During the terrorist attacks on September 11th, I was a middle school student in a suburb outside Atlanta, Georgia. I recall my teacher breaking down and crying, and lots of students going home early, even though I stayed through the school day.
What I remember most from the days that followed was the outpouring of support from friends and the community, most of which was not Muslim like my family was. I remember my father telling me about a friend of his, a Southern man, assuring him that if anyone threatened our family, we should alert him and he would take care of it. In those moments, I saw that even in the face of a terrorist attack intended to polarize society, Americans were capable of coming together and putting aside differences to show solidarity for each other.
While my family experienced only goodwill, there was a jump in hate crimes and anti-Muslim sentiment following the September 11th attacks—which have continued to climb. Today, anti-Muslim bias in the U.S. is by some measures actually worse than it was immediately after 9/11. In other parts of the West, growing Muslim populations are met with prejudice, as well; majorities in numerous Western European countries favor some restrictions on at least some Muslim women’s religious clothing and, in countries like Poland, a majority have told pollsters they would not accept Muslims as members of their family.
In March, a man killed 50 people and wounded 50 more Muslim worshippers in a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque. I was particularly shocked because I had long believed New Zealand, where the attack occurred, and Australia, where the attacker came from, to be tolerant places where many Muslims have successfully integrated. It reminded me that while we’ve made a lot of progress on tolerance, hate and terrorism still exist.
The reasons why someone chooses to engage in an act of political violence are complex, and such acts are rare—while ordinary bias is quite common. This ordinary bias can involve schoolyard bullying, avoiding friendships with people of Muslim backgrounds, or refusing to allow Muslims to worship as they please in your community.
How can we create a climate in America that is more accepting and warm towards Muslims? We know bias isn’t insurmountable—anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic feelings were once mainstream in U.S. culture, but now members of both groups have held positions at the highest echelons of society (although hate crimes against both certainly still occur). Social and psychological science offers some advice to help Muslims gain more acceptance—and there are people around the country with experience to share.
“How do we . . . bridge gaps between communities? [The] way that that happens is through interpersonal relationships, and it also happens through narratives,” said Jenan Mohajir, senior director of leadership at the organization Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). It happens when we share stories about Muslims other than ones revolving around terrorism and extremism, and when Muslims and non-Muslims make meaningful connections.
Knowing Muslims makes you less afraid of them
IFYC works on college campuses with a wide set of emerging leaders—including students, faculty, staff, and administrators—to facilitate conversations that promote strong bonds and relationships between people of different faiths.
“We think of the campus as a microcosm of larger society,” said Mohajir.
IFYC runs a number of programs designed to encourage religious pluralism. Across 450 campuses, they have built a student network that promotes the skills needed for religious bridge-building. The organization offers templates for inter-religious events that include site visits to religious and non-religious communities, a “Fast-a-thon” where participants are invited to abstain from food and drink with Muslim-American students, and film screenings that explore issues related to religious identity.
The organization also hosts the Interfaith Leadership Institute, which brings together hundreds of leaders for a convening every year to conduct trainings and conversations on how to bridge divides between different religious communities.
According to research, Mohajir is on the right track. The contact hypothesis suggests that increasing exposure to members of another group will help your group to accept them. This is considered the leading explanation for why tolerance for gay and lesbian Americans dramatically improved during the 1990s and 2000s, as more and more Americans were exposed to openly gay and lesbian people in mainstream American culture.
Pew Research Center polling shows that Western Europeans who say they personally know a Muslim “are generally more likely than others to have positive opinions of Muslims and their religion”; interestingly, this finding doesn’t hold for knowing about Islam in general. Similar findings have been observed for Americans—those who have greater familiarity with Muslims tend to have warmer feelings towards them.
If you don’t personally interact with Muslims, it’s easy for your imagery of them to be shaped by popular culture and the news media. While positive portrayals could be helpful, as in the case of gay rights, the coverage of Muslims often revolves around terrorism and extremism. One study of U.S. media coverage estimated that by 2013, at least 75 percent of coverage of Muslims in major news media was negative.
In this kind of social and media environment, mental shortcuts called heuristics can contribute to judgment and stereotyping. For example, the “representativeness heuristic” leads us to make judgments based on similarities we believe to be representative, and the “availability heuristic” leads us to make judgments based on information that is immediately accessible to us. Sometimes these heuristics can be useful for your life—like if you’re deciding whether to pack a rain coat when you’re visiting Seattle.
