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Dehumanizing Muslims Isn’t Just Wrong: It Makes Us Less Safe

Muslim Americans pick up on xenophobic feelings, and it makes them less likely to cooperate with police.

By Tom Jacobs


A Donald Trump supporter holds up an anti-Muslim poster in Cleveland, Ohio, near the site of the Republican National Convention. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Security experts have been warning for some time that the hostility President Donald Trump projects onto American Muslims could actually endanger our safety. Now, they argue the administration’s antagonistic attitude — manifested in such actions as the recent travel ban on residents from seven Muslim-majority countries — could inspire radicalization, and perhaps even violence.

Recently published research finds this is more than just conjecture.

A study conducted during last year’s primary election campaign found many Americans “blatantly dehumanize Mexican immigrants and Muslims.” This mindset, which goes beyond mere dislike to thinking of such people in animal-like terms, was most prevalent among supporters of Trump among all other primary candidates.

It further finds that, among American Muslims, the perception that one is not seen as fully human is linked to “more support for violent collective action, and less willingness to report terrorism to law-enforcement agencies.”

“Feeling not only disliked, but dehumanized by another group, has a profound effect on people,” co-author Emile Bruneau of the University of Pennsylvania said in announcing the findings. “If we use rhetoric and enact policies that make Muslims feel dehumanized, this may lead them to support exactly the types of aggression that reinforce the perception that they are ‘less civilized’ than ‘us.’”

The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, was conducted by Bruneau and Nour Kteily of Northwestern University. They describe a series of surveys designed to measure the extent to which Mexicans and Muslims are dehumanized by survey-takers, and determine how people respond to feelings of dehumanization.

“Feeling not only disliked, but dehumanized by another group, has a profound effect on people.”

One featured 455 American residents, all non-Muslims. They were asked how warmly they felt toward Muslims (on a scale of one to 100), and to rate how well a series of terms describe them. These included “animalistic, aggressive,” “backwards, primitive,” and “barbaric, cold-hearted.” In a parallel survey, 342 non-Latino Americans were asked the same about Mexican immigrants.

“We observed high levels of prejudice and dehumanization” toward both minority groups, the researchers write. Those who viewed Muslims in particularly animalistic terms were more likely to see them as a threat, and support such policies as “restricting their entry into the United States.”

Similarly, viewing Mexican immigrants in that light was associated with very strong support for anti-immigrant policies such as a border wall.

This disdain does not go unnoticed. Evidence of this can be found in another study, which featured 124 Muslim residents of the U.S. They were asked the extent to which Trump in particular, and Republicans in general, see them as sub-human.

In addition, they were asked “How willing are you to cooperate with the police to prevent terrorism?” and “How willing are you to report terrorism-related risks?” They were also presented with two philosophies for gaining civil rights — Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent resistance, or Malcolm X’s “by all means necessary” approach—and indicated which they preferred.

“Feeling dehumanized by non-Muslim Americans was associated with feeling less integrated into the United States, more emotional hostility, greater support for violent over nonviolent forms of collective action, and perhaps most consequentially, lower willingness to report potential terrorist activity to law enforcement,” the researchers write.

“Feeling dehumanized by non-Muslim Americans was associated with feeling less integrated into the United States.”

“Minority group members are indeed dehumanized,” Kteily and Bruneau conclude. “They readily perceive it, and … respond with hostility of their own.”

How can this vicious cycle be broken? The researchers suggest politicians and the public can help “by highlighting, for example, the fact that Trump supporters represent only a subset of Americans, or emphasizing the fact that many Americans (including prominent Republicans) have disavowed Trump precisely because they consider him bigoted toward minority groups.”

So speaking up matters. All those recent demonstrations at airports, then, may not change the minds of Trump supporters, but they did send a vital message to American Muslims: We see you not as a threatening horde, but rather as human beings.