In recent months, a growing cadre of conservative (and even some liberal) politicians and pundits have painted a fairly negative picture of people who argue that most Muslims are not, in fact, terrorists committing horrible atrocities. Unsettled by the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists in France, right-wing figureheads attacked President Obama for attempting to dispel negative stereotypes of Muslims at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) accusing him of being an “apologist for radical Islamic terrorists.” Meanwhile, various Fox News commentators have pushed back against attempts to disassociate the larger American Muslim population from the two ISIS-affiliated extremists who attempted to storm an anti-Islam conference in Texas, and even Bill O’Reilly took flak from fellow conservatives for calling a “Draw Muhammad” contest “stupid” because it was “insulting the entire Muslim world.”
Taken together, you’d be forgiven for thinking their overarching message roughly amounts to the following: going out of one’s way to defend American Muslims, if not necessarily bad in and of itself, is somehow inappropriate in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
But if a smattering of new surveys and studies are to be believed, this tendency to stick up for Muslim neighbors after a violent incident is not only important, it’s oddly normal — and it helps protect people from harm.
Take, for instance, an eyebrow raising new study from the Pew Research Center. The poll, which was conducted after the Charlie Hebdo shootings and released last week, showed that 76 percent of people in France now say they have a favorable view of local Muslims, compared to the 72 percent in 2014. At first glance, this rapid rise in support seems surprising, especially given that the country recently endured a brutal attack at the hands of extremists claiming to be affiliated with ISIS, a militant group that purports to be representative of Islam. Yet this outpouring of pro-Muslim sentiment occurred among members of every political persuasion in France, and the share of people who held a “very favorable” view of Muslims increased by more than ten points — rising from 14 to 25 percent in just a year. Even stranger, while this result may seem counterintuitive, the same thing happened in the United States after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center: In 2001, favorable views of Muslim Americans rose from 45 percent in March of that year to 59 percent by November.
So where does this unusual spike in pro-Muslim sentiment come from? Some sociologists are hesitant to speculate, but Richard Wike, director of global attitudes research at Pew, hinted in a blog post and a subsequent interview that the change may emanate from efforts by politicians and the media to do precisely what many on the right-wing are currently railing against: calling out anti-Muslim bigotry.
“One of the potential reasons for this pattern is that in the days following the attacks [in France], you had widespread calls for national unity,” Wike told ThinkProgress. He drew direct parallels between the Charlie Hebdo killings and September 11 attacks, noting the similarities between the call to unity in France and America’s charge to overcome differences in the face of terror: “In 2001, [statements made by President George W. Bush] about how violent extremism does not represent Islam … that had an impact.”
Indeed, despite accusations from some that Obama is effectively coddling Muslims by defending their religion, former President George W. Bush was just as eager to dismiss perceptions that American citizens who worship Islam were somehow allied with terrorists, saying in 2001 “There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know — that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.”
Although Wike stressed that the Pew data wasn’t detailed enough to make concrete conclusions on its own, he did note that other scholars have claimed that this kind of sympathetic media coverage can have a tangible impact on a population rattled by a terror attack. He cited a 2013 paper by Christopher Smith, a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University, who tracked this same phenomenon in the United States in 2001. Smith’s research places various opinion polls alongside analysis of media coverage over time, arguing that the sudden uptick in support for Muslims around 9/11 was the result of politicians and the media working simultaneously to beat back negative stereotypes about Muslims.
“Despite their fear, most Americans responded to [the September 11 attacks] not with prejudice, but rather with sympathy for innocent Muslims defamed by the actions of extremists and targeted by retaliatory hate crimes,” Smith’s paper reads. He hypothesizes that this was partly a result of a string of news coverage immediately following the attack that cast American Muslims in a positive light. “This counterintuitive outcome apparently resulted from a bipartisan effort by government and media to avert discrimination by framing Islam in a positive way,” he writes.
Thus, it would seem that one of the natural responses to terrorism in the West — or at least in France and America — is an appeal to compassion, with politicians, faith leaders, and media moguls often working quickly to combat anti-Muslim bigotry. But while surges in solidarity are encouraging, Wike noted that they aren’t enough — in 2001 America or 2015 France — to erase all-too-common spikes in anti-Muslim violence that often rage in the wake of a terrorist attack. When militants murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo and patrons at a Jewish deli in France earlier this year, for instance, there was a sudden rash of Islamophobic incidents in and around Paris, with mosques being damaged, shot at, and firebombed.
“In both [France and the United States], there is a minority of people with extremely negative views, and it’s possible that those people are more likely to turn to violence,” Wike said.
Worse, Wike pointed out that the increase in pro-Muslim views among Americans didn’t hold up over time, tapering off over the years as the War on Terror raged on. Smith’s paper also acknowledges this shift, but offers a specific reason as to why. According to Smith, it was largely the byproduct of conservative media outlets reframing their news stories in ways critical of Islam.
“Media coverage of Muslim Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 focused heavily on critiquing stereotypes and documenting violations of Muslims’ civil liberties,” Smith writes. “[But] opinion-makers relaxed this impulse after the immediate sense of threat subsided, especially in right-leaning media outlets. A gradual increase of animosity toward Islam during the period from 2002 to 2010 coincided with a growth of partisan difference in assessments of the faith.”
A gradual increase of animosity toward Islam during the period from 2002 to 2010 coincided with a growth of partisan difference in assessments of the faith.
Recent reporting corroborates Smith’s findings: 2010 — a full 9 years after the 9/11 attacks — saw a flurry of assaults on Muslim houses of worship, with far fewer politicians and media outlets coming to their defense than in 2001. Meanwhile, America continues to underreport efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry. Much was written on the anti-Islam protest in Arizona in May, for instance, when a group of bikers held their own “draw Muhammad” contest before driving down to a nearby mosque to protest while holding firearms, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper even took the organizer of the event to task for his views. But few outlets covered what the bikers saw when they arrived at the mosque: an equally large interfaith counter-protest, where dozens of demonstrators stared down the bikers while wielding signs that read “End hate speech.” Even less was said about the interfaith service of peace held at the mosque just a few days after the event.
Granted, it’s always difficult to draw a one-to-one correlation between anti-Islam media coverage and assaults on mosques — making specific connections between the media we consume and the actions we take is always a guessing game. But if Smith’s paper and Pew’s opinion polls are any indication, France stands to learn some powerful lessons from America’s historical struggles with anti-Muslim hatred: namely, speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry matters, but it needs staying power for the effect to last.
“Education about Islam undoubtedly remains an important antidote to anti-Islamic prejudice, but education alone is unlikely to offset the effects of the highly politicized portrayals of Islam in the American news media,” Smith writes. “This suggests that media has tremendous power to shape public opinion and behavior, and opinion-makers need to take extra care in selecting framing. Prejudice against Muslims will undoubtedly remain commonplace so long as Islam remains a salient issue in American partisan politics, but careful framing can go a long way to mitigate those feelings.”