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Reprinted from Smirking Chimp
While promoting her new book, Heretic, on a March 23 episode of "The Daily Show," Somali-born author and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali made a staggering claim: "If you look at 70 percent of the violence in the world today, Muslims are responsible," she told host Jon Stewart.
Stewart did not demand any evidence and Hirsi Ali provided no citation. However, she made a strikingly similar statement in a March 20 essay previewing her new book for the Wall Street Journal: "According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies," Hirsi Ali wrote in WSJ's Saturday Essay, "at least 70% of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims."
I contacted the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a leading British foreign policy think tank, to inquire about the source of Hirsi Ali's statistic. According to IISS spokesperson Kat Slowe, IISS did not state such a figure in its research.
"I have spoken to a number of our experts and they cannot identify where this statistic may have come from," Slowe told me.
"Their best guess is that the journalist in question [Hirsi Ali] may have access/a subscription to the [IISS] Armed Conflict Database and may have calculated this statistic independently. There are some concerns that it could be misleading as, without Syria (near 200,000 total deaths, and almost half of last year's global conflict deaths) the figure would look massively different (and of course, this conflict did not have its root in religion)," Slowe added.
Hirsi Ali's AHA Foundation did not respond to my request for a citation on the statistic, nor did the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute that employs Hirsi Ali as a resident scholar. My email query to Hirsi Ali's personal account at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where she serves as a fellow, also went unanswered.
Around 24 hours after my initial query, Hirsi Ali publicly backed off her claim that Muslims are "responsible" for most of the violence in the world. "Depressing that 70% of fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims," she declared on her personal Twitter account.
Hirsi Ali linked to a survey of casualties in global conflicts by IISS' Hanna Ucko Neill and Jens Wardenaer which made no reference to Muslims or religiously inspired violence. Apparently Hirsi Ali calculated the statistic on her own by using an IISS report that documented conflicts in territories from eastern Ukraine to sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to Mexico, where drug gangs fueled widespread killing. The IISS' Slowe noted that the year's surge in conflict-related deaths occurred thanks to the fighting in Syria, explaining that Hirsi Ali's claim was "misleading" because "this conflict did not have its root in religion."
Instead of responding to my question about her statistic, Hirsi Ali's AHA Foundation forwarded my email query to the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing publication with its own history of Islamophobic tall tales and hoaxes. In a currently un-bylined article about the query, the Free Beacon accused me of anti-Semitism.
History of fraud
Hirsi Ali's highly suspect statistic is only the latest deception by one of the world's most prominent opponents of Islam. While other anti-Muslim activists like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller have marginalized themselves on the fringes of the far-right, Hirsi Ali remains a darling of the American mainstream media.
In Heretic, a polemic recycling many of her past arguments against Islam, she calls for the emergence of a Muslim Martin Luther -- the authoritarian 16th-century zealot who called for burning down the synagogues of Jews, whom he compared to a gangrenous disease. With the book's release, Hirsi Ali has been welcomed with open arms by the BBC, CNN's Anderson Cooper, and a relatively accommodating Jon Stewart. ABC News has even run an excerpt from Heretic, while the New York Times Book Review hosted her for an interview filled with hardball questions about her favorite children's books.
Hirsi Ali's power to persuade lies in her dramatic personal story and the public persona she has constructed. She has marketed herself as an expert native informant who has emerged out of the dark heart of radical Islam and into the light of Western civilization. Her tale is an uplifting, comforting one that tells many Westerners what they want to hear about themselves and their perceived enemies. With anti-Muslim attitudes at their peak across Europe and the US, her sweeping critique of Islam as an endemically violent faith has enormous cachet. The only problem is that like her writings on Islam, much of what she has told the public about herself is questionable.
In May 2006, the Dutch television program Zembla thoroughly debunked the dramatic story Hirsi Ali had told to advance her career, concluding that Hirsi Ali had sold the Dutch public "a story full of obscurities."