Modern government, but it also has the “not-at-issue

Modern terrorism is intrinsically secular, with
terrorism seen throughout history coming from all different religions. However,
in today’s society, terrorism has become connected to the Muslim religion due
to the inflated use of propaganda in political discourse and the media.
A
good place to start to understand our current situation regarding the stereotypes
and derogative statements towards Muslims is with Yale philosophy professor,
Jason Stanley, and his book, How
Propaganda 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 poses
for liberal democracies. By suggesting that all terrorists are Muslim, Stanley
acknowledges that propaganda draws upon flawed ideologies, such as historical
trends like racial stereotypes and white privilege. The distorted reality and
polarized environment that is created by propaganda regards truth as
relativistic and facts as fungible and ultimately results in exclusion and
abuse for both Muslims and those who “look Muslim”. Jason Stanley and his
brilliant analysis of propaganda in How
Propaganda Works reveal significant insight on the stereotypical discourse
surrounding American Muslims and their unjust experiences in today’s society,
and ultimately illustrate the
importance of eradicating propaganda’s ability to undermine the equality,
security, and reasoned deliberation that are so essential to a liberal democracy.

            Jason
Stanley defines propaganda as the manipulation from elites, those who “control
society’s resources”, which reinforces false or
exaggerated beliefs and ultimately cuts off rational debate (Stanley 231).1
Stanley notes that the content evoked by propaganda is difficult to recognize
and leaves the audience more susceptible to its manipulation due to its “not-at-issue content”. An example of this would be
the utterance of ‘terrorism’, which appears to be neutral, but its
“not-at-issue content” is typically biased (Stanley 134).2 Because politicians only
mention Islam when speaking about national security and countering terrorism,
there exists a confused and distorted claim that a majority of the Muslim
population favors Islamic law and violence against Americans. Thus, the
innocuous word of ‘terrorism’ has the “at-issue content” of any violent action
that 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 threat
to society. People begin to connect the word ‘terrorism’ to Muslims and the idea
that “all terrorists are Muslim” can easily morph into “all Muslims are
terrorists”. In the United States, those
in control first ensure that people associate terrorism with Muslims by
exclusively spotlighting Muslim terrorists, and then promise to focus on
American national security and the fix the ‘Islamic problem’ in order to gain
support.

Stanley
argues that this form of propaganda is effective because it, “exploits and
strengthens flawed ideology”, which is a set of false or misleading ideas that
is difficult to rationally revise in light of counter evidence (Stanley 5).3
In the context of the ‘Muslim terrorist’, flawed ideologies are simply another
way of describing racist stereotyping. These
flawed ideologies can be enhanced by propaganda explicitly,
like stating that Islam hates us or accusing American Muslims of protecting
terrorists, 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 to
six predominantly Muslim countries. It can ultimately be seen as religious
discrimination because the intent behind it was manifested in associations with
negative racial stereotypes towards Muslims. For example, saying that
America has “bad people with bad intentions” flooding our airports does not
sound as bad as racially profiling Muslim Americans; however, it still taps
into the racist ideology that a portion of Americans hold and Stanley states, “this
is how propaganda works” (Stanley 157).5
These statements that are blatantly dehumanizing to Muslims invoke fear in the
public and feed into people’s natural
predispositions as they become implanted through the repeated association of
propaganda. Unfortunately, the United States is full of experts who play
to the public’s phobias and shape public opinion, which has resulted in the dominant perception of Muslims as terrorists.

The
questions that arise are why these flawed
ideologies exist in the first place and why they are almost impossible to
refute with evidence. Stanley argues that
people with flawed ideologies do no revise their beliefs because they derive
them from one’s “social identity” and from self-interest, especially
the belief that one is good (Stanley 202).6 Therefore, flawed
ideologies arguably arise from, “the myth of white innocence and white
superiority” and “the privilege of avoiding the terrorist label” (Corbin 455).7 For example, today, if a
white person committed an act of violence to intimidate a civilian population,
they would remain an individual, possibly a deeply troubled one, but would
still retain their humanity. This would not be the case for a Muslim
perpetrator because of the long history that enables white people to enjoy
various benefits while anti-Muslim sentiments classify Muslims as the demonized
‘other’. The dehumanization of Muslims, “has deep historical roots, embedded in
historical European representations of the Islamic world that extensively
utilized images of barbarism and sexuality in context of a Christian/heathen
dichotomy” (Miles and Brown 52).8 Therefore, these
anti-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 they
are born” (Stanley 268).9
In other words, there exists a self-justifying ideology of
privileged groups where
these members accept their privileges based on natural facts about their
intelligence or superiority in order to protect their social identity.

