Modern terrorism is intrinsically secular, withterrorism seen throughout history coming from all different religions. However,in today’s society, terrorism has become connected to the Muslim religion dueto the inflated use of propaganda in political discourse and the media.
Agood place to start to understand our current situation regarding the stereotypesand derogative statements towards Muslims is with Yale philosophy professor,Jason Stanley, and his book, HowPropaganda Works. By revealing the ubiquitous but hidden nature of propaganda,Stanley gives insight into the mechanisms of control that ultimately exploit the’Muslim terrorist’ narrative, as well as the threat that such manipulation posesfor liberal democracies. By suggesting that all terrorists are Muslim, Stanleyacknowledges that propaganda draws upon flawed ideologies, such as historicaltrends like racial stereotypes and white privilege. The distorted reality andpolarized environment that is created by propaganda regards truth asrelativistic and facts as fungible and ultimately results in exclusion andabuse for both Muslims and those who “look Muslim”.
Jason Stanley and hisbrilliant analysis of propaganda in HowPropaganda Works reveal significant insight on the stereotypical discoursesurrounding American Muslims and their unjust experiences in today’s society,and ultimately illustrate theimportance of eradicating propaganda’s ability to undermine the equality,security, and reasoned deliberation that are so essential to a liberal democracy. JasonStanley defines propaganda as the manipulation from elites, those who “controlsociety’s resources”, which reinforces false orexaggerated beliefs and ultimately cuts off rational debate (Stanley 231).1Stanley notes that the content evoked by propaganda is difficult to recognizeand leaves the audience more susceptible to its manipulation due to its “not-at-issue content”. An example of this would bethe utterance of ‘terrorism’, which appears to be neutral, but its”not-at-issue content” is typically biased (Stanley 134).2 Because politicians onlymention Islam when speaking about national security and countering terrorism,there exists a confused and distorted claim that a majority of the Muslimpopulation favors Islamic law and violence against Americans. Thus, theinnocuous word of ‘terrorism’ has the “at-issue content” of any violent actionthat is intended to intimidate, coerce or influence a civil population or government,but it also has the “not-at-issue content” of Muslims being the primary threatto society. People begin to connect the word ‘terrorism’ to Muslims and the ideathat “all terrorists are Muslim” can easily morph into “all Muslims areterrorists”.
In the United States, thosein control first ensure that people associate terrorism with Muslims byexclusively spotlighting Muslim terrorists, and then promise to focus onAmerican national security and the fix the ‘Islamic problem’ in order to gainsupport.Stanleyargues that this form of propaganda is effective because it, “exploits andstrengthens flawed ideology”, which is a set of false or misleading ideas thatis difficult to rationally revise in light of counter evidence (Stanley 5).3In the context of the ‘Muslim terrorist’, flawed ideologies are simply anotherway of describing racist stereotyping. Theseflawed ideologies can be enhanced by propaganda explicitly,like stating that Islam hates us or accusing American Muslims of protectingterrorists, or it can be implicit, like the rhetoric used behind the executive order for the recent travel ban (Considine 1).4 This order did not use the word Muslim, but it did apply tosix predominantly Muslim countries. It can ultimately be seen as religiousdiscrimination because the intent behind it was manifested in associations withnegative racial stereotypes towards Muslims.
For example, saying thatAmerica has “bad people with bad intentions” flooding our airports does notsound as bad as racially profiling Muslim Americans; however, it still tapsinto the racist ideology that a portion of Americans hold and Stanley states, “thisis how propaganda works” (Stanley 157).5These statements that are blatantly dehumanizing to Muslims invoke fear in thepublic and feed into people’s naturalpredispositions as they become implanted through the repeated association ofpropaganda. Unfortunately, the United States is full of experts who playto the public’s phobias and shape public opinion, which has resulted in the dominant perception of Muslims as terrorists.
Thequestions that arise are why these flawedideologies exist in the first place and why they are almost impossible torefute with evidence. Stanley argues thatpeople with flawed ideologies do no revise their beliefs because they derivethem from one’s “social identity” and from self-interest, especiallythe belief that one is good (Stanley 202).6 Therefore, flawedideologies arguably arise from, “the myth of white innocence and whitesuperiority” and “the privilege of avoiding the terrorist label” (Corbin 455).7 For example, today, if awhite person committed an act of violence to intimidate a civilian population,they would remain an individual, possibly a deeply troubled one, but wouldstill retain their humanity. This would not be the case for a Muslimperpetrator because of the long history that enables white people to enjoyvarious benefits while anti-Muslim sentiments classify Muslims as the demonized’other’.
