Thursday, August 15, 2013

Juan Cole's Misinformed Comment about Religion and 20th Century Political Deaths

University of  Michigan professor Juan Cole writes the popular and influential "Informed Comment" blog.  Sometimes, however, his posts are remarkably uninformed or, perhaps better said, misinformed.

Take, for example,  Cole's  April post apparently prompted by something  Bill Maher said. In "Terrorism and the other Religions", Cole contends that Muslims killed less than "2 million people or so in political violence in the entire twentieth century" but "compare that to the Christian European tally of...100 million."

I don't really expect Bill Maher, a comedian and talk show host to be a reliable and informed source.  Cole, on the other hands, is a professor and has offered himself up as an expert.  But in this post, Cole pads  his count of the number of "European Christian" deaths, deflates the Islamic total, under counts the number of  political deaths by ignoring Communist repression in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia.

Cole presents this graph

This is a dishonest, and intellectually incompetent graph.

In it Cole claims that 100  million were  killed  by "Christians of  European Heritage" and presents the graph as all-inclusive of 20th Century "deaths in war and political violence."

This is clearly  misleading.

If you  read Cole 's post carefully, you will notice that he pulls the figures out of his hat. Where does he get the 100 million figure?  He writes "oh, lets say." (emphasis added).   In other words, something nearly made up.   Cole cites 16  million deaths in WWI and 60 million.That adds to 76 million, 24 million short  of Cole's claim.

Cole credits the rest to "millions more in colonial wars".  That's unspecified and un-sourced. In discussing colonial wars, Cole mentions Belgian Congo,  the Caucuses, and Algeria. But  the atrocities of King Leopold's Congo Free State largely took place in the late 19th century and cannot all be counted in the 20th century,which is what Cole says he is doing. Similarly, it is strange to blame deaths in the  Caucuses during the Soviet era to :Christians, even with the weasel word "heritage" attached.

 Cole  writes that "some" of  the 60 million deaths in World War  II "were attributable to Buddhists in Asia."

 Some? Really, Professor Cole? Surely, a tenured Professor should be aware of the tremendous toll of death caused by the Japanese invasion of China,which experts estimate at 10 to 20 million.  Japanese military death are estimated at 2 million,while civilian deaths are placed at 500,00 to one million. A UN report estimated 4 million famine and forced labor dead during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. There are also very large WWII death tolls attributed to the Japanese occupation.  Leaving these aside, Cole counts these more than 20 million Asian deaths as part of his "Christian European" tally.

Cole doesn't count military deaths in the Chinese civil war estimated to have been 2 million  between 1928-1936 and another 6 million between 1945 and 1949.  The Korean War (3 million), Vietnam (2 million), and Cambodia/Kampuchea all escape Cole's attention.

Underestimating Islamic War and Political Deaths

Cole writes  

I don’t figure that Muslims killed more than a 2 million people or so in political violence in the entire twentieth century, and that mainly in the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 and the Soviet and post-Soviet wars in Afghanistan, for which Europeans bear some blame.
 This leading Middle Eastern scholar doesn't mention the Armenian genocide carried out by the Islamic Ottoman Republic in 1915.  Called out by a commenter,  Cole responded that this wouldn't doesn't affect his estimate, despite the fact his two million figure is "mainly" in the  Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan and Afghan civil war. Since deaths in the Armenian genocide amount to between 50 and 75 percent of Cole's total, his estimate is blown to shreds.   A little  research shows that Cole's estimate is seriously flawed.  A more realistic figure would be at least 7.4 million and perhaps as much as 12.9 million.--or more.

That's three to six times larger than Cole's estimate.

Islamic War and Political Deaths 20th Century

Armenian Genocide
Greek Genocide
Assyrian Genocide
Iran vs. Iraq
Indonesia vs Chinese minority
Indonesia vs. East Timor
Bangladesh Liberation war
Algerian civil war
Afghan-Soviet War (civilians)
Sudan (1983-2005)
Sudan (1955-72)
Somalia (1991-)


Source: wikipedia articles,

Ignoring Communist Repression and Collectivation

Any toll of political deaths in the 20th Century must include the Great Purge and Collectivization in the Soviet and the Great Leap Forward and other events in the People's Republic of China.


Stalin (1924-1953) 20 million
China (Mao period) 40 million
North Korea (excl Korean War) 3 million
Cambodia, Khmer Rouge (1975-1978) 1,650,000
Vietnam, post-war Communist regime (1975 et seq.)

TOTAL 65 million

Here are another set of mass war deaths which Cole doesn't count.   There is some duplication with our list of Islamic war deaths. The colonial background plays an important role in these conflicts, but would wrong to call them "colonial."

Post-Colonial Africa War and Political Deaths

Rwanda and Burundi
1.35 million
Ethiopia 2 million
Nigeria 1 million
Sudan (1983-2005)
Kinshasa Congo (1998 et seq.) 3.8 million
Uganda, Idi Amin's regime (1972-79)
300 ,000
Sudan (1955-72) 500,000
Angola (1975-2002):
Mozambique (1975-1992)

TOTAL 12.6 million


Summing Up: What Are the Totals 

From Cole's figure of 100 million deaths caused by European Christians, we should subtract the 24 million Asian deaths detailed above and a good percentage of Cole's 26 million colonial war deaths--fifty percent seems reasonable.   That leaves 53 million, adding 8 million from the Russian Revolution gives us 62 million.

The other components  in my total are: (1) Communist repression 65 million: (2) Asian 38 million  (3) Islamic  13 million and (4) Africa 10 million (excluding Sudan and Somalia).    That gives a total figure of 189 million.

That is nearly two times Cole's figure, but in line with the judgements of scholarsMatthew White, author of Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, 2010) give the  figure of 203 million.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century (1993) presents the figure of 167,000,000 to 175,000,000 for "Lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage,":while Milton Leitenberg in a paper for Uppsala University counts 214M to 226M politically caused deaths in the 20th Century.

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