Expert Commentary

Stereotypes of Muslims and support for the war on terror

2013 study from George Washington University noting that stereotypes against Muslims and Muslim-Americans persist and examining the nature of these general attitudes.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, a Pew Research Center survey painted a complex portrait of Muslim-Americans living in the United States. Among adults, 63% were born abroad and a quarter of the entire population — an estimated 2.75 million in all — had arrived since 2000. Of those surveyed, 60% feared the rise of Islamic extremism in America; 21% believed there was support for extremism among Muslims in the United States; and opinions were split between those who believed the “War on Terror” was a sincere effort to combat terrorism versus those who felt it had other motivations.

The survey also revealed that 56% of U.S. Muslims had said they want to adopt American customs and only 20% didn’t, and 79% rated their communities as excellent or good places to live. The 2011 Pew survey data indicated a substantial gap between what the general public believes about Muslim-Americans and what U.S. Muslims themselves usually believe.

The problems of stereotypes about Muslims and misplaced assumptions are well known, but academic research shows that the nature of this misunderstanding has a nuanced character. A 2013 study, “Stereotypes of Muslims and Support for the War on Terror,” analyzes 2006-2007 Internet-based survey data in which respondents were asked to rate whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims and Muslim-Americans. The survey, by John Sides and Kimberly Gross of George Washington University, used a seven-point scale, with 1 as the most favorable and 7 as the least, to assess the following ranges of attributes: peaceful-violent, trustworthy-untrustworthy, hardworking-lazy, intelligent-unintelligent. The study’s publication is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics.

The study’s findings include:

  • Overall, 45% of white, non-Muslim respondents put Muslim-Americans on the “violent” side of the scale; 51% of those respondents placed Muslims in general on the violent side. (African-American and Latino respondents generally displayed similar attitudes about Muslims.)
  • “Many Americans see both Muslims and Muslim-Americans as violent and untrustworthy — a finding that dovetails with theories of stereotype content and with depictions of Muslims in the media. Muslims and Muslim-Americans are denigrated more strongly on the warmth dimension than the other ethnic groups we examined. Moreover, Americans do not differentiate Muslim-Americans from Muslims. Muslim-Americans are considered just as violent and untrustworthy as Muslims, on average.”
  • Muslims and Muslim-Americans were generally rated on the positive side of the survey scales in terms of being hard-working and intelligent.
  • Those who believe Muslims to be violent and untrustworthy are more likely to support policies associated with the War on Terror. Although it is possible that U.S. foreign policy actually drives negative attitudes about all Muslims, the study’s authors find that hypothesis unlikely and “doubt that negative stereotypes of Muslims are creations or rationalizations of support for policies in the War on Terror.”
  • These beliefs about Muslims and Muslim-Americans do not appear to be a general ethnocentrism on the part of Americans but rather are driven by attitudes specifically about Muslims.

“If the messages that the public hears are different and if there is not another major terrorist attack by Muslims on U.S. soil then perhaps the content and importance of Muslim stereotypes could change over time,” the scholars conclude. “But given the longevity of these stereotypes, as well as the ongoing violence in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, the prevailing depiction of the Muslim world will likely continue to emphasize the threat that Muslims pose to Americans. It will thus be difficult for many Americans to think of Muslims as anything but enemies.”

One of the study’s authors, political scientist John Sides, analyzed the potential impact of the Boston Marathon bombing on U.S. perceptions of Muslims in an article in the Washington Post. He notes that “stereotypes of Muslims appear to be an important ingredient in how Americans think about policies targeted at terrorism. The Boston Marathon bombing is likely only to reinforce this.” For more insight on the connection with Chechnya and Muslims in that region, see “Understanding the Chechen Conflict: Research Roundup and Reading List.”

Tags: terrorism, religion

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