The other day New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report concerning the level of knowledge Americans possess about the world’s great religions. As you might guess, we’re not, as a people, terribly well-schooled in the Talmud, or well-versed in the Bible, or able to recite the Koran.
That this should come as a surprise to anyone is, well, surprising. We are not a nation of readers and our schools are not big on acknowledging the central role religion has played in world, national and local histories. The Pew study, moreover, tested for possession of facts, not profession of faith, a distinction strangely at odds with the academy’s on-going love affair with “critical thinking.”
Unshakable though, is Kristof’s own hypocrisy. The writer excerpts portions of the Pew questionnaire to give his readers an opportunity to test not only their knowledge but also their biases. Kristof kindly provides a handicap to his faithful by introducing his version of the quiz with “given the uproar about Islam, I’ll focus on extremism and fundamentalism,” so straight off we know by not choosing “a,” we’ll have a fifty-fifty shot at the right answer to question three:
3. The terrorists who pioneered the suicide vest in modern times, and the use of women in terror attacks, were affiliated with which major religion?
Kristof answers: “3. c. Most early suicide bombings were by Tamil Hindus (some secular) in Sri Lanka and India.” The answer to question 3 is actually d. None.
True, in the late 1980’s the Tamil Tigers were the first to sport suicide vests; also true is the FBI (Kristof’s own link above) description of the Tigers as
among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world. For more than three decades, the group has launched a campaign of violence and bloodshed in Sri Lanka, the island republic off the southern coast of India. Its ultimate goal: to seize control of the country from the Sinhalese ethnic majority and create an independent Tamil state.
Although Kristof grudging concedes that the Tamil movement has “some secular” elements, he fails to note that it is a political movement animated by geographic and ethnic concerns—not by religion: At the nub of the war is the question of political rights of the Tamil minority.
And is true that although the Tamil Tigers originally weaponized patsies, Islamists perfected them as killing machines:
Suicide terrorism is rising around the world. From the onset of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 through August 2005, 151 Palestinian suicide bombing attacks have been launched against Israeli targets, killing 515 people and injuring almost 3,500 more. From 1987 to 2001, the Tamil Tigers launched 76 suicide bombing attacks in Sri Lanka and India, killing a total of 901 people, including two prominent national leaders: India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 (Pape, 2005). In Iraq, suicide bombers have killed thousands of people, mostly Iraqi civilians, since 2003. [Efraim Benmelech and Claude Berrebi, “Human Capital and the Productivity of Suicide Bombers,” Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 21, Number 3—Summer 2007—Pages 223–238.]
So what point is Kristof trying to make here? That Americans don’t follow late-breaking developments in Sri Lanka closely enough? I guess he’s forgotten the $400+ million Americans donated to private charities for 2004 tsunami relief. That Americans worry more about the victims of suicide bombers whose pyrotechnics are more likely to take out friends, family and soldiers in Israel and Iraq than they do about casualties however tragic they may be in a Sri Lankan civil war? I didn’t need to flunk a quiz to figure this out.
Nor do I need a report from Pew to tell me that Kristof’s smug, fatuous conclusion to his essay
the point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts
speaks volumes about Kristof’s inability to recognize the cherry-picking taking place in columns that bear his name.