VIEW: Demography of extremism — Saleem H Ali
There is no doubt that demography is essential to our understanding of extremism as well as its antidotes. However, the lens or frame with which we view and analyse these numbers is just as significant
Former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, in a recently released confidential memorandum, posed the central question about the American war on terror: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassahs and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Starting with Rumsfeld’s question, journalist, Mark Danner has commendably approached this issue in detail and his answer is a resolute “no”.
Danner quotes counterinsurgency specialist John Arqullia who compares the US reaction as highly mercurial: “We have taken a ball of quicksilver, and hit it with a hammer”. The irony of this analogy is that it also shows how elusive our statistics might be — ascertaining the actual number of atomised extremists is just as difficult as trying to quantify mercury particles in motion.
The number of civilian casualties in the current conflict has been the single most motivating factor in galvanising public opinion against the “war on terror”. I have often heard the most astounding accounts of casualties in Afghanistan at mosques in America. When asked where the numbers were obtained, the response is often a nondescript web site or an anecdote.
Manipulation of statistics to spin conspiracy theories is of course not just confined to Muslims. Every community seems to have its share of such spin masters and conspiracy cultivators. The US has certainly contributed to the phenomenon by not keeping data on civilian casualties and then dismissing any attempt at scientific study. This was especially apparent when the US army rejected a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University and published in the British journal The Lancet earlier this year on the alarmingly high rate of civilian casualties in Iraq. The matter could have been easily resolved if the army had kept track of civilian casualties by death certificates with just as much care as they do with its own personnel.
However, even when government keep the data, the statistics can be used in rather contorted ways. For example, in India, Hindutva activists have on numerous occasions used census data to give the impression that Muslim population increase is a targeted effort to outnumber Hindus and cause a diminution of India’s Hindu identity. I amusingly recall my taxi ride in Mumbai last year when the friendly taxi driver commented, while passing by the shrine of Haji Ali, that he believed there were now more Muslims in India than Hindus!
Such contorted visions of demography became especially acute when the results of the Indian census were released in 2001. J Sri Raman has admirably described this propaganda campaign by Hindutva activists in detail along with an exposition of how Hindutva activists continue to mislead with erroneous analysis of statistics. Of the total Indian population of 1.028 billion at the time of the census, the Hindus totalled 827 million, comprising 80.5 percent of the population. The Muslims numbered 138 million or 13.4 percent of the population. The next in size were the Christians (24 million or 2.3 percent).
Census data since 1951, the year of the first Indian headcount, suggest that the Muslim population has increased by about one percent every decade. Activists used this data to suggest that it will take three centuries for India to become a Muslim-majority country! The figures, turned out to be inaccurate because the census of 2001 included India’s only Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir which had been excluded in the 1991 exercise, and the Northeastern State of Assam, excluded in 1981.
After two days of rising tensions, the commission came out with “adjusted” figures, which told a rather different story. They showed that the growth rate of the Hindu population had declined from 22.77 percent over 1981-91 to 20.02 percent over 1991-2001, and that of the Muslim population from 32.86 percent to 29.33 percent. In other words, the decline in the population growth rate has been greater for Indian Muslims.
The misuse of data by politicians is of course a continuing embarrassment for the Indian government since it prides itself on being the world’s largest secular democracy. It is interesting to note that, in the tradition of Gandhi, many left-leaning non-Muslims such as Yoginder Sikand in India are leading the struggle to protect Muslim rights in this regard. We must not forget that Gandhi, a man of universal integrity, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic because he was perceived to be too friendly to Muslims. This is of course reminiscent of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish fanatic or Anwar Sadaat’s assassination by a Muslim fanatic. In all cases the conflict within the community to resist change was the most potent and pernicious factor in the escalation of violence.
Such episodes as well as the support of some authoritarian regimes by Western powers have led to an unusual alliance between secular leftists and Islamists. The Kefaya (“Enough”) movement in Egypt exemplifies the willingness of Islamists to form coalitions, albeit reluctantly with other secular movements for reform. This diverse coalition of oppositional movements — new Islamists, liberals, Nasserists, and Arabists — has demanded change from below and an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak as well as American influence in the region.
Unequivocal support of authoritarian regimes at the behest of security is problematic without a more acute awareness of demographic trends. Coalitions, such as those in Egypt, in a democratic setting might lead to electoral power for Islamists. However, if there are adequate checks and balances, they may also play a moderating role on each side.
Demography has always been a tool for democratic agency since the lowest common denominator is always a voting individual whether in India or the United States. The ways in which the US political parties in power have redistricted various constituencies to get more votes for a particular party are emblematic of this matter.
The West has clearly been concerned about the impact of population dynamics on extremism — hence its willingness to support autocratic regimes at the expense of its democratic ideals. Clearly this is not a sustainable strategy. The best way for building bridges between the East and West is for the western powers to only intervene on humanitarian grounds where needed, and build a reputation for non-opportunistic action. There may be initial setbacks, as was the case with the well-intentioned US intervention in Somalia, but slowly there may be a mark to be made.
The Western intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo are cases where Muslims were advantaged by US and European intervention. Yet in these cases, little effort is made to highlight the statistics of Muslim lives saved or how the interventions might have led to the growth of Islamic institutions. Such efforts should be given more coverage in historical accounts of East-West relations in textbooks and media outlets in the Muslim world. Demographic shifts and migration patterns of asylum-seekers in the West, which advantage oppressed groups, also deserve more coverage and analysis.
There is no doubt that demography is essential to our understanding of extremism as well as its antidotes. However, the lens or frame with which we view and analyse these numbers is just as significant.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com