Monday, May 27, 2013

Adding Up The Body Count: Part One

My bachelor's degree is in history, and while I have never worked in the field, except for a short stint as a Social Studies teacher, I try to approach history from an educated and critical perspective.

Which is why THIS annoys me so very much. If only I could stop laughing.

These pie charts, currently winging their merry way around the Internet, purport to be the result of a 'study done by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Amman, Jordan- on the death toll for both violence in general and specifically, genocide (from 0-2008 BCE)'. (They mean CE. The author of the actual study does say CE. Unfortunately, he does refer to the study beginning in the year 0.)

The study found that Muslim societies/governments were responsible for less than 6% of violence in general historically, and less than 8% of genocides historically.

This is being forwarded on across the Internet--Tumblr, Facebook and the like--usually with attached comments like "But Muslims are supposed to be the violent ones, amirite?" Clearly, in the mind of the forwarder, this odd pie chart has pertinence and import. Because of this, I'm taking it rather more seriously than I otherwise might.

There are a number of things here, so let's try to take them on one at a time. Today, the study itself:


First, this is an absolutely ludicrous thing to claim to have done a 'study' of. The death toll for 'violence in general', worldwide, over a period of two thousand years, isn't something you can just add up on a calculator. Real historians do not deal with issues this mindbogglingly broad and haphazard in 'studies'. So I looked a little closer. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute is actually the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought--a full title that gives you a clue that a. we may not be dealing with the most nonpartisan of researchers, and b. we may be dealing with people who know more about theology than history here. No one who had posted the pie charts to Tumblr posted a link to the actual study, so I went hunting and found it. Its full title is Body Count: A Quantitative Analysis of  Political Violence Across World Civilizations, and it is a publication of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center. You can download the whole thing from their website, here.

The study is forty pages long, and is attributed to Naveed S. Sheikh, University of Louisville. There is some introduction, and some waffle about 'methodology', but the bulk of the paper is a very long chart listing first all the violence ever, and then all the genocidal violence ever, complete with death toll, and the 'belligerent civilization' responsible. No bibliography is given, nor are citations used. The author claims that 'we have in each case attempted to corroborate numbers from several sources and guesstimated a reasonable range, supported by scholarly accounts'. I suspect Wikipedia was the main source used.

About those civilizations: Sheikh has split the world neatly up into seven of them, as though they were the warring factions in a fantasy novel. These are Antitheist (Commie, in other words), Buddhist, Christian, Indic, Islamic, Primal-Indigenous (pagans of various sorts), and Sinic. There is also an occasional classification of 'unclassified', which seems to include Jews, and perhaps others. 

A person might wonder about the ability of the author to neatly discern whether violence carried out in China would be 'Sinic', 'Buddhist' or 'Antitheist', but the author does not worry about these things, he sweeps on quite confidently.This division of the world, of course, leads to some odd issues...well, actually, too many odd issues to actually count. It begins with the attribution of World War II to Christians and Buddhists, and just gets better from there.

The attribution of violence to religiously based 'civilizations' means that, for example, the Second Congo War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crusades, the Wars of the Roses, the Tupac Amaru Rebellion and the Mau-Mau Uprising are all classified as "Christian". 

Sheikh comes to some conclusions at the end. He concludes, somewhat poignantly, that the death toll from political violence in the past two thousand years is roughly twice the current population of the United States. 

He also determines, and this is the meat of this long, and loopily constructed argument, that "In comparative terms, we have found the open secret of world history to be that the Christian civilization is the most bellicose on all counts: It is the civilization which is responsible for the highest number of death in world history, between 119.32 and 236.56 million (median: 177.94 million). This is over 30% of global fatalities for the period 0-2008 CE. In terms of number of instances of political violence, the Christian share is even higher, accounting for 166 events out of 321 in total (nearly 52%). Thus more than half of all major acts of political violence can be attributed to the Christian civilization. Finally, in terms of genocides too the Christian civilization has perpetrated nearly half of all genocides (14 out of 30, or 46.67%). Still, these 14 genocides have had a total death toll of 33.24 million, a whopping 65.50% of all genocide deaths. The Christian civilization, therefore, emerges as the most violent and genocidal in world history."

Whopping. You've got to like a guy who uses 'whopping' in summing up his conclusions about genocide in a (theoretically) academic paper.

OK, now here's the open secret of this paper: the passage above is the money shot, the only goal of compiling all these numbers to begin with.

There is no attempt made (probably because it would muddy the waters and make the math hard) to adjust any of these numbers, in terms of world population of the Seven Civilizations, either over the complete two thousand years, or at any given time. To point at only the simplest issue, Islam is actually extant for only seventy percent of the time period artificially chosen. But that's just one arbitrary point. There's so much wrong with this that it's almost impossible to cover it all.

I hate bad history.

Anyway, tomorrow, some thoughts on why this piece is going around, what it means to those who post it, and why an equal and opposite reaction is equally stupid.

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