Islamophobia and Bad Math

Flying While Muslim, similar to Driving While Black, describes the discrimination many Muslims face while traveling by plane.  It is often manifested in the form of extra scrutiny at airport security.  During this election season, however, there appears to be an uptick in stories of travelers being inconvenienced by fellow passengers’ false accusations.  I jotted down the reports that I came across:

But don’t take my words for it!  Google “Flying While Muslim” and see for yourself the number of unnecessary flight delays and interrogations.  It’s ridiculous!

“I go to the airport, I can’t go through security without a random selection.  Fucking random, my ass.” – Inside Man 2006

I have no personal experience with “Flying While Muslim”, because I neither practice Islam nor look like someone who does (more on this point later).  However, as a travel enthusiast who’s had my fair share of frustration with both the TSA and the airlines, the thought of also having to put up with random strangers’ discriminatory imaginations would drive me nuts.

Moreover, this phenomenon is fundamentally rooted in bad math.

And bad math should be called out.


“But you understand statistics, right?”

A great deal of Americans who normally stick to political correctness are outspoken that Muslims should be subject to extra security scrutiny. The popular school of thought is that Islam (a religion that more or less worships the same god as Christianity and Judaism) preaches hate and incites violence.  Because Muslims are more likely to pose threat to public safety, this belief asserts, it is a matter of practicality to screen them more frequently and thoroughly.

More than once, people have commented in conversations that since I’m a math person, I should understand the statistics of terrorism… and therefore agree with them on the dangers of Muslim people.

Well, there is no denial that we see a lot of news coverage of ISIS-inspired terrorism, sometimes in what seems like an endless loop of replays.  But is it significant?  For context, let’s compare the proportion of Muslim terrorists to some other numbers:

1.6 billion reported by Pew Research Center.
ISIS fighter count reflects estimates by US-based intelligence sources for all regions of ISIS presence.

Total as reported in the 2010 U.S. census.
White supremacists include only KKK and National Socialist Movement membership, two of the largest groups.
FBI and Southern Poverty Law Center both recognize hundreds of other white supremacy hate groups.

Number of pilots estimated based on the 5,500 working for Lufthansa
and 250 working for European Air Transport Leipzig,
pro-rated across the other commercial airlines of Germany using fleet size or total employee count.
Plane crash refers to the 2015 Germanwings incident.

Two takeaways

  1. There is one ISIS member for every 32,000 Muslims in the world – meaning that 100.00% of Muslims are not part of ISIS.  Also, because it is primarily an organization engaged in a war, its total soldier count is an over representation of the kind of terrorists that we discuss on news channels (I don’t mean to minimize their actions in Iraq and Syria, but it’s highly unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of them will ever set foot in the U.S. or Western Europe).
  2. More likely than a Muslim being a terrorist is a white American being a white supremacist, and a German pilot being at risk for suicidal mental health issues.  We don’t go around assuming every white person to be a Hitler reincarnation because that would be silly.  Guess what?  So is expecting terrorism from a random Muslim.

Additionally, it’s helpful to be reminded that while acts of terrorism is sensational, its impact in number of deaths is quite low:

Terrorism includes domestic terrorists such as Tim McVeigh.
Aside from 1995 and 2001, the annual death toll ranges from 0 to 20.


“Sure, not all Muslims are terrorists, but…”

As the popular saying goes, “… all terrorists are Muslim.”  I’d be the first to admit: when the word “terrorist” is thrown around, my mental image jumps straight to a Middle Eastern man wearing a scarf and holding a machine gun in the desert.  It’s like, when people say “mouse”, I picture the cartoon character with black circular ears.  Both result from watching too much TV.  And sure, when we narrowly constrain these words to our mental images, terrorists are Muslims and mice are the happiest creatures on earth.

The fact is, the Department of Homeland Security has declared right-wing extremists to be a bigger threat to America than ISIS.  On top of that, domestic terrorism also includes left-wing extremists and Eco-terrorists.  Altogether, terror attacks in our country are more likely to be made in the U.S.A than a Toys R Us merchandise.  We are just less familiar with the non-Muslim terrorism because while news channels love replaying the San Bernardino shooting for weeks on end, coverage is fairly bare on stories like the Kansas “Crusaders” plotting to blow up an entire apartment complex in America.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s play along with the rhetoric and pretend that domestic terrorism doesn’t exist.  Because all terrorists are now Muslim, you might have heard news anchors explain, we should focus our screening efforts on Muslims in order to effectively catch all terrorists.

This is called False Conversion, a type of logical fallacy where one says “all P is Q so therefore all Q must be P.”  Just because horseradish ice cream exists – and possibly is the only dessert with this flavor – doesn’t mean you’ll likely find anything horseradish walking down an ice cream aisle.  You don’t go into an ice cream party and say, “hey let’s double check to make sure we didn’t bring home a horseradish ice cream.”  It’s equally as silly to look at a random group of Muslims and expect that terrorists have infiltrated it.

Your chance of being killed by a random Muslim on the airplane is about the same as getting a horseradish allergic reaction from this refrigerator


What is Islamophobia?

Every time I hear politicians scream issues concerning Muslims, I pause for a second to wonder how anyone spots a religious belief in public.

Can they pick out Catholics or Buddhists from a crowded airport?  Does TSA require secondary screening for the 20 million Chinese Muslims, many of who look more like Jackie Chan than Osama bin Laden?  As the “Flying While Muslim” stories indicate, the religion doesn’t actually matter.  People are being singled out based on their skin color, attire, and language – quite a few of the accusers were even confused about the victim’s ethnicity or language used.

So, when we say “Islamophobia”, what are people actually afraid of?

More than half of Arab Americans are of the Christian faith, and many turban-wearing men in the U.S. are Sikhs.  Attempting to identify a follower of Islam in a public place by merely relying on visual cues is bond to result in plenty of false positives and false negatives.

Left to right: Muslim, Sikh, Christian
Did you get it right?

At the end of the day, is Islamophobia really just racism in disguise?

I’m not oblivious to the fact that the average person may be able to identify a correlation between appearance and religious belief.  Sure, but does that help anyone other than the religious bigots?  All the folks out there causing the “Flying While Muslim” problems intend to promote security, but their approach is utterly silly.

If the red is what you’re looking for, spending all your time plucking at the purple won’t get you very far

If your goal is public safety or personal security, please drop “appearance of religion” from your filter criteria.


Final Thoughts

It’s unfortunate that so many in our society don’t realize that Muslims go to school, refinance homes, whine about commute, and go on vacations just like you and I do.  They don’t belong in a political argument as a national security threat, and they don’t give cooties to fellow passengers on a plane.

I work with numbers for a living, and I appreciate science-based policies.  From the policing of higher-crime neighborhoods to demographics-based insurance premiums, it makes sense that we devote more resources where they are more effective.  However, harassing Muslims in the name of crime or terrorism prevention does not belong on that list.


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