It’s Not About Islam. Just ask ISIS.

Two separate news items regarding Islam came out this week, and though they are not specifically related, there is definitely an important link as far as how Islam is used by terrorists and how it is viewed by Americans.

The first item was a survey from Fox News:

And, while it is not surprising that a conservative news source that has a history of demonizing Muslims and their religion would find that Americans are fearful, it is interesting how the question is phrased.  This is not a question about whether Americans are scared of terrorists, or even specifically of “radical Islamic” terrorists.  Rather, it is a question of whether Americans feel that their “personal way of life” is threatened.

The threat presented by terrorists in general has been greatly exaggerated, at least in terms of attacks on American soil.  And, whether “radical Islamic” terrorism is any greater of a threat than that posed by regular old violent Americans is highly doubtful.  Yet, not only do most Americans fear an attack, they fear that their very way of life is being threatened.

Fear is an often irrational emotion.  People fear things that are very unlikely to harm them—spiders, snakes, enclosed spaces, even speaking in public.  And, while the fear created by these things is very real, that does not mean that the actual danger they pose is.  The same is true of Americans and Islam.  Repeated claims by conservative media, Fox News included, have created a perception that not only should Americans be frightened of “radical Islamic terrorism,” but they should be scared of Islam itself.  They do this by conflating “radical Islam” with the religion as a whole.  But, they are not the same thing.

Quite simply, Islam poses no threat to the American way of life, whatever that is.  Even if we ignore for the moment that Americans, and their respective ways of life, differ greatly based on any number of factors—geography, economic status, race, gender, sexual preference or identity, and, yes, religion—it is easily provable that Islam does not infringe on this in the slightest.  How?  Easy.  Islam is already here.  There are currently over 3 million Muslims in the United States, and that number is growing rapidly.  And, that has not done a thing to threaten the right of all Americans to live however they please.  In fact, it could be argued that Christianity, at least in its more extreme interpretations, is a far greater threat to individual freedoms than Islam is, not because it is any more restrictive, but simply because it is so much more common.  This threat can be seen in the repeated attempts to legislate against abortion or LGBT rights, things that are protected by law but condemned by some Christians (and, to be fair, some Muslims, too).  It could be argued that Christianity and its values are the very “American way of life” that is under threat.  But, this too is incorrect.  The American way of life, at least as laid out by the Constitution, is one in which all citizens are able to choose for themselves how they would like to live.  And, again, Muslims are doing nothing to change this.

Yet, the media has created an atmosphere of fear in which Islam has been determined to be “un-American.”  And, this somehow makes it a threat to whatever is “American.”  However, 3 million Muslims would argue that they, and their way of life, are just as American as anyone else.   But, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  A fabricated threat of Islam is merely something to be afraid of.  And, this fear, like most others, is completely irrational.

This brings up the second news item about Islam that came out this week, an AP report that ISIS deliberately recruits fighters with little knowledge of Islam.  It found that those with less knowledge of Islam or Shariah (the system of law based on the Quran and Islamic teachings) were much more likely to be radicalized than those with greater knowledge of the religion.

This shows that while terrorism is indeed a threat, there is little correlation between terrorists and Islam.  This is why the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is a red herring, one that President Obama, among others, has tried to avoid using.  These terrorists are not really Muslims, radical or otherwise.  They are simply violent people using a false interpretation of a religion to justify committing violent acts.

The AP story gives several examples of ISIS-linked terrorists who have little or no knowledge of Islam.  It even quotes a CIA official as saying, “Religion is an afterthought,” and that most of these terrorists are instead, “reaching for a sense of belonging, a sense of notoriety, a sense of excitement.”  Further, the piece cites an Islamic scholar in its determination that ISIS propaganda is “counter to Islamic laws that forbid terrorism, the murder of non-combatants in war, the imposition of Islam on non-Muslims and other criminal activity.”

Again, it is not about Islam, it is about fear.  Terrorism is scary.  ISIS is scary, too.  But, ISIS is not really an Islamic group, and their beliefs do not represent those of all Muslims, any more than the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church represent those of all Christians.  Fear is a powerful thing.  Religion can be powerful, too.  ISIS has perverted Islam to inspire people to do terrible things.  It is this same perverted view of the religion that Americans are scared of.  But, that is not Islam.  ISIS knows that.  Americans need to know that, too.

 

Irresponsible Reporting Can Have Real-World Consequences (or, Bullshit, Birth Control is Great)

Women’s health is not something I write much about, since there are many writers who both know more and write more eloquently about it.  However, I felt compelled to write after reading something posted recently by Kathryn Doyle at Reuters and reposted by Fox News.  While I know better than to believe anything that Fox News broadcasts over the airwaves, their online presence has generally been at least a little less blatantly partisan and sensational.  But, there is no doubt that their choice (along with other right-wing sites, including The Blaze) to promote the story had little to do with news and was instead nothing more than propaganda, in step with their recent on-air efforts (on behalf of their GOP sympathizers) to demonize birth control.

The headline itself, “The Pill linked to breast cancer risk for young women,” is certainly attention-grabbing.  As a man, I honestly have not done a great deal of research on the full gamut of risks and side effects of birth control medication.  But, as a man who lost his mother to breast cancer, and as a man who knows women who take such medication for reasons other than their desire not to have children, my attention was certainly grabbed.  But, as a man with the most basic of reading comprehension skills, I have no choice but to call bullshit (though I do sincerely hope that Doyle herself did not write the headline that accompanied her article, since nothing she writes comes close to the conclusion reached in the headline).

