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The Best Way to Combat Anti-Muslim Bias

New research finds that directly hinting at the hypocrisy of an Islamophobic stance can make people reconsider that position.
Hundreds of people attend an evening rally at Washington Square Park in support of Muslims and immigrants and against the building of a wall along the Mexican border on January 25th, 2017, in New York City.

The best way to curb anti-Muslim rhetoric the next time you witness it? Simply point out the other person's hypocrisy. But do it with some tact.

A new study led by Emile Bruneau, a researcher and the director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, suggests that the best way to lower anti-Muslim feelings is to show individuals the hypocrisy of their stance.

Bruneau became interested in figuring out the most effective way of combating anti-Muslim prejudice after he noticed his liberal friends responding online to Islamophobic sentiment in the wake of terrorist attacks.

"They knew that there is a spike in hate crime and hate speech toward all Muslims after an attack by any Muslim and so they were deploying these [educational] videos," Bruneau says of his friends. As time went on, Bruneau began to collect the videos he saw his friends posting online in order to determine whether the videos were actually working to combat Islamophobia.

To see what strategy was most effective, Bruneau and two other researchers, Nour Kteily of Northwestern University and Emily Falk of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study, published last week in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, consisting of three separate parts.

First, the researchers surveyed 193 non-Muslim Americans to get a sense of the general prevalence of Islamophobic attitudes and beliefs in the public. For instance, on a question inquiring about how responsible Muslims should feel for the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris, on a sliding scale of zero to 100, respondents reported a mean of 35.65.

Next, the researchers randomly assigned 1,765 Americans to watch one of eight different anti-Islamophobia videos. (A separate control group watched no videos.) After they watched the videos, they took a similar survey to determine bias.

In another step, Breneau had 938 participants watch all eight videos and then predict which video would be best at changing reducing anti-Muslim sentiment.

Breneau found that a video from Al Jazeera, in which a Muslim woman explained the hypocrisy of blaming all Muslims for a terror attack while absolving white Christians of the KKK's actions, lowered the percentage of participants who reported anti-Muslim sentiments. Those participants who were tasked with predicting what the most successful video would be failed to choose the Al Jeezera video: It didn’t occur to them that directly calling out hypocrisy would be the most effective tool.

Taking inspiration from the hypocrisy element of the Al Jazeera video, Breneau then asked a different group of people, 80 percent of whom were white, how responsible they felt for the actions of white terrorists such as Dylann Roof. The majority of participants reported feeling no blame.

After this, participants were asked to take a similar survey measuring anti-Muslim bias. Breneau found that this group of people were half as likely to collectively blame Muslims for terrorist attacks and were less likely to support anti-Muslim policies or petitions. By directly hinting at the hypocrisy of a stance, respondents were less likely to take that same stance.

In fact, pointing out hypocrisy had a cross-cultural and long-lasting effect. When Breneau replicated the study in Spain, he found that it was even more effective in reducing Islamophobia than in the United States. When he checked in with the same group of people a month later, he found that things had not changed much.

"Gently revealing hypocrisy that we might hold can be an effective way of changing people's mind." Breneau says. "But I think it's really important to acknowledge that it's the gentle part that is important. If you call someone a hypocrite to their face, that's the type of thing that will initiate cognitive dissonance."