Ultimately,
each exposure to propaganda reinforces these flawed ideologies and the
stereotypes surrounding the ‘Muslim terrorist’. Stereotypes
and prejudices are effective tools for propagandists because they affect, “the
information we acquire via perception” and provide, “social scripts that guide
us through the world, make sense of it, and legitimate our actions within it” (Stanley
195).10 Stanley further states
that, “sincere, well-meaning people under the grip of flawed ideology
unknowingly produce and consume propaganda” (Stanley X).11
In other words, the discriminatory thoughts and behaviors that propaganda
brings to surface aren’t necessarily intentional, but instead are a result of
unconscious cognitive processes that are already present in the individual.
Once the flawed ideology has been embedded, then propaganda simply has to
reactivate the false belief in order to reinforce it. This is when “confirmation
bias sets in” where people tend to notice, process, and remember information in
a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs (Corbin 465).12
Consequently, when Americans watch the news covering a bomb attempt in an
airport and the word “terrorist” arises, they subconsciously associate it with
a Muslim perpetrator and come away more convinced than ever that they are in
danger.

            Mass
media is a master forum that repeatedly links Muslims with terrorism and is significantly
responsible for endorsing and normalizing the biased discourse surrounding
Muslims. The media and its collective actors present more than just facts and
information, but also provide, “a central organizing idea…for making sense of
relevant events” and thereby “give meaning to an issue” (Bail 857).13
By presenting competing diagnoses of crises and corresponding solutions to
redress them, these media frames have the ability to exert powerful influences
on public discourse. However, new outlets in particular take advantage of their
impact and have contributed to the mobilization of the stereotype that Muslims
are dangerous for our national security. Time after time, the media links acts
of violence committed by Muslims to their religion, while describing non-Muslim
extremists as silent, shy people and showing their graduation photos instead of
their mug shots (Corbin 467).14
In addition, in the United States, “there is a disturbing tendency to presume
that mental illness is a cause when certain violent acts are perpetrated by
racists or other extremists, but is not a factor when the perpetrator is a
Muslim American” (Schanzer 41).15
By bending over backwards to identify some psychological traits or personal
trauma that must have triggered a violent act committed by a white person, the
media is strengthening the idea of the ‘Muslim terrorist’. With all the
lone-wolf perpetrators who do not have obvious connections with a violent
organization, it is difficult to determine if they are terrorists or if mental
illness may have played a role in their violent conduct. However, because the
identity or religion of the perpetrator clearly results in different standards
of evaluation, these criminal reports are acting as propaganda and enhancing the
unfavorable views towards Muslims.

            Because
these propagandistic tools have led Muslims to become interchangeable members
of a terrorist conspiracy, there is also a tendency to leap to the conclusion
that a Muslim was responsible for the attack and these attacks will receive drastically
more media coverage. For example, the U.S media coverage of the recent massacre
at a mosque in Quebec City failed to mention that there were two men that
police were holding as suspects. Instead, Fox News reported there was a single
suspect, with the name, Mohamed Belkhadi, when it turned out that Mohamed was
the one who called the police when he heard the shots and the actual gunman was
the other man, a white French Canadian (Corbin 459).16
In addition, when the perpetrator of a terrorist attack is Muslim or “looks
Muslim”, it is expected that attack will receive significantly more media
coverage than if the perpetrator was not Muslim. In a study on American news
coverage for all terrorist attacks between 2011 and 2015, researchers found
that news outlets gave significantly more coverage, about 449 percent, to
attacks by Muslims even though these attacks are far less common than other forms
of terrorist attacks (Considine 2).17
For example, the media focused substantially more on the three people killed in
the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing than the seventy-five people killed that same
day in car bomb attacks in Iraq (Graziano
171).18
The
Boston attack was executed by a Muslim, who was ultimately labelled as a Muslim
terrorist, while the Iraqi bomber was Buddhist, and the phrase ‘Buddhist
terrorist’ doesn’t seem to make sense in today’s society (Graziano 172).19
The media’s goal is to feed the public’s insatiable
appetite for scandal and entertainment and as a result, people become, “imbued, by a mechanism of repeated association, with
problematic images or stereotypes” and their distorted reality enhances their
fear towards Muslims (Stanley 156).20

            By invoking these narratives in terms of national
security, Stanley qualifies the type of propaganda as undermining propaganda. This
form of propaganda is, “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as
an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those
very ideals” (Stanley 53).21 This is referring to
propaganda that appears to be appealing to national security but is actually undermining
this ideal in the process. Politicians are appearing to promote the right to
live without fear but this is simply being used to justify actions that
diminish the freedom, fairness and equality of Muslims. The discriminative
discourse used in politics, the ‘travel ban’ on Muslim countries, the policies
increasing surveillance of the Muslim community, and the many insistences attributing
violence and extremism to Muslims are undoubtedly correlated to the increased
number of hate crimes towards Muslims. Muslims are often assaulted in the United
States and frequent hate crimes towards Muslim
groups have occurred, including intimidation and vandalism of mosques and other
places of worship. These are spaces where people should feel safe, but instead
they are often the targets for non-Muslim extremists. The Council on
American-Islamic Relations recorded a 57% increase in anti-Muslim bias
incidents over 2015, which was accompanied by a 44% increase in anti-Muslim
hate crimes in the same period (Considine 9).22
The statistics on anti-Muslim crime incidents is likely even higher than
documented because many incidents go un-reported due to a certain level of
desensitization. Some American Muslims often feel like nothing can be done when
they are harassed for their faith (Considine 10).23
Therefore, the goal of establishing high levels
of racial profiling and surveillance of the Muslim community is not consistent
with our democratic values and ultimately places an extra burden on innocent American
Muslims during their day-to-day living.

