Why A Small Minority Can Ruin It For the Rest of Us

Radicalized Muslim girls protest in France
Radicalized Muslim girls protest in France (Photo: Reuters)

Most Muslims are not radical. It’s just a small minority of extremists causing problems. You have probably heard this narrative before and been aggravated by it. Maybe it’s just a small number, but why are they able to do so much damage if the numbers are so small? And if it’s just a small minority, why don’t the rest of the community act to stop them?

Clarion has examined the question of how much of a minority radicals in Islam really are. We presented our findings in our short film By The Numbers (watch below), which looked at a cross section of poll data to assess the extent of various radical views across the Muslim world.

Watch By the Numbers below:

Now we are looking at why minorities are able to have such outsized impacts on the wider world.

To do that, we turn to the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a writer, statistician and risk analyst with a background in finance. One chapter of his new book, Skin in the Game, deals with “the dictatorship of the small minority.”

Taleb argues that intolerant minorities are able to set the agenda in human affairs not in spite of the tolerant majority, but because of them. “It suffices for an intransigent minority –a certain type of intransigent minorities –to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences,” Taleb writes. “Further, an optical illusion comes with the dominance of the minority: a naive observer would be under the impression that the choices and preferences are those of the majority.”

This occurs because the intolerant minority will not alter their preferences in the face of criticism, whereas the tolerant majority will allow themselves to go along with the intolerant minority’s preference for sake of group cohesion and civic harmony.

He uses an example of a family whose daughter decides to only eat non-GMO food. For simplicity, the entire family switches to this diet. When they attend a barbeque in the neighborhood, the hosts provide non-GMO food for everyone, for the same reason, it’s easier to go along with it. This impacts the local grocery store, which will now alter its stock to fit increased demand for non-GMO food. Thus, even though only one person actually made the shift to eat non-GMO, that decision impacted the whole neighborhood.

Such patterns follow for moral principles as well.

Because of the impact a committed follower of a particular rule can have, Taleb argues, “once a moral rule is established, it would suffice to have a small intransigent minority of geographically distributed followers to dictate the norm in society.”

With regard to radical Islam, Taleb sees the small minority of extremists as easily able to capitalize on the tolerance of those around them, with more extreme strains more able to dominate the conversation precisely because of their intolerance.

“As I am writing these lines, people are disputing whether the freedom of the enlightened West can be undermined by the intrusive policies that would be needed to fight Salafi fundamentalists,” he says.

“We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it will eventually destroy our world.

“So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western principles’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.”

Understanding this notion can help the struggle against radical Islam in two ways. Firstly it puts the problem into perspective, helping people explain the apparent contradiction between a relatively small number of extremists having such an outsized impact on public life. It thus helps lessen unwarranted discrimination against Muslims in the aggregate.

Secondly it brings forward the solution. An intolerant minority against extremism, who refuse to accept it in their lives and stand up robustly against it, can carry the rest of the country, or even the world, with them.



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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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