Anti-Muslim Sentiment: What Hate Studies Can Tell Us

muslim woman with white headress

January 10, 2018

By John N. Sheveland

Originally presented at Communities for Justice, the 2017 International Institute for Hate Studies Conference, held at Gonzaga University

 Aim of the paper: 

  • To suggest why we need more than Islamic studies and (more) Muslims speaking up to clarify wrong views. This deflects we non-Muslims from taking responsibility to educate ourselves and speak on behalf of our Muslim neighbors and citizens. They need a break!
  • We need to ask why these views are durable and gaining ground, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 
  • We pay them too much compliment by accepting a debate about Islam, as if the views of propagandists are credible. Social psych is a powerful analytical tool. 

With a string of shocking elections in Asia, Europe, and North America, it is hard to deny the surge in far-right populisms. Beginning in 2014 in India where the Hindu nationalist BJP party (Bharatiya Janata Party) once again became ascendant and Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister, to Brexit, to the U.S. general election last November, to the March general elections in the Netherlands, the May presidential election and run-off in France, and Germany’s elections last month, it cannot be denied that we are witnessing a surge in far-right populisms energized by changing social conditions on the ground, chief among these the growing presence of immigrants from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the horn of Africa. These populisms share a family trait, namely, nativist expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment. We must ask, what is an appropriate response to such anti-Muslim sentiment? 

Because mainstream Muslims from the grassroots on up for years have rejected violent political extremism and clarified the tenants of normative Islam to little effect among those with anti-Muslim sentiment, one must realize that anti-Muslim sentiment is the product not of cogent analysis of real populations or the responsible study of Islam, but of propaganda, and that it is therefore irrational if deeply held, that it appears immune to corrective data, and that it is to be deconstructed by social psychology and not merely by Islamic studies or by (more) Muslims. Specifically, in this paper I will suggest some of the ways in which the hate studies of Robert Sternberg (past president of APA) applies to several global examples of anti-Muslim sentiment.


Let us briefly consider Hindutva, the complicated nationalist Hindu perspective politically operative in India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I rely on Martha Nussbaum’s fascinating interviews with a variety of intellectuals in India in the early 2000s. 

The psychology of hate applies directly to the Hindu nationalist view of history, in which a utopian, homogenous Indian society is said to have existed for millennia relatively unimpeded by outsiders, united in its Hinduness, its Sanskrit language and culture, and marked by social and gender equality. This all is devastated by several great interruptions, first by a string of Muslim invaders beginning with Mahmoud of Ghazni around the turn of the millennium, followed by the Sultans of Delhi through the 15th century and the Mughals into the 18th, who were relieved by the British East India Co. and eventually by the formal colonialism of British crown rule through the middle of the 20th century. In this legacy of incursion, the pluralistic achievements of Akbar the Great not to mention Indian Sufism are downplayed and the memory of the intolerant Aurangzeb is cultivated and lifted up as the core experience of Islam in India.  

This mythology persists today in Martha Nussbaum’s interviews with several prominent Hindutva intellectuals. For K.K. Shastri, there are “no bloody quarrels” among Hindus, the most peaceful of peoples, and whereas Islam and Christianity are “cruel” Indians are “ever sympathetic.” When pressed with examples of Hindu violence, Shastri claims that it is “borrowed violence from the Muslims… Christians are not so cruel.” He pedals stereotypes of Muslims grounded in a distorted historical past, in which they are dangerous and “have become kings and emperors while [Hindus] have become slaves.”  This despite Indian Hindus comprising 82% of the population, Indian Muslims being relatively poor and yet quite distinctive for having no formal ties to Salafist militant organizations like Al-Qaeda and now ISIS, both nearby in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Shastri longs for an Indian government willing to use brute force to stop India’s Muslims from “spreading poison everywhere they go. This is their main occupation all over the world, and they can only be taught a lesson by brute force.”  

In this small sampling of Hindutva ideology, we see clear social-psychological narratives in play. What Sternberg refers to as the “controller” story is a social psychological hate narrative in which the target group is viewed as undifferentiated and with contempt in a permanent manner, and in this case, viewed as emasculating the larger Hindu population through a faulty historical memory in which negative examples alone seem to count. We clearly see a “barbarian” story, a social psