søndag den 2. oktober 2016

Debunking Robert Pape using his own data

If you have tried to debate people who are convinced that there is no link between Islam and Jihadist terrorism then chances are that you have heard of Robert Pape and his studies of suicide terrorism.

Pape is a scientist who has studied suicide terrorism and concluded that it is not Islamic fundamentalism that is motivating the suicide terrorists, but rather foreign occupation. He has collected all known suicide terrorist attacks for the past 30 years, and on the basis of this data he claims to show that what almost all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is not Islam, but a desire to get rid of a foreign military presence.

The theory not only fully exculpates Islam from any major role in the terror, but it also dovetails nicely with the idea that most of the problems we see in world are of our own making—which is comfortable to believe, because then we can easily do something about it. If only we stopped bombing and occupying the middle east, the problems of terrorism would go away.

Let me be honest up front: I am highly sceptical of the idea that Islam is completely blameless with respect to terrorism. We live in a world in which most—if not close to all—global terrorism is committed by Muslims, who cite their religion as the explicit motivation for their atrocities. If a terrorist attack was to occur tomorrow, we would not really be able to guess in advance, what the assailants socio-ecomonic background would be, where he came from and grew up, or what kind of personality he had. But we can guess with almost certainty that he will be a Muslim and that his last words will be Allahu Akbar.

Any credible theory of terrorism has to grapple with that fact. If the religion of Islam is to be considered completely unrelated to that fact, we would have to find a rival explanation for why this relation occurs, even though it is not causal. And such a rival theory must be supported by mountains of evidence. But most people rarely give such a coherent rival hypothesis; they just assume that such a theory must exist, because they are uncomfortable with the idea that there should be anything inherently bad about Islam. Pape, on the other hand, purports to have exactly such a theory.

If ever there was something that could change my mind on this topic, it would be a theory like the one Pape has put forward. That is, a theory that explains the apparent overrepresentation of Islamic terrorism, using some overlooked factor(s) that is indeed independent of the religion. A theory that not only has a plausible explanation for the phenomenon, but is also supported by a substantial amount of evidence. Pape claims to have just that, and thus he deserves to be taken very seriously.

Luckily, Pape has made all his data readily available for the public—a hallmark any scientist who is confident in his own conclusions—so everybody is invited to check his evidence for themselves. Let us see take a look then, and see how well his theory holds up to critical scrutiny.