By Paul Rosenberg
March 17, 2015
It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time. Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.
How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina. The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.
For those perplexed by the explosive spread of anti-Mosque hysteria, or legislation to combat the non-existent threat of Sharia law, Bail’s account provides an in-depth view of how the broader cultural landscape has been reshaped in ways which make such panics possible, if not virtually inevitable. For those who want to fight back, there are no easy answers here. But there is a very fruitful starting point for beginning to ask the right sorts of questions. Salon discussed Bail’s work three years ago, following publication of his research in the American Sociological Review. Now that his book has been published, we interviewed him at length about the full scope of his work, and what it has to teach us. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your book has a very important subject–how formerly fringe anti-Muslim organizations came to dominate the mainstream of political discourse over time, but it also has even broader implications in terms of (a) advancing a general theory of the cultural evolution in response to crises, and (b) advancing a set of tools and methods to study that evolution.
Could you first talk about how you came to the project, what drew you to it, and what led to the development of the theory and what it says?
I began my earlier work on immigration in Europe and I lived in Britain for a short time, and immediately became aware of the high-level politicization of the Muslim community there, and the higher levels of tension between Muslims and non-Muslims. This was shortly after the September 11 attack, and I really didn’t know much about Islam in the U.S. at the time. But when I came back I was eager to learn more. I was surprised to see how few Muslim American organizations had a high enough public profile to really help Americans understand what Islam was. And in their place I, like a lot of Americans, started clicking around on the Internet, and was pretty quickly confronted by a dense web of networks that saw Muslims, and particularly Muslim Americans, as a fifth column, secretly plotting to overthrow the United States government, in the guise of political correctness.
There just seemed—in my limited experience with Muslims in the U.S., but also my significant experience with Muslims in the UK—this just didn’t ring true. I’ve been working on some other work about the media and cultural change more broadly, and so I came to the conclusion that this is kind of a ideal case study, the social construction of an entire group of people within the media, and of course this coincided with an explosion of big data. When I first started writing this book, we didn’t even have the term “big data” yet, but we were certainly enamoured of the potential these new data sources to let us look at the spread of cultural narratives, or scripts as unprecedented scale, and so I think the combination of those, my biographical experience, my pressing theoretical questions, and then the opportune coincidence of big data are really the story of how the book came together.
In the book, you talk about your theory as being both ecological and evolutionary. What do those terms mean more concretely and specifically?
I use the term “ecological” to counter the tendency for academics to focus on individual organizations, instead of vast fields of organizations. I think it’s a big problem because when you focus on one organization, particularly a successful organization; you tend to get a very myopic perspective on how that organization succeeded in creating cultural change. In fact, you only probably come to study the organization precisely because it’s created some sort of cultural change, and so you begin to confuse the characteristics of a successful organization with the causes of an organization becoming influential.
This is where I think evolutionary ways of thinking are really important. A big story in my book is the tendency for media rich [organizations] to shape a lot of outcomes outside the media. So, for example, when these anti-Muslim fringe groups develop a high profile after September 11, they use their privileged position to forge ties to other organizations, service groups, and so on. And this enables them to effectively create a sea change not only in how Islam appears in the media, but how people think about Islam outside the media. And so we see this kind of sounding board effect, where the more a rumour is repeated, in them more and more high profile and official setting, the more it becomes true.
So much of the story of the book is about the evolution of this fringe narrative, from a group of kind of hawkish neo-cons whose careers are mostly over, to a point where nearly every candidate in the 2008 Republican election is warning about the advance of Sharia law, and the looming threat of Islamism for the future of Western civilization. And now more recently, of course, we see the spread of this to people like Bobby Jindal, again, very high profile, very mainstream, public figures, reproducing this message of so-called “no go zones” in Paris.
So the idea is really to think about cultural change, about the tendency for media coverage of fringe groups to set in motion a chain of processes that allows them to rise to public prominence precisely because of the efforts of mainstream organizations to prevent them from doing so. So it’s sort of a story about the unintended consequences of media coverage, I suppose, to put it simply
Maybe it would help to break that story down a bit in terms what the main turning points of your story. You talk first about how the fringe first gained disproportionate attention and then how the response to them backfired, and then led to the splintering of the mainstream. Could you sketch that out a bit?
Prior to the September 11 attacks, what I call mainstream Muslim organizations, or those that produce common messages about Muslims—and these are mostly pro-Muslim messages, both before and after September 11—enjoyed pretty substantial public influence, both within the media, but also in elite political circles. So Muslims voted for Bush, 3-to-1 in the 2000 election, they enjoyed private audiences with Bush, and Cheney, and of course all this “changed,” the thing that didn’t change was people continue to produce overwhelmingly pro-Muslim messages about Islam, but the media gravitated to the small group of fringe organizations, because—I argue—because of the emotional tenor of their messages.
Sociologist and social psychologists have long recognized that during periods of crisis people tend to look for sources of information that validate their feelings, and this is both an individual level, and also in the societal level, so journalists searching to figure out the true meaning of Islam may be more likely to gravitate to towards the crazy person waving a sword rather than the rather more calm, measured, dispassionate person giving a lengthy theological explanation of the tenets of Islam.
This really has two functions: one it attracts a lot of attention, and then to get your second question, it also provoked a pretty significant response from the mainstream.
For example, one popular claim was that Muslim extremists had infiltrated the White House, the more mainstream Muslim organizations became very angry about those accusations, along with a lot of other accusations about Islam being inherently violent or so on and so forth. They shifted their style from this dispassionate discourse, trying to use technical language from the Koran to distinguish the true nature of Islam from what’s promoted by groups like Al Qaeda, and they switch to a much more angry tone. So, in other words, the amplification of the emotional fringe discourse promotes an equally emotional response in the mainstream, that had the unintended consequence of a further increase in the profile of the fringe.
This is what I call the riptide in the book. This is in keeping with the environmental metaphor I use throughout the book, of kind of flowing waters. This pulls mainstream organizations further out to sea, precisely as they struggle against the current that’s drawing them out there. This not only increases the profile of the fringe organizations, but it also begins to create internal tensions within the mainstream organizations that will ultimately lead to the breakdown of the mainstream.
For example, you may recall from the book, there is a series of debates within mainstream organizations about whether and how to engage [anti-Muslim] fringe organizations, and one side of the argument is people who say we don’t stand up to them that will leave them to define Islam to the American public because at the time at least they were dominating the public discourse about of Islam. On the other hand, there are those who realize that in engaging them, they risked increasing their profile, and moreover that Muslims should not be forced to apologize for the type of terrorist groups that they believe were not inspired by Islam. And so this creates a rift within, particularly within mainstream Muslim organizations about whether Muslims need to do more to denounce terrorism.
Now, of course, they are denouncing terrorism. I have this line from a world leader in the book; he denounces terrorism so often that he could “do it in his sleep.” But you know, the media is not covering it because he’s not doing it in an angry sensational way that causes the celebrity of the fringe. Instead the medias amplifying this angry response, which in turn feeds into this narrative of the fringe groups that Muslim organizations are not peaceful moderate organizations they proclaim themselves to be, instead they are secretly terrorist sympathizers who you don’t see condemned terrorism because they secretly condone it.
And so, by this point, the rift within the mainstream Muslim community comes to, kind of substantiate some of the claims being made by the fringe groups, the anti-Muslim fringe groups. So that’s kind of the series of events in the evolutionary process that I was talking about earlier.
After the initial phase of fringe groups gaining a bigger visibility than was warranted, either by knowledge or size, you point out that emotions alone were not enough to consolidate the shift in the cultural landscape, that other factors had to fall into place. Organizational links and fundraising are two of the things that you point to. Could you elaborate on what you found out about those two factors and how you measured them?
The question for the fringe groups is how they move from being peripheral actors in the conversation to gaining entry to the really high-level conversations were they can really achieve influence. It happened in multiple stages. On the one hand, fringe organizations reached out in conservative circles; on the other hand, they were immediately recruited as authorities on Islam, precisely because they were the only so-called experts about Islam who were regularly featured in the media. So there’s a self-reinforcement process, where the social construction of their expertise happened partly because of their emotional charisma. But they pretty quickly forge ties to elites: conservative organizations, Republican Jewish coalitions, the American Enterprise Institute, and so on and so forth, and the question that’s interesting to a sociologist is how bonds develop and how you routinize emotions into networks.
There are sociologists and social psychologists who have produced a pretty long literature that explains how shared fears create really durable social bonds and so that’s the primary mechanism I talk about in the book for the routinization of emotions into the social networks that enable anti-Muslim fringe organizations to establish ties to elite circles, but then also to expand their own media infrastructure via movies, creating subsidiary organizations, and they really become able to create their own media spectacle, rather than depending on the media spectacle create the story.
It’s really a story about how emotions become imprinted within these relationships, but then that story of the emotional transmission of these bonds kinds of falls apart, or becomes invisible, a few years out, and these once-fringe actors are perceived as world-renowned experts about Islam. So that ability to disguise their fringe roots is critical to their success,. This is not an unconscious effort; it was something that was very carefully orchestrated.
Could you say a bit more about how you measured this process? I think that’s really something distinctive about the big data movement, and how it figured into your work.