The story begins with this bombshell:

A new statistical analysis finds that women under age 50 who were diagnosed with breast cancer were also more likely to have recently been on some versions of the Pill.

On its face, this is indeed shocking news.  However, the findings of this initial paragraph are then called into question by the remainder of the article.  In fact, the shocking revelation is immediately followed by this:

The increased cancer risk still translates to less than a one percent chance of developing breast cancer for most younger women, researchers emphasize, so the results should not outweigh the many benefits of taking oral contraceptives.

These results are not enough to change clinical practice or to discourage any women from taking birth control pills, said lead study author Elizabeth F. Beaber, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.

So, despite a headline and lead paragraph that seek to scare women from taking birth control pills, Doyle quotes the woman who led the study saying that women should not be scared from taking their birth control pills.

Here are a few further excerpts, with a brief explanation for why they contradict the headline:

  • But birth control pills have evolved over the decades since their introduction and the hormone doses they contain have dropped steadily, so many studies are based on data for formulations that are no longer used, Beaber and her colleagues point out in the journal Cancer Research.

So, the article is making a claim based on data from dosages of medication that are no longer used.  This means no link has been found from current medication doses.

  • Overall, the risk was slightly higher for hormone-sensitive cancers than for other types of tumors, but that result was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.

The data backing the alleged “link” was not actually statistically significant, and “could have been due to chance.”  At the very least, this should prompt further research before any claims of a link should be made.

  • Women in the cancer group had more family history of cancer than the comparison group, and may have differed in other ways that the authors could not account for.

Genetics play a large role in the occurrence of cancer (which is why my sisters get annual mammograms despite still being in their thirties), and this is only one of the ways in which the test groups “may have differed” that the authors “could not account for.”  This is less a scientific article than wild speculation.

  • More research is required to determine why and how different birth control options might affect breast cancer risk, Beaber said.

This one is obvious.  The woman leading the study says “more research is required.”  Yet, this does not stop Reuters from running the results with a sensationalistic headline.

  • Less than one percent of women will get breast cancer before age 40, according to the American Cancer Society, and even with a 50 percent relative increase that number would still be under one percent.

So, despite the fearmongering, even if the study did prove a link between birth control and cancer (which it does not), the number of woman diagnosed with breast cancer would still be less than one in a hundred.  How low is that?  Keep reading:

  • For this type of study, a 50 percent increase in risk is actually quite low and can generally be dismissed as bias or random chance, Dr. David A. Grimes told Reuters Health by phone.

So, any increase in breast cancer diagnosis (which, again, shows no link to use of birth control medication) can “be dismissed as bias or random chance.”  So, again, Reuters is admitting in their own story that there is no science to back their conclusion.

  • The new results are not important for women or doctors, Grimes said. Other, better studies have found no increase in breast cancer risk with birth control, which is essential for women’s health, he said.

The doctor Reuters chose to quote for their story literally says the results are “not important for women or doctors,” and that “other, better studies have found no increase in breast cancer risk,” and yet they ran their story with a headline stating that a link was found between birth control and breast cancer.  This is a violation of the ethics of journalism.  They make a claim directly refuted by their own story.  And then, just to rub salt in their own self-inflicted wound, their source says birth control “is essential for women’s health.”

  • The new study did not include interviews with women nor did it assess whether they actually took the pills, only if they had a prescription on file at the time, he pointed out.

This may be the most damning of all.  Here, Reuters reports that the women in the study may not have even taken the medication that would allegedly put them at greater risk for a breast cancer diagnosis.  As long as they are speculating, why was no study conducted over whether the paper on which their prescriptions were written might actually be the cause for this supposed increased risk?

  • The bottom line for women is that birth control pills are very safe, he said.

Exactly.

  • Beaber and her co-authors acknowledge that their results “should be interpreted cautiously” and further studies with a larger group of women are needed to confirm the findings.

Apparently, “cautiously” is not a word that Reuters, its editors, or headline writers are familiar with.

  • Oral contraception helps protects [sic] against pelvic inflammatory disease, lowers the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers and colorectal cancers and helps maintain bone density.

I love this part.  After an entire article debunking their own claim that birth control pills can increase the risk of breast cancer, Reuters admits that these pills can also lower the risk for other types of cancer, along with having other health benefits.  Beautiful.

This is not a story that has anything to do with me, except that it does.  What if a woman read the headline for this story and was compelled to stop taking her medication out of fear of a breast cancer diagnosis?  She would then subject herself to the pain and suffering related to her other legitimate health concerns, as well as the possibility of getting pregnant with a child.  And for what?  To keep herself from a cancer diagnosis that there is no scientific proof she would be at any greater risk of?

It is not surprising that Fox and The Blaze and other right-wing outlets ran with this story, as its headline fits perfectly into the narrative they are trying to craft.  But, the truth is, such propaganda is dangerous.  They want to keep women from taking birth control, period, regardless of the risks that would result.  This is another of their numerous attempts to mislead the public and keep women from making informed decisions about their own heath.  It is deceptive and unethical.  At the very least, Reuters should apologize.  They, unlike Fox or The Blaze, claim to be a non-partisan news source.  Even better, they should retract the story, or at least alter its headline.  But, the best solution would be to admit their mistake, admit that birth control is a vital part of women’s health care and encourage its use for any woman who chooses to take it, and to distance themselves from the right-wing propaganda machine seeking to demonize it.

Update:

I contacted the author of the piece, who confirmed that she did not write the headline for the story.  Her proposed headline was far more accurate and far more appropriate: