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Fear and Prejudice Drive Support for Anti-Muslim Policies

New research helps explain why rational debates about immigration and refugees are so difficult.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Polls suggest a majority of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban. But when the president announced at a recent rally that yet another court has blocked its implementation, the crowd’s reaction made it clear that these restrictions are strongly backed by his hardcore supporters.

What beliefs and attitudes inspire certain people to support this policy, as well as other, harsher measures targeting Muslims (proposals terrorism experts call counterproductive)? Newly published research supplies a stark answer: fear and prejudice.

“Concerns of whether Muslims pose a threat to the United States … are largely an extension of general negative attitudes towards other marginalized groups,” write psychologists Philip Dunwoody of Juniata College and Sam McFarland of Western Kentucky University.

“People who don’t like other marginalized groups also don’t like Muslims, feel threatened by them, and are more willing to take both moderate and extreme actions against them.”

How extreme? Their research, published in the journal Political Psychology, suggests 20 percent of Americans support the forced registration of Muslims, while 10 percent favor outlawing the religion altogether.

The study was conducted over three months directly following the terrorist attack in Paris in November of 2015. Surveys were taken of 602 people — a combination of college students, university staff members, and a representative sample of 113 Americans recruited online.

To measure generalized prejudice, participants indicated their level of agreement or disagreement with six statements, such as “It is simply a waste of time to train some races for good jobs; they simply don’t have the drive and determination it takes to learn a complicated skill.”

Other tests measured the extent to which participants held authoritarian beliefs (a yearning to return to “traditional values” and a willingness to submit to the will of a strong ruler), and Social Dominance Orientation (the belief that groups at the top of the pecking order deserve to be there, and the willingness to fight other groups to maintain their dominance).

Perceived threats were measured with two sets of questions. Participants were separately asked how concerned they were that Syrian refugees and Muslims living in the U.S. would “be disruptive to the norms and values of American society”; “be dangerous because they might include potential terrorists”; and “take resources from Americans in need.”

The researchers found “fear of Syrian refugees correlated almost perfectly with fear of Muslims living in the U.S. In short, many Americans view both Syrian refugees and American Muslims as part of one dangerous out-group.”

So what’s behind this anxiety? “By far the greatest influence was general prejudice — a general dislike for those different from ourselves,” they write. “The authoritarian personality and social dominance also increased that fear, but mainly by first increasing prejudice.”

They add that this fear was “the single largest cause” of anti-Muslim attitudes.

So it’s no coincidence that someone who used to rail against African Americans now does so about Mexicans and Muslims. His targets may change over time, but the proclivity toward prejudice remains consistent. The Catch-22 of this kind of research is that people hate being accused of bias, and doing so tends to create a defensive reaction rather than self-reflection.

So what can be done? The researchers point to the media, suggesting “increasing exposure to Muslims who do not fit the threatening stereotype” could reduce anxiety, and dampen support for anti-democratic proposals.

In the short run, however, there’s no point in denying what’s driving support for the president’s proposals. “Many deny anti-Muslim attitudes are based in prejudice,” Dunwoody and McFarland write, “but our results show that, to a very large extent, they are.”