My approach was use a combination of traditional discourse analysis and with some automated method. With a team of research assistants I collected every press release produced by what I call civil society organizations and non-state nonprofits organization that was designed to manage a shape public discourse about Islam and these can be identified by the large text archive. You can look at hundreds of thousands of press releases, in really no time.
Then we decided we needed to develop a coding scheme, to differentiate the general ways of talking about Islam. I could go into that, if you’d like.
Yes, please do.
What we found was a reasonable way to categorize these press releases, to look at essentially five different ways you could talk about Muslims. The first is a kind of universalist approach, that just says no religion endorses terrorism, Islam is one of the world’s great religions, and it’s no more violent than any other, religion, and therefore Muslims deserve our protection, and they’re really the most tragic victim of the rise of things like Al Qaeda. So that’s a very common discourse after 9/11.
Then, kind of the other extreme is what we call the anti-Muslim discourse, it describes any discourse that suggest all Muslims have the potential to become radical extremists, so that Islam is a continuous from people who are moderate and people to those who are required to commit violence against infidels or nonbelievers. These kinds of texts say things like Islam is inherently violent religion, or Muslims all prefer to see the violent takeover of the West by Islam, given the opportunity, these types of things.
Then there’s a variety discourses in between. So, one is what I call the book a battle for the hearts and minds narrative, that’s kind of “most Muslims are good, some Muslims are bad, so we need to empower the majority against the extremist minority.” And that’s another very common discourse you see. But it’s not anti-Muslim, because it recognizes that most Muslims are not intrinsically violent and they suffer from groups like Al Qaeda. Then you see what I call a Muslim empowerment narrative. This is a somewhat rare kind of discourse; it’s not only are Muslims not responsible for terrorism and not only does Islam not have anything to do with terrorism, but Islam is actually less violent than the Judeo-Christian religions against the historical record. And so these would be occasionally mostly Muslim groups, would bring up this kind of narrative.
The last one is like a blurring narrative, which is very similar to the first narrative dimension. It says we should blur the boundaries between Muslims and Muslim because we’re also similar, and we’re all in this together and against terrorists.
One of the bigger methodological innovations of the book is to modify a plagiarism detection software algorithm in order to pick up how much resonance, or coverage, influence, each press release gains within a very large sample of newspapers articles television transcripts, government documents, social media messages, that mention Muslims. And, so the neat thing about the plagiarism detection algorithm is it allows us not only to identify whether an organization achieves influence, but what type of influence they achieve. So being able to qualitatively confirm the positive influence of an organization was an important methodological advance.
You touch on some significant developments in the media and politics, which from your theory appear more as secondary effects, though they’re certainly significant in their own right. These include the spread of laws purporting to outlaw Sharia law, and the spread of activism to prevent the building of mosques, or in some cases, even just Muslim community centres. Could you talk about how these two movements fit into the larger cultural processes that you described?
First, I don’t think either of these movements would’ve occurred, or at least at such scale, absent the rise of anti-Muslim organizations within the public sphere and the sea change in public discourse about Islam. The anti-Sharia law movement in particular is really carefully orchestrated by several of the organizations I study in the book. I apply the same plagiarism detection algorithm to look at model legislation introduced by these organizations and compared to the final text that was produced in each state and I find that very high levels of influence. So it really appears these organizations had a lot of influence convincing lawmakers to propose, and in many cases pass, these laws.
The really a remarkable thing is that this narrative, that Muslims are secretly trying to advance Sharia law on the United States, gained a foothold, when there’s really just no there. There’s no evidence of a concerted attempt by Muslims or Muslim-American organizations to create such legal changes. Even more importantly, there’s no mechanism within the U.S. Constitution for Sharia to ever supersede U.S. law. In fact, it’s only permitted in cases of individual arbitration; the U.S. Company seeks damages in Saudi Arabia, and therefore agrees to have a hearings informed by Sharia principles, because that’s the rule of the land in Saudi Arabia, or maybe a husband-and-wife seeking a divorce.
So, I do think that the success of that campaign depends depended on one the gravitas the newfound gravitas of these anti-Muslim organizations, and their dense political ties, but also to, relative obscurity of most mainstream organizations who might be situated to discredit those claims,. And the key issue there, by this point, once anti-Muslim organizations have achieved their high status in the public sphere they’re able to leverage that position to cast genuinely mainstream organizations as radicals.
