The rapid growth of anti-Muslim sentiments did not begin with the emergence of the Islamic State but through the increasing influence of anti-Muslim fringe groups in the media, said Christopher Bail, associate professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University. He spoke Tuesday in the Global and International Studies Building at the second lecture in the “Islam in the American Public Sphere” seminar series.
Bail led a discussion based on his book “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream.”
“I was so impressed by it that I wanted to bring him to campus to talk about it,” said Abdulkader Sinno, associate professor of political science at IU, who organized the event.
Students, faculty and members of the public filtered into the auditorium as Bail discussed how he gathered his data through social networks, search engines, newspapers and plagiarism software to track messages about Islam.
Bail used sources from both sides of the political spectrum to see how anti-Muslim fringe groups helped shape sentiments in society. His data analysis on the organizations promoting anti-Muslim messages shows their doubling in size and influence from 2001 to 2008.
“Fear and anger in particular have the strongest impact on media coverage,” he said.
By 2008, Bail said these fringe groups had gained money and media visibility and created their own experts on terrorism to attack mainstream Muslim groups.
“Moderate mainstream Islam was not possible because every Muslim group was cast as a front for radicals from the fringe organizations,” he said.
The influence of these organizations in the media is shown not just through the conversation flowing in the public but in the legislation passed during spikes of anti-Muslim sentiments, he said.
Bail said fear of Sharia law superseding the United States constitution invoked anti-Sharia legislation in 50 states, though the legislation was only passed in seven of the states.
Many terrorism experts are worried about the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments as a recruitment tool, he said.
Bail created a chart comparing two variables, prevalence of anti-Muslim searches and prevalence of pro-Islamic State searches, across the U.S. Though the variables aren’t directly related, there is a correlation, he said.
He said counties where there were a high number of anti-Muslim Google searches also had a high number of pro-Islamic State searches, which were particularly acute where Muslims were isolated.
This creates a strain within society because the now-marginalized mainstream Muslim organizations cannot defend themselves, he said. Bail stressed the importance of acknowledging the difference between mainstream and fringe ideas and correcting misinformation — not fighting fire with fire.
“These are people who are afraid,” he said. “It’s important to remember that as you reach out. You might not be able to, in one conversation, to convince someone that their views are wrong, but you may be able to encourage them to look at a different source of information.”
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