By Jonathan Power
My eighteen-year-old daughter asked me recently about where she can safely travel when she finishes school in June and starts a three-month holiday before going to university in September.
“The Muslim countries or Japan,” I replied.
She was quite taken aback. At school her friends talk about the United States, Australia, Thailand, or South America. But I emphatically said, “no, I don’t want you to go there,” and then explained why her mother and I felt so strongly.
I pulled out the figures from the new 2009 United Nations World Development Report, which compares murder rates from all the countries. Every country—apart from those in the European Union—measure rape, theft, break-ins, and other crimes in different ways. Some figures are accurate, some seem like they’ve been drawn out of a hat.
But most countries report their murder rate pretty accurately. There may be under-counting in places with civil strive, as in Sri Lanka, where murder and the killings of war can blur into each other. Yet, even in most difficult cases, like Russia, press reports can help balance the official figures.
To cut a long story short, I would gladly let her go to Egypt, which has the world’s lowest murder rate—at 0.4 per 100,000 population, although Japan closely follows at 0.5. Other Muslim, mainly Arab, countries follow next, all with less than 1 murder per 100,000 people: the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai and Oman at 0.6; Saudi Arabia at 0.9; Bahrain at 1; and Jordan at 0.9. Indonesia, with all its political troubles, has but 1.1 murders per 100,000 citizens.
Outside the Arab countries, the Scandinavian countries are the safest. Norway and Denmark come in at 0.8 and Iceland at 1. Sweden breaks the Scandinavian success rate with a poor 2.4, but in Europe, Holland and Ireland score well too.
So, daughter: there’s the list that I approve—and that your mother has been persuaded to approve. Ironically, for us, many of countries with high murder rates are of a Christian heritage—the United States at 5.6 murders per 100,000; Mexico at 13; Russia at 19.9; South Africa at 47.5; and Colombia at a staggering 62.7.
We can put India on the positive side of the ledger: it’s a big, very diverse country, and parts of it, like West Bengal and its capital, Calcutta, are very safe despite its rating of 3.7 murders per 100,000 population.
You might argue that I’ve underestimated, bent, or stretched the statistics—everyone knows there have been many killings of tourists in Egypt—because I’m not including terrorist killings. Egypt although, I admit, has real risks. So let’s strike that out. (It reminds me of Northern Ireland during the “troubles,” when it had the lowest crime rate in Europe but the fighting was pretty horrendous.)
Your “mad dad” has been to them all, I know, but journalists are stupid and take too many risks.
I’m afraid most men are pretty awful everywhere when it comes to ogling women. Muslim men are sexually repressed and will pinch your bottom and harass you as you walk down the street— just like Italian men will. Punishment for murder or rape in most Muslim countries, however, is severe (usually execution) so, sorry to say, that keeps men in line. For your part, my daughter, you should observe the mores of these societies—don’t wear shorts, a short skirt or a tight blouse. Wear a scarf or a big sun hat. and only swim in designated areas for foreigners. Finally, don’t travel alone—but this is a universal rule, not specific to any particular country.
The murder rate can change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. South Africa, which gets a bad rap, has statistics that are reliable. Its murder rate fell from 70 per 100,000 in 1996 to 38 last year. (Since these figure come from the South Africa Police Department they are more up-to-date than the UN report.) Still, despite the many attractions of the country, a 38 rating is way too high.
Now a word on your home country, Britain. What’s happening these days is worrying. The murder rate is higher than other European countries and, in non-deadly violence, Britain soars alarmingly ahead of the rest of Europe. (British statistics are reasonably good across the board.) Although a New Yorker visiting Britain is less likely to be murdered than he would be at home, he is more likely to be beaten up. Doctors report that they see more stabbing victims today than ever before and that injuries from guns have more than trebled since 2000.
Stand in any British city and watch the pubs empty out on a Saturday night. Many young men come out ready for a fight and it doesn’t take much for them to start one. A government study reveals that both the killer and the victim are drunk in about half of all male-on-male murders.
Britain, an old civilization, has been keeping murder statistics since the seventeenth century. From then until the late eighteenth century, when industrialization got under way and peasants were forced into urban jobs, the murder rate dropped dramatically from 8.1 per 100,000 to 0.9. But land enclosures, the “satanic mills” and the “Gin Lanes” of Dickens’ nineteenth-century England inflicted a massive social wound, which has led to an alienated working class and produced a subculture in which knife and gun fighting are part of youthful bravado. Over 150 years, the murder rate has increased sharply, although in fits and starts.
The recent jump is partly a legacy of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, in the name of free market reforms, encouraged policies that led to a more socially divided society. At the same time, because of renewed economic growth, working-class young men had growing purchasing power which enabled them to spend more on beer. These are probably the main causes of heavy drinking and heavy violence.
I live part-time in Britain. I’m not sure I want my daughter to visit her father’s homeland any more, although I do want her to have an interesting and safe holiday in Oman, Dubai, Japan, Indonesia, Scandinavia, India or, these days, Ireland—north and south.
Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor ofProspect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).