The dehumanization of Muslims, “has deep historical roots, embedded inhistorical European representations of the Islamic world that extensivelyutilized images of barbarism and sexuality in context of a Christian/heathendichotomy” (Miles and Brown 52).8 Therefore, theseanti-Muslim sentiments are not a new phenomena and non-Muslim privileged groups ultimately,”justify their excessive control over the goods of the society into which theyare born” (Stanley 268).9In other words, there exists a self-justifying ideology ofprivileged groups wherethese members accept their privileges based on natural facts about theirintelligence or superiority in order to protect their social identity. Ultimately,each exposure to propaganda reinforces these flawed ideologies and thestereotypes surrounding the ‘Muslim terrorist’. Stereotypesand prejudices are effective tools for propagandists because they affect, “theinformation we acquire via perception” and provide, “social scripts that guideus through the world, make sense of it, and legitimate our actions within it” (Stanley195).10 Stanley further statesthat, “sincere, well-meaning people under the grip of flawed ideologyunknowingly produce and consume propaganda” (Stanley X).
11In other words, the discriminatory thoughts and behaviors that propagandabrings to surface aren’t necessarily intentional, but instead are a result ofunconscious cognitive processes that are already present in the individual.Once the flawed ideology has been embedded, then propaganda simply has toreactivate the false belief in order to reinforce it. This is when “confirmationbias sets in” where people tend to notice, process, and remember information ina way that confirms their preexisting beliefs (Corbin 465).12Consequently, when Americans watch the news covering a bomb attempt in anairport and the word “terrorist” arises, they subconsciously associate it witha Muslim perpetrator and come away more convinced than ever that they are indanger.
Massmedia is a master forum that repeatedly links Muslims with terrorism and is significantlyresponsible for endorsing and normalizing the biased discourse surroundingMuslims. The media and its collective actors present more than just facts andinformation, but also provide, “a central organizing idea…for making sense ofrelevant events” and thereby “give meaning to an issue” (Bail 857).13By presenting competing diagnoses of crises and corresponding solutions toredress them, these media frames have the ability to exert powerful influenceson public discourse.
However, new outlets in particular take advantage of theirimpact and have contributed to the mobilization of the stereotype that Muslimsare dangerous for our national security. Time after time, the media links actsof violence committed by Muslims to their religion, while describing non-Muslimextremists as silent, shy people and showing their graduation photos instead oftheir mug shots (Corbin 467).14In addition, in the United States, “there is a disturbing tendency to presumethat mental illness is a cause when certain violent acts are perpetrated byracists or other extremists, but is not a factor when the perpetrator is aMuslim American” (Schanzer 41).15By bending over backwards to identify some psychological traits or personaltrauma that must have triggered a violent act committed by a white person, themedia is strengthening the idea of the ‘Muslim terrorist’. With all thelone-wolf perpetrators who do not have obvious connections with a violentorganization, it is difficult to determine if they are terrorists or if mentalillness may have played a role in their violent conduct.
However, because theidentity or religion of the perpetrator clearly results in different standardsof evaluation, these criminal reports are acting as propaganda and enhancing theunfavorable views towards Muslims. Becausethese propagandistic tools have led Muslims to become interchangeable membersof a terrorist conspiracy, there is also a tendency to leap to the conclusionthat a Muslim was responsible for the attack and these attacks will receive drasticallymore media coverage. For example, the U.S media coverage of the recent massacreat a mosque in Quebec City failed to mention that there were two men thatpolice were holding as suspects. Instead, Fox News reported there was a singlesuspect, with the name, Mohamed Belkhadi, when it turned out that Mohamed wasthe one who called the police when he heard the shots and the actual gunman wasthe other man, a white French Canadian (Corbin 459).16In addition, when the perpetrator of a terrorist attack is Muslim or “looksMuslim”, it is expected that attack will receive significantly more mediacoverage than if the perpetrator was not Muslim. In a study on American newscoverage for all terrorist attacks between 2011 and 2015, researchers foundthat news outlets gave significantly more coverage, about 449 percent, toattacks by Muslims even though these attacks are far less common than other formsof terrorist attacks (Considine 2).17For example, the media focused substantially more on the three people killed inthe 2013 Boston Marathon bombing than the seventy-five people killed that sameday in car bomb attacks in Iraq (Graziano171).
