure note: Zakaria is the brother-in-law of Mark Potok, editor of this blog.] “Beck wondered why this wasn’t receiving any media coverage,” he said. “Well, let me suggest one reason. It is total nonsense — a figure made up by Glenn Beck with absolutely no basis in fact.”

Deducing from the world’s estimated Muslim population, Zakaria noted that Beck’s 10% figure would mean there are 157 million Muslim terrorists. Given that there were 11,000 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2009, according to the U.S. State Department — and that’s all terrorist attacks, not just those by Muslims — Zakaria surmised that if 100 people were involved in each attack, there still would be only 1.1 million terrorists worldwide.

“Glenn Beck’s figure is 157 times higher than that,” Zakaria said. “If in fact there are 157 million Muslim terrorists in the world, what were the other 155,900,000 of them doing last year?”

Beck was back with a counterpunch the next day, protesting that his 10% figure was correct — even generous. Moreover, he said, it doesn’t matter how many terrorists there are; what matters is that they want to kill us. “If I said to Fareed Zakaria, ‘Fareed, I’m not gonna kill you, but I support the people who want to kill you,’ am I a problem, Fareed? Yes, yes. I would be a problem.”

A problem, yes. A terrorist, no — not even according to the dictionary from which Beck claimed to be reading, which, he said, defined “terrorist” as one who “uses or advocates terrorism.” Each of those terms implies a markedly higher threshold than merely “supporting” terrorism.

Beck said his 10% figure came from a 2009 World Public Opinion (WPO) poll used by many media outlets.

Checkmate? Not quite.

The WPO poll revealed that large majorities of Muslims around the world reject attacks on civilians, even though many share certain goals of terrorists, such as removing U.S. armed forces from Muslim countries. It also did show that over 10% of Muslims in some countries “approve” of attacks on civilians in the United States, but it does not say that 10% of Muslims are terrorists. In any case, unless Beck has discovered the secret of time travel, his 10% figure did not come from the 2009 WPO poll. He’s believed it since at least 2003, when he proclaimed in his bestselling book The Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland that “[t]en percent of Islam wants to see us dead.”

Beck in his book identified the source of his data – “time and reading and prayer” – which is not exactly the preferred methodology of scholars.

Zakaria was born in India to a Muslim household, but his upbringing was emphatically secular. He told the Village Voice in 2005 that he sang Christmas hymns as a child, and also celebrated Hindu and Muslim holidays. “I do know a lot about the world of Islam in an instinctive way that you can't get through book learning,” he told the publication. But, he added, “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that's not mine, in the sense that I'm not a religious guy.”

Beck has a history of substituting wild guesses for actual knowledge. Whether prognosticating about imminent mass starvation, accusing the feds of voyeurism, or speculating that Communists have infiltrated the U.S. government, almost no theory is too far out for the conspiracy-minded eschatologist. And while the mainstream media (of which he clearly doesn’t consider himself a part — Fox, take note) doesn’t seem to value his divinely inspired conjecture, many of Beck’s fans apparently take him at his word.

In the past two years, at least three men - Kenneth B. Kimbley, Byron Williams, and Richard Poplawski — have been accused of taking or attempting to take action against entities Beck identified as enemies. Kimbley’s defense counsel identified Beck as her client’s “idol” in court papers; Williams said Beck is like “a schoolteacher on TV;” and Poplawski was obsessed with a number of Beck’s antigovernment theories.

Beck has denied that there is any link between his rhetoric and his fans’ violent acts. Given his hypothetical but angry talk about Zakaria’s death, it can only be hoped that, for once, he’s right.

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