Ill-informed claims in The Times

Today’s Times carries an article by the historian Michael Burleigh, in which he states a case for greater police powers to combat terrorism. Putting aside the actual debate, the opening paragraph is full of ill-informed claims, half-truths and “facts” that seem to have been made up by Burleigh:

Many jihadis seek to create a global caliphate, ruled by Sharia. At best, Christians, Hindus, and Jews would live in a state of submission tantamount to second-class citizenship. If they got above themselves, they would suffer the persecutions Islamists visited on the Coptic Christians of Egypt. The rule of Islamists has resulted in murderous chaos – 150,000 died in Algeria during the 1990s when madmen decided that most of the Muslim population were apostates. The Taleban anti-state so ruined Afghanistan that Americans joked that they had to bomb it forwards to the Stone Age. There are significant numbers of people living in Britain who wish to visit such chaos on us.

“Many” jihadis seek a “global caliphate”? “Many” is semi-quantitative. There is no such data that allows Burleigh to make such a statement on what “many” people who become “jihadis” want. I am sure there are a number who do fantasise about a “global caliphate” and do indeed blow themsleves up or recruit others for their “jihad” on this basis. But “jihadis” join these groups for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from (yes) foreign policy to mental illness to social alienation (in the proper sense of the word). We must also distinguish those coming from politically stable and economically sound backgrounds and those living under occupation or in countries where there is violent civil strife (i.e. can we really put British-born “jihadis” graduating from university and living middle class suburbia in the same category as a poor boy growing up in a refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border?). That is why combatting “jihadism” is a multi-pronged effort, an analysis of which requires sagacity, corroboration of facts, and a clear head.

Next he states that “Islamists” force Coptic Christians of Egypt to live as “second-class” citizens. I don’t claim to know a great deal about Egypt; no more than Burleigh’s CV suggests he does. No doubt Copts as a minority suffer from cultural/religious bigotry and even violent abuse. However, Egypt is not a theocracy and “Islamists” are not in power, so I don’t see how Copts are second-class citizens (if they are) at the hands of “Islamists”. If anything, Islamists find themselves locked up and tortured by the Egyptian “security” services. This is a prime example of reducing all the problems involving Muslims to simplistic analysis which involves Muslims in a vaccum where “religion” is about the only factor. What about other considerations such as class or internal and external political struggles?

Next he delves into Algeria’s bloody and gruesome civil war in the 1990s: “The rule of Islamists has resulted in murderous chaos – 150,000 died in Algeria during the 1990s…” Who on earth gave Burleigh his PhD and did they bother to check the facts? Or perhaps the editor took the attitude that bothering with facts was a waste of time when it comes to Muslims? The whole reason for civil war in Algeria was that the Islamists (FIS) were denied rule after winning a national election. They did not “rule” in Algeria. Was the violence perpetrated by the supporters of the Islamist party particularly disgusting and cruel? Yes, it I am sure it was (I base this on discussion with Algerians who live in my area as well as the array of data on the internet). Was it as simplistic as Burleigh makes out (i.e. mass killings by “Islamists”)? No.

Further, closer examination of his statement “[t]he rule of Islamists has resulted in murderous chaos” does not withstand scrutiny. Which “Islamists” is he referring to? Most, if not all, Muslim contries are not ruled by Islamists (by which I mean who tightly couple religion and the state such that they seek a modern nation-state but one ruled by Islamic law); Iran is the only exception I can think of where Islamists have held power for any significant period. Despite the oppressive nature of their theocracy, it is difficult to characterise their rule as “murderous chaos” (the only people demanding murderous chaos in Iran are people like Daniel Tubes who believe Muslim life is less than cheap). One might include Palestine, but they have no functioning state and find themselves under occupation and divided politically. And unless AKP in Turkey lose a few marbles, it can be safely concluded that “the rule of Islamists” has not resulted in “murdeorus chaos”, even if might result in many other things which can be questioned and criticised.

Lastly, he cites the Taleban: “The Taleban anti-state so ruined Afghanistan that Americans joked that they had to bomb it forwards to the Stone Age.” It is difficult to say how much further the Taleban had actually ruined a country that had been devestated by the war to expel the Soviets, and then the years of infighting between the supposed liberators of Afghanistan. The rise of the Taleban, if Burleigh has bothered to check, was a result of the total lack of law and order. And such is the contempt Burleigh apparently holds Afghans in that he can share with us a “joke” (which he attributes to the Americans), on the numbers of people — civilians — killed by American activities in the country (that link is from back in 2002 and described as a “conservative” estimate).

What this shows is that people like Burleigh, who are demanding tougher anti-terror laws, have little evidence on which to to support their case. That is why Burleigh needs to rake up events and circumstances which have little, if anything, to do with a debate on anti-terrorism legislation in the UK, contrary to is claim that “[t]his is the backdrop to the debate about anti-terrorism legislation”. There is no Islamist party in Britain on the verge of winning an election, and Britian has not emerged from the horrors of French colonialism. Similarly, law and order have not totally evaporated in Britain thanks to years of war, which has resulted in the emergence of an armed religious student movement. But it seems to Burleigh, and indeed The Times, any stone is good enough.

Rather than wave his finger at lawyers, Burleigh is better of doing some basic fact-checking which I thought was a cornerstone of any good historian’s scholarship. I ought to accuse Burleigh of being a liar. However, I will be kinder and say he is just ill-informed.

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2 Responses to “Ill-informed claims in <i>The Times</i>”


  1. 1 Jo July 28, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Absolutely bloated and inaccurate. The Christians of Egypt live an equal and free way of life, to second class citizenship for them. They are wealthy, educated and hold high ranks. Sometimes the copts do like to exploit some situations in order to get extra leaverage and help from outside ‘christian’ nations, but it would be a lie to say that Christians suffer under Egypts current (secular) rule. You only need to go to Cairo to see the many beautiful Churches all over the place, competing with the Mosques in size and grandeur.


  1. 1 » Richard Dawkins told a session of the Ed … Talk Islam Trackback on August 19, 2008 at 1:29 pm

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