18TheBoston attack was executed by a Muslim, who was ultimately labelled as a Muslimterrorist, while the Iraqi bomber was Buddhist, and the phrase ‘Buddhistterrorist’ doesn’t seem to make sense in today’s society (Graziano 172).19The media’s goal is to feed the public’s insatiableappetite for scandal and entertainment and as a result, people become, “imbued, by a mechanism of repeated association, withproblematic images or stereotypes” and their distorted reality enhances theirfear towards Muslims (Stanley 156).20 By invoking these narratives in terms of nationalsecurity, Stanley qualifies the type of propaganda as undermining propaganda. Thisform of propaganda is, “a contribution to public discourse that is presented asan embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode thosevery ideals” (Stanley 53).21 This is referring topropaganda that appears to be appealing to national security but is actually underminingthis ideal in the process. Politicians are appearing to promote the right tolive without fear but this is simply being used to justify actions thatdiminish the freedom, fairness and equality of Muslims. The discriminativediscourse used in politics, the ‘travel ban’ on Muslim countries, the policiesincreasing surveillance of the Muslim community, and the many insistences attributingviolence and extremism to Muslims are undoubtedly correlated to the increasednumber of hate crimes towards Muslims. Muslims are often assaulted in the UnitedStates and frequent hate crimes towards Muslimgroups have occurred, including intimidation and vandalism of mosques and otherplaces of worship.
These are spaces where people should feel safe, but insteadthey are often the targets for non-Muslim extremists. The Council onAmerican-Islamic Relations recorded a 57% increase in anti-Muslim biasincidents over 2015, which was accompanied by a 44% increase in anti-Muslimhate crimes in the same period (Considine 9).22The statistics on anti-Muslim crime incidents is likely even higher thandocumented because many incidents go un-reported due to a certain level ofdesensitization. Some American Muslims often feel like nothing can be done whenthey are harassed for their faith (Considine 10).23Therefore, the goal of establishing high levelsof racial profiling and surveillance of the Muslim community is not consistentwith our democratic values and ultimately places an extra burden on innocent AmericanMuslims during their day-to-day living. Thedevastating consequences of undermining propaganda show that a democracy raided by propaganda can be used to concealan undemocratic reality. Democratic idealsrequire that a government affords liberty to all of its citizens, but havingliberty makes it possible to use propaganda to gain power which can ultimatelymake a democracy unstable. Althoughit is the hope that politicians and pundits in a democracy engage in reasoneddebate about the truth, this is not the reality of our political discourse andinstead, propaganda is used asthe, “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” (Stanley 48).
24Becauseit is difficult to engage with and contest the idea that Muslims are dangerouswhen it is typically introduced in implicit ways, debate tends to be closedoff. In addition, propaganda that influencesthrough emotional or non-rational appeals can play upon deeper prejudices that deprive,”us of the capacity for empathy towards them” (Stanley 127).25 Because propaganda andits tactics lead people to associate Muslims as inhumane, this ultimatelyundermines the ability of Muslims to employ their voice because they arecategorized as threatening and inferior.
As a result, the perspectives ofMuslim Americans are excluded in public political debates about immigrationlaws, refugee care and other issues that directly affect them. Policies andlaws regarding the lives of Muslims are enacted without taking intoconsideration their perspectives and, therefore, are less reasonable and just. Ultimately,American citizens cannot be rational actors who use the democratic system todefend their interests and values if they are being manipulated into anirrational public discussion. Throughouthis book, Stanley provides a theoretical explanation to why and how propagandaarises in a liberal democratic society, but does not provide a strategy onovercoming this propaganda and preventing its many consequences. Although it isnecessary to take steps to protect the right to live, which includes measuresto prevent terrorism, the current measures taken to counter terrorism are not inline with our democratic values.