In the book, I give the case about the Holy Land Foundation, which was a somewhat controversial case. During the trial, a document was circulated that basically listed four or five of the largest Muslim American organizations as unindicted co-conspirators to channel money to al Qaeda. This was particularly absurd because (a) there was just no evidence of any kind of extremism among these organizations, but then also because it was later determined that this list was generated by a letter or a memo that was circulated by an obscure fringe actor in the Muslim Brotherhood in which he proposed that the Muslim Brotherhood should advance a jihad against American civilization, and overturn America’s wicked ways and so on and so forth. When you talk to Muslim leaders, or again, experts in the field, you learn that this was widely viewed just as a rantings of a single individual, and yet this was held up as a strong evidence of the linkage between Muslim groups and terrorism. And so, to this day many of these groups still struggle to free themselves from accusations that they secretly endorse terrorism.
So, to answer the question about how these developments are possible, I can’t say with absolute certainty that anti-Muslim organizations created each and every mosque controversy for example. But I think one of the more powerful effects of this type of sea change in public opinion is when the manipulation that went on becomes invisible. S so Americans develop increasingly cold attitudes towards Islam, not only because they are repeatedly exposed to sensational messages about Muslims by most anti-Muslim groups, but also because there’s no counterargument that’s visible within the public sphere—apart from the image of an angry Muslim was complaining about so-called Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim attitudes. This, of course, reinforces the narrative of the anti-Muslim organizations that all these groups are secretly endorsing terrorism.
What would you say is the most surprising things you learned from your research?
I guess the surprising thing was that I was heartened to learn that America was not simply reacting in a kind of nativist way to Islam, and that there was actually a struggle, and I think there continues to be a struggle, and it’s a critically important one. The real tragedy here is not only that these anti-Muslim organizations have come to disseminate a narrative that’s really untrue, but also that Americans attitudes about Islam are starting to reverberate internationally.
Okay, to switch from surprising, what are the most important things to take away from your research, first for society as a whole, and then for the research community? For people who are trying to deepen their understanding what’s most important in either sense?
This expertise isn’t just going on in the media. In the book, we didn’t talk much about the chapter where I discuss the influence of anti-Muslim organizations on counterterrorism policy, but that is a really troubling issue. If you have people who have no credentials to study religion or the Middle East or Islam, and no language skills, and presumably little experience with Islam itself—though I can’t say with certainty, but—you wind having the blind leading the blind. Thousands of New York Police Department officers watching videos produced by anti-Muslim organizations, and these are meant to increase our capacity to recognize terrorism? Simply stating that radical Islamism is on the rise and hidden, and inside our front door? I think a much more effective approach, of course, would be to engage these mainstream organizations that have been completely marginalized, and yet are uniquely positioned to discredit the claims of extremists, and also to create a pro-U.S. message abroad, and also to prevent what little radicalism does exist in the Muslim American community.
A slightly different question: What are the most troubling problems that were left with for society – what light does your book throw on the problems that remain?
I think the biggest problem with fringe organizations in particular, they’re just really profound dilemma that the mainstream faces, not just anti-Muslim or organizations that any kind of fringe organization, which is again if you try to ignore them view risk forfeiting the conversation and if you try to engage them to increase their power to define the conversation. So I completely sympathize, in my case of course, with Muslim organizations have found themselves locked into a conversation which is not of their choosing. How you prevent the spread of this type of thing, particularly in moments of crisis when, again, emotions are so powerful and so prone to spread because of shared fear and so forth? This is really a profound dilemma.
Yes. Maybe troubling would be the wrong word, but what’s the most urgent problem that you see on the dashboard of the unsolved problems, the intellectual challenges that come out of your work?
I think really one really big one that I’m trying to currently work on is whether what happens in the public sphere—so, in the media or the policy process, even in social media texts—really translates into how individuals think. I think my book presents a nice overview of how things evolve in the public sphere and it shows suggestive evidence that what goes on in the public sphere has influence outside the public sphere. But we really haven’t yet seen how a message travels from, say, social media into someone’s deepest darkest thoughts, where they begin to contemplate things like attacking a mosque or even worse taking someone’s life, or attacking someone.
That goes to the other side of this equation too. So the battle for hearts and minds, so to speak is currently waged on social media sites, around ISIS recruiters recruiting young Muslims, both in South Asia and North Africa in Southeast Asia, but also in America. So thinking about whether and how these largely online narratives come to shape off-line behaviour, I think it’s really critical. There’s a lot of evidence of recruiting, terrorist recruiting happens through these avenues.
I think this is a very big problem and it can’t be solved by a single study, it needs many studies of many different areas, with many different methods, many different types of people. But as social scientists, it’s also the $60 million question – how do you influence people? And how do you create enduring shifts that will help country like the U.S. create a counter narrative to group like ISIS. How you do that? That’s a really big question that I plan to spend most of my career trying to solve.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English.