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Being careless with statistics

08 November 2013


NOT to intrude on the radio critic's column, but I was impressed by the Sunday programme's takedown of the claim that 100,000 Christians a year are killed for their faith around the world.

Before I go any further, I should point out that, even if this figure is ten times the credible number (and it is), the issue is an urgent and horrible one. Christians around the world are persecuted and sometimes killed because they are Christians. This is not often covered in much detail by the media here. Neither, of course, are the deaths of uncountable members of other faiths killed for their beliefs or religious identities. But if you read Rupert Shortt's excellent Christianophobia (Rider, 2012), or, for a different perspective, the newsletter of Forum 18, it is obvious that Christians around the world are suffering for their faith.

So why does it matter what the numbers are? Two reasons. The first is my repeated and possibly absurd insistence that journalists try to tell the truth, or, failing that, to get the facts as right as possible. The second is that this presentation suggests that the deaths of Christians matter to us, or should, more than other deaths.

The figure of 100,000 was arrived, it seems, by projecting forward from the number of violent deaths of Christians in conflicts over the past ten years. The trouble with this is that 90,000 of those deaths each year came from the civil war in the Congo. That is a terrible conflict, but it has no marked religious aspect, and it is also winding down. The kind of persecution that people care about is that inflicted on Christians by members of other faiths, and by Muslims in particular, and the inflated figure is likely to mislead in a damaging way.


THE other statistic of the week was The Guardian's splash that 60,000 women in this country have been the victims of female genital mutilation (FGM), and that no one has been prosecuted for this. It does appear that the operation, like forced marriage, is normally carried out abroad, but this is still a horrifying figure. The thing that shocked me was the accompanying graphic, breaking the practice down by country, something that makes it clear how much FGM is cultural rather than religious: 97 per cent of the women in Egypt have been mutilated; nearly 90 per cent in Eritrea, and nearly 80 per cent in Ethiopia.

This suggests that the practice is widespread among Christian communities as well as others. It is just a small warning against smugness.


SIMILAR considerations apply to Cristina Odone's interview with Nigel Farage in the Telegraph. Here we see an interesting clash between someone, a journalist, who plays with silly opinions for money, and someone, a politician, who hopes to turn them into power.

"When Godfrey Bloom MEP referred to developing countries earlier this year as 'bongo bongo land' and later, at the UKIP conference, to women who didn't clean behind their fridges as 'sluts', his leader knew 'he had to go'.

"Farage insists Bloom was an exception. 'When people say Ukip is racist, it makes me laugh. Look at our intern,' and he points to the young woman who delivered us a cup of tea. 'She's half Hindu!'

"Fear of causing offence drives the 'Notting Hill claptrap about diversity'. 'We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we're open to different cultures but we have to defend our values. That's the message I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from our politicians. Anything less is appeasement of the worst kind.'

"Yet he speaks not as a defender of the faith - he ventures to church only four or five times a year - but of 'our identity'."

This is yet more proof that anyone who uses the word "appeasement" should be ignored for ever. It is also a wonderful example of the way in which faith works in politics as a marker of identity rather than of theological or philosophical opinion. Farage, too, brought up the subject of FGM: "We go on about equality but under our noses, female genital mutilation has been going on in this country. Tens of thousands of women a year, but is anyone talking about it? It's brushed under the carpet."

Now, the figure actually quoted for mutilations in this country is 70 a month. Yes, this is scandalous, but it doesn't add up to anything like 10,000 a year.

Still, none of these statistics will have anything like the impact of a single story: the Somali man who slipped away from his police minders by emerging from a mosque in a burqa after entering in Western clothes. Sometimes the identity that really matters is not your real one at all.

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