But these heuristics can also lead us to engage in unjust and unfair stereotyping: If we are exposed to news media coverage of Muslims that is focused almost exclusively on terrorism, our brains will often start to believe that terrorists are representative of all (or at least a significant portion of) Muslims. Since most Americans have not visited a local mosque or befriended a Muslim, sensationalist headlines are often the most readily available information they have about Islam. And thanks to the “anchoring and adjustment heuristic,” our first impressions (particularly about out-groups) become firmly anchored, making it difficult to re-evaluate our biases even when confronted with conflicting evidence.
These powerful heuristics can be difficult to overcome. But research shows that we can reduce the human tendency to collectively blame a large group for the sins of a few of its members.
How to reduce collective blame
In 2017, a group of researchers conducted experiments to try and figure out how to reduce collective blame, another one of the unwise heuristics that is driving anti-Muslim bias.
One of those researchers was Emile Bruneau, who works at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab. What his team found was that when people see the hypocrisy of holding Muslims collectively responsible for terrorists—while not holding members of other groups responsible for the crimes of their members—they attribute less collective blame to Muslims.
“I created a little interactive activity, and in the activity, I just described to people a few different white extremists like Dylann Roof,” said Bruneau. “And then I put a little slider at the bottom of the screen and I asked people to respond how responsible they think they are for what Dylann Roof did and then how responsible they think white Americans are for what Dylann Roof did.” He repeated that prompt for two other white supremacist attackers, and then afterwards asked respondents how responsible they think individual Muslims are for an attack by a Muslim extremist.
“For people who go through the activity, they basically hold all groups about the same,” he said. “It’s quite a big difference [from people who did not engage in the hypocrisy activity].”
In other words, if people can realize that they do not want to be collectively blamed for the actions of extremists who affiliate with some subgroup they belong to, they are much less likely to collectively blame others for the crimes of fringe actors in their group.
In-group leadership matters
But there’s more to reducing prejudice than revealing hypocrisy and facilitating contact between members of different groups. In fact, messaging from social leaders within your group has been shown in experiments to be more persuasive than messaging coming from other individuals.
Last December, I reported on a campaign by a small faction of Texas Republicans to remove a Muslim GOP official from his post due to concerns about his religious faith. The official, Shahid Shafi, eventually survived the ouster attempt after a large coalition of state Republicans came to his aid, including influential figures such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
What Bush and Cruz were offering was in-group leadership. By signaling to other members of their in-group—loyal Texas Republicans—that Shafi was one of them, they helped him beat back a campaign targeting him solely due to his faith.
In Appalachia, an Evangelical pastor is applying the same principle to help promote tolerance and respect for American Muslims. Pastor Joel Rainey of West Virginia’s Covenant Church has been working with a bridge-building initiative called One America to promote what he calls “multi-faith” relationships between Evangelicals and American Muslims and others.
Shortly after the tragedy in New Zealand, Rainey made a point to invite guests from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a Northern Virginia-based mosque, to a sermon at his church. “If you’re Muslim this morning, let me just tell you how profoundly sorry I am for what has happened, and I just want you to know that your Christian neighbors in West Virginia mourn with you and we love you and we are with you,” he told his parishioners to applause.
Pastor Rainey explained to Greater Good how he promotes relations between Evangelical Christians and Muslim Americans by respecting their differences.
“We don’t use the term interfaith because it seems to project that we’re all the same. I certainly don’t believe that. My Muslim friends don’t believe that,” he explained about how he frames his work. “So, we tend to use the term multi-faith because we want to recognize the right of people to worship and serve according to the dictates of their own conscience.”
Pastor Rainey told us about how he wouldn’t want to be judged by stereotypes any more than Muslim-Americans would, echoing Bruneau’s lab experiments. “I’m white, I’m male, I tend to be fairly conservative, and I’m a gun owner. So, if society as a whole treated me the way they tend to treat a lot of Muslims, I wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a public school or a movie theater. But that doesn’t happen to me,” he said, noting that minorities are often not given the same benefit of the doubt. “And I think familiarity and the kind of relationships we’re trying to build will help us overcome that.”
What the IFYC, Bruneau’s experiments, the Shahid Shafi party election, and Pastor Rainey’s sermons show is that anti-Muslim bias can be reduced, but the key is a combination of in-group leadership, meaningful contact between Muslims and non-Muslims, and a dose of critical thinking.
The Christchurch attack no doubt left many of New Zealand’s Muslims wondering if they were safe and secure in their country. But immediately following the attack, the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her sympathy and solidarity, even donning a Muslim hijab—a head covering worn by some Muslim women—to demonstrate that New Zealand’s Muslims are an irremovable part of the society’s social fabric.
The solidarity Ardern showed helped break down potential divisions between out-groups and in-groups—she stood strong with the message that everyone has equal citizenship and the right to life in her country. What both Ardern and my family’s friends after 9/11 showed is that while we live in diverse, heterogeneous societies, our differences do not have to divide us.