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The Tipping Point
Wednesday 2nd September 2015


Curt Schilling in 2006 when he played with the Boston Red Sox (photo: Googie Man/GNU 1.2)

In the United States, the sports presenter Curt Shilling has been suspended from ESPN for retweeting a picture that says "It's said only 5-10 per cent of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7 per cent of Germans were Nazis. How'd that go?" Shilling added "The math is staggering when you get to true #'s".

In 2011, Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York published research showing that when 10 per cent of a population are strongly committed to a viewpoint, the view rapidly becomes the majority. The researchers studied how ideas spread between people with different connections. Below the 10 per cent threshold, marginal ideas are suppressed by their very unpopularity and the desire of people to fit in and get along. But when the number of the committed increases beyond 10 per cent, a barrier is passed, and those who would have avoided the belief due to its unpopularity will now be drawn to it by the same dynamic.

This is one of those scientific studies that formalizes something reasonably well known. A small number of determined radicals can determine how a much larger population behaves. To stay with the example of the Nazis, Victor Klemperer was a German Jew who kept a diary of every day of the Third Reich.  Reading it, what is remarkable is how few true racist fanatics are encountered — in fact, I can only remember one such encounter — set against countless acts of decency and solidarity from ordinary Germans. Yet the fact that Nazi fanatics were a distinct minority does not make it wrong to say that Germany and Germans as a whole were enthralled by racism and war-worship.

In one way, though, the comparison between today's Ummah and Germany in the 1930s and '40s falls flat. To be German is an accident of birth; to be religious is to commit to a set of beliefs. A better parallel would be with political movements. There were many good Communists — those who fought against apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. There were even many good Nazis — some of the decency Klemperer records is from former party members who had no truck with anti-Semitism but just joined out of anger over joblessness and rampant inflation. One prominent Nazi named John Rabe is celebrated as the "Living Buddha of Nanking" for his role in saving a quarter million lives during the Japanese invasion. The decency of so many Communists and National Socialists doesn't change the fact that Communism and National Socialism are movements of total evil.

This bears directly on the refugee crisis. That so many Europeans don't want to accept the refugees is written off reflexively as racism, but that's just doesn't work. Slovakia is saying that it will accept refugees, but only Christians — which is another way of saying "No Muslims please". Slovakia is expressing a feeling that is very widespread in Europe, that refugees and immigrants are welcome, but not if they're Muslim. Nor are the only ones concerned native Europeans — with Islamist attacks on Hamburg's Yazidi community, Syrian Christians being driven from Swedish asylum shelters, or the story of Christian refugees being thrown overboard to drown in the Adriatic, there are many immigrant communities within Europe who share those sentiments.

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