            The
devastating consequences of undermining propaganda show that a democracy raided by propaganda can be used to conceal
an undemocratic reality. Democratic ideals
require that a government affords liberty to all of its citizens, but having
liberty makes it possible to use propaganda to gain power which can ultimately
make a democracy unstable. Although
it is the hope that politicians and pundits in a democracy engage in reasoned
debate about the truth, this is not the reality of our political discourse and
instead, propaganda is used as
the, “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” (Stanley 48).24
Because
it is difficult to engage with and contest the idea that Muslims are dangerous
when it is typically introduced in implicit ways, debate tends to be closed
off. In addition, propaganda that influences
through 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 and
its tactics lead people to associate Muslims as inhumane, this ultimately
undermines the ability of Muslims to employ their voice because they are
categorized as threatening and inferior. As a result, the perspectives of
Muslim Americans are excluded in public political debates about immigration
laws, refugee care and other issues that directly affect them. Policies and
laws regarding the lives of Muslims are enacted without taking into
consideration their perspectives and, therefore, are less reasonable and just. Ultimately,
American citizens cannot be rational actors who use the democratic system to
defend their interests and values if they are being manipulated into an
irrational public discussion.

            Throughout
his book, Stanley provides a theoretical explanation to why and how propaganda
arises in a liberal democratic society, but does not provide a strategy on
overcoming this propaganda and preventing its many consequences. Although it is
necessary to take steps to protect the right to live, which includes measures
to prevent terrorism, the current measures taken to counter terrorism are not in
line with our democratic values. Laws designed to protect people from the
threat of terrorism and the enforcement of these laws should be compatible with
the rights and freedoms of all American, including Muslim Americans. Therefore,
a way of overcoming propaganda is by including the citizens themselves who are the
active and innovative agents in the common world. To be effective, propaganda
must be hidden from awareness, however, Briant argues that the, “rules which
govern propaganda (when, how, if and where it is used) should be debated”
(Briant 249).26
Because propaganda relays messages mindlessly,
the only way to defend against it is to be more aware of the tactics being
used. Because
the American privileged elite will most likely always have exclusive authority
over knowledge and decision-making, at the very least, the rules governing the
use of propaganda should be transparent and subject to enquiry. If public
opinion corresponded to these decisions and the intentions and goals of those
employing propaganda were known, fresh perspectives based on strong evidence could
inform efforts to reform systems in a democratic way and would ultimately encourage
an informed electorate.

            Jason Stanley’s analysis of propaganda in his
book, How Propaganda Works, extends
beyond the examples he writes about and can inform us about the undermining
propaganda used against Muslims in our political and public discourse today. Because
media, television, and the internet encompass our culture, it is nearly impossible
to escape the stream of propaganda that exists in our everyday lives. In the
United States, headlines of destruction, reports of terrorist activity and stories
of the government’s daily efforts to enact legislation are pervasive. However,
because the undermining propaganda in these outlets link traditional
stereotypes about Muslims to these current events, people’s prejudices only
become reinforced with each exposure and their flawed ideologies continue to
shape their reality. The consequences of propaganda are much more significant than
most people consuming and even producing it realize and it ultimately
contributes to a less welcoming, less inclusive and less diverse nation. Although
the current goal of propaganda is to target the audience and help the speaker, propaganda
should instead be used as an exchange of ideas between the speaker and the
audience, where the speaker is conversing with the audience instead of speaking
to them, in order to stop undermining, and start enhancing the freedom,
security, and equality for all Americans.

1 Jason
Stanley. How Propaganda Works.
Princeton University Press, 2015.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Considine, Craig. “The Racialization of Islam in the United
States: 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 but
Never 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 Jason
Stanley. How Propaganda Works.
Princeton University Press, 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “Terrorists Are Always Muslim but
Never 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 Society
Organizations and the Evolution of Media Discourse about Islam since the
September 11th Attacks.” American Sociological Review77, no. 6
(2012): 855-79.

14 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “Terrorists Are Always Muslim but
Never 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 Constructions
of Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Research and Policy, 38-52.
Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.

 

16 Corbin, Caroline Mala. “Terrorists
Are Always Muslim but Never White: At the Intersection of Critical Race Theory
and Propaganda,” Fordham Law Review, vol.
86, no. 2 (2017): 455-486.

17 Considine, Craig. “The
Racialization 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 to
the 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. “The
Racialization 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. “Countering
Terror, Denying Dissent.” In Propaganda and Counter-terrorism:
Strategies for Global Change, 244-53. Manchester University Press, 2015.

x

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