Laws designed to protect people from thethreat of terrorism and the enforcement of these laws should be compatible withthe rights and freedoms of all American, including Muslim Americans. Therefore,a way of overcoming propaganda is by including the citizens themselves who are theactive and innovative agents in the common world. To be effective, propagandamust be hidden from awareness, however, Briant argues that the, “rules whichgovern propaganda (when, how, if and where it is used) should be debated”(Briant 249).26Because propaganda relays messages mindlessly,the only way to defend against it is to be more aware of the tactics beingused. Becausethe American privileged elite will most likely always have exclusive authorityover knowledge and decision-making, at the very least, the rules governing theuse of propaganda should be transparent and subject to enquiry. If publicopinion corresponded to these decisions and the intentions and goals of thoseemploying propaganda were known, fresh perspectives based on strong evidence couldinform efforts to reform systems in a democratic way and would ultimately encouragean informed electorate.
Jason Stanley’s analysis of propaganda in hisbook, How Propaganda Works, extendsbeyond the examples he writes about and can inform us about the underminingpropaganda used against Muslims in our political and public discourse today. Becausemedia, television, and the internet encompass our culture, it is nearly impossibleto escape the stream of propaganda that exists in our everyday lives. In theUnited States, headlines of destruction, reports of terrorist activity and storiesof the government’s daily efforts to enact legislation are pervasive. However,because the undermining propaganda in these outlets link traditionalstereotypes about Muslims to these current events, people’s prejudices onlybecome reinforced with each exposure and their flawed ideologies continue toshape their reality. The consequences of propaganda are much more significant thanmost people consuming and even producing it realize and it ultimatelycontributes to a less welcoming, less inclusive and less diverse nation. Althoughthe current goal of propaganda is to target the audience and help the speaker, propagandashould instead be used as an exchange of ideas between the speaker and theaudience, where the speaker is conversing with the audience instead of speakingto them, in order to stop undermining, and start enhancing the freedom,security, and equality for all Americans.
1 JasonStanley. How Propaganda Works.Princeton University Press, 2015.2 Ibid.3 Ibid.
4 Considine, Craig. “The Racialization of Islam in the UnitedStates: Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and “Flying while Brown”. Religion,vol. 8, no. 9 (2017): 1-19. 5 Jason Stanley.
How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press, 2015.6 Ibid.7 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “Terrorists Are Always Muslim butNever White: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theory and Propaganda,” Fordham Law Review, vol. 86, no. 2(2017): 455-486.
8 Miles,Robert, and Malcolm Brown. Racism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2003.9 JasonStanley.
How Propaganda Works.Princeton University Press, 2015.10 Ibid.11 Ibid.12 Corbin, Caroline Mala.
“Terrorists Are Always Muslim butNever White: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theory and Propaganda,” Fordham Law Review, vol. 86, no. 2(2017): 455-486.13 Bail, Christopher A. “The Fringe Effect: Civil SocietyOrganizations and the Evolution of Media Discourse about Islam since theSeptember 11th Attacks.” American Sociological Review77, no. 6(2012): 855-79.
14 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “Terrorists Are Always Muslim butNever White: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theory and Propaganda,” Fordham Law Review, vol. 86, no. 2(2017): 455-486.15 Schanzer, David H. “Terrorism as Tactic.” In Constructionsof Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy, 38-52.
Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017. 16 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “TerroristsAre Always Muslim but Never White: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theoryand Propaganda,” Fordham Law Review, vol.86, no. 2 (2017): 455-486.17 Considine, Craig.
“TheRacialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and”Flying while Brown”. Religion, vol. 8, no. 9(2017): 1-19.18 Graziano, Manlio and Brian Knowlton.”TERRORISM.” In Holy Wars and Holy Alliance: The Return of Religion tothe Global Political Stage, 171-88.
New York: Columbia University Press,2017.19 Ibid.20 Jason Stanley. How Propaganda Works.
Princeton University Press, 2015.21 Ibid.22 Considine, Craig.
“TheRacialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and”Flying while Brown”. Religion, vol. 8, no. 9(2017): 1-19.
23 Ibid.24 Jason Stanley. How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press, 2015.25 Ibid.26 Briant, Emma Louise. “CounteringTerror, Denying Dissent.
” In Propaganda and Counter-terrorism:Strategies for Global Change, 244-53. Manchester University Press, 2015.