What is the end game for Islamophobes?

March 7, 2015

640px-Gathering_of_eaglesWhile it is nearly impossible to avoid the anti-Islamic rhetoric in the media today, there are some voices of reason that argue the invocation of Islam in the media campaigns of  ISIS, ISIL, or DAESH is antithetical to the true tenants of a religion embraced by a quarter of the world’s population. Unfortunately, these voices of reason all too frequently fall on deaf ears belonging to people that “simply know” Islam is the problem and Muslims, as a class, are to be viewed through that misaligned lens.

For those who condemn Muslims explicitly or implicitly and see Islam as a threat to global society, I would pose the question – what is your end game? Is it to eradicate a religion that is embraced by 1.6 billion people? Exactly how would that work? Of course it wouldn’t. Is the ultimate resolution envisioned by Islamophobes that all Muslims simply vanish or become Christian?  That simply is not going to happen either, but at times I feel that is the only solution that would placate those who so viscerally fear Islam and Muslims. Maybe part of the solution is to understand why some people are so afraid of Islam.

Fear is a great motivator for humans and it probably served an important role in the survival of our species. There was great evolutionary merit in quickly assessing a threatening situation and responding reflexively. A measured, logical analysis of the rustling in the bushes may not have been the best way of propagating your genetic code when that rustling was caused by a saber-toothed tiger.

It seems the fear reflex that served our species so well in the past may be the basis for the irrational thoughts of islamophobes. For better or worse we are all emotional beings and our assessments of threats will always be a mixture of logic and feelings. Research indicates that emotion plays a significant role in risk assessment that drives subsequent decision making. In a 2001 paper, “Risk as Feelings,” [1] Lowenstein hypothesized that emotions play a pivotal role in assessing risk. Others [2],[3] have expanded on this hypothesis and have concluded that our perceptions of reality are comprised of both reason and emotion and that our decisions are driven primarily by emotion.

Even though fear and emotion may drive our initial perception of risk, it doesn’t mean that logic and reason can’t prevail in our final assessment. However, it may well be that Islamophobes never quite make it past that initial, emotional stage with the result being perceptions of Islam that are disconnected from reality and an irrational fear of all Muslims.

There is evidence for such a disconnect even for factual information such as the perception of the size of the Muslim population. It’s something that people tend to get wrong. In a recent survey by IPSOS [4], people estimated the population of Muslims in America was 15% when in reality it’s less than 1%. In that survey, only Italian respondents were less accurate than Americans in their assessments.

Then there’s the issue of denominator neglect bias, the impact of which is only exacerbated by social media and ala cart news sources that are driven by their unquenchable thirst for sensational content. From the headlines one might assume that Americans are surrounded by Islamic extremists scheming to make their way to Syria to join the fight. The Christian Science Monitor reported [5] that the head of the FBI puts the number at 12 but when we factor in the denominator –the total Muslim population in America- we see that those 12 are only 0.00004% of the Muslim population in America. Yes, those 12 are misguided and I’m glad the FBI is aware of them but they hardly are representative of your Muslim neighbor, who based on the demographic numbers, you probably don’t have!

The point is that there are overwhelming facts that Muslims are just like anyone else who wants to raise their children and have a comfortable, meaningful life. The challenge for Islamophobes is to move beyond the reflexive, emotional risk perception and look at those facts. They’re out there and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, there are many facts about Islam that I find puzzling but I could say the same thing about virtually any other religion. The trick is to not let puzzlement turn into irrational fear.

Islamophobes must accept that Islam simply is not going to vanish so they need to find another end game. My suggestion is to step back, put your emotions aside and give your rational brain a chance to contribute to your risk calculus.

[1] Risk as feelings. Loewenstein, George F.; Weber, Elke U.; Hsee, Christopher K.; Welch, Ned, Psychological Bulletin, Vol 127(2), Mar 2001, 267-286.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.127.2.267

[2] Slovic, Paul, et al. “Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality.” Risk analysis 24.2 (2004): 311-322.

[3] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.

[4] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3466/Perceptions-are-not-reality-Things-the-world-gets-wrong.aspx

[5] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/terrorism-security/2015/0113/How-many-Muslim-extremists-are-there-Just-the-facts-please



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