“Everything inside us resists images of violence committed against people of other religions. The great thing about the Netherlands is that you can believe or not believe in whatever you want without violence being involved.”
“We cannot accept that these youth turn their backs on society in this way.”
On 11 November 2014, NU.nl, one of the biggest online news sites in the Netherlands, carried a story on the prevalent support among the Dutch-Turkish youth for violent jihadist groups such as the IS. The story was based in particular, on some rather strong statements made by the Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher (presented above). Asscher’s statements came in light of a study commissioned by Forum, an institute for multicultural affairs. The study was based on a survey conducted by Motivaction, an Amsterdam-based market research organization. among 300 Turkish and around 404 Moroccan youngsters in the Netherlands, in the age-group 18-35. The questions asked were rather diverse and included: how these youngsters kept up to date with recent events in Muslim nations across the world, their views on jihad, groups like the IS, as well as their views on democracy. Some of the findings of this study, which immediately gained the favour of the media and politicians such as Asscher and Geert Wilders, were that:
(i) Around 87% of the (300) Turkish youth surveyed, expressed a strong support for “groups such as the IS”
(ii) 73% of these Turkish participants reported having no qualms against groups fighting in Arab nations in the name of “jihad”
(iii) 80% of these Turkish respondents did not find the violence used by these groups against people of other faiths, wrong
These are the facts.
Or rather, this is a small slice out of the whole range of facts that this study reported.
Then again, are these the facts? And if so, what do they really imply?
To understand this story a bit better, let’s start at the very beginning:
What is a fact? Is it an incontrovertible truth?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a fact as “a thing that is known or proven to be true”, and as “information used as evidence in a report or news article”. The element of truth that is incorporated in this definition of a fact would seem to suggest that it is an irrefutable statement, leaving little or no space for doubts or contradictions. This, in fact (yes!), is far from the truth.
A fact, like any other statement, is not only derived from but also interpreted within a certain context. Often, the context itself is vulnerable to subjectivities of interpretation. Take the above example; a term like “jihad” means different things to different people. Even among Muslims themselves, jihad could take on varying shades of meaning ranging from an outer physical struggle against non-believers, to an inner struggle of spirituality. Whether or not, and to what extent jihad is violent, is once again a question of varying beliefs. Consider in this light then, the following statement of fact derived from the above-mentioned study:
Out of the 300 Turkish youth in the Netherlands who participated in this survey, 73% reported that they worry about the rise of groups who, in the name of Jihad, fight in Arab countries
(Translated from Dutch: Ik maak me zorgen over de toename van groepen die in naam van de Jihad strijden in Arabische landen).
I can see the following three points of contention with this statement to start with:
- This is just a sample of 300. Can this sample be considered representative enough?
- What does “Jihad” mean to each of these individual respondents? Do they all support a violent nature of jihad?
- Is “worrying about” the same as “supporting”?
This goes to show that sometimes, the very nature of a fact and what it implies, is debatable based on the subjectivities of the context from which it derives meaning and within which it is interpreted. In fact, most of the questions asked in this survey can be subjected to such debatable points of interpretation. Below are some of the graphs from this study that I have translated in English (check out the entire study and the original Dutch graphs here):
And here’s the final blow. In a mini-survey conducted by a PhD student from Radbound University, Ahmet Kaya, in response to the above study, 89.71% of the 379 Turkish youth respondents strongly agreed that violence that groups such as IS use against non-believers or those who believe in other religions is wrong.
(Translated from Dutch: Het geweld dat de strijdgroepen zoals IS gebruiken tegen niet gelovigen of anders gelovigen vind ik verkeerd).
This is the very same statement used by the Motivaction survey where 80% of the 300 Turkish youth, in sharp contradiction, strongly disagreed.
So what really is the fact here? It’s a question that remains.
Do facts make the story or does the story determine the facts?
It is interesting to ponder what comes first then, the fact or the story. In order for a story to be factual, it should stem from facts. However, facts themselves are often determined and calculated based on certain hypotheses that underlie an assumed story. The questions used in the study above for example, seem to suggest (to me) a number of implicit assumptions, that have not just been used to interpret the facts, but also to generate them in the first place.
Additionally, just as different facts form the basis of different stories, the need to tell different stories can determine the choice of different facts. For instance, using the same study above, one could come up with very different stories as well, such as:
– Turkish youth want Assad out by whatever means possible
– Jihadist organizations considered the bringers of change
– Turkish & Moroccan youth favour democracy to a caliphate
– Turkish youth support ISIS. Where have we gone wrong?
Should we let facts speak for themselves?
If facts can be cherry-picked to represent certain stories, and if facts themselves are arguable based on the implicit assumptions, then why not just report facts the way they are and leave the story to be determined by the reader. There are at least two subcomponents to this broader issue:
- Is it really possible for facts to speak for themselves?
- Is it desirable to have facts speak for themselves?
In my opinion, the answer to both these questions is no. Facts bear no meaning without the context of a story. So letting the facts speak for themselves would be a fruitless exercise. Additionally, people often lack the resources and knowledge, and need to be informed about the broader context within which to understand facts and their implications. It is the task of journalists to do so, in a manner that is as transparent and critical as possible. The final take-home message then:
- For readers: check not just the facts themselves, but the context and manner in which they are interpreted
- For writers: present clearly the context and the manner in which the facts have been interpreted
- For all: Argue, counter-argue; make sure to cover the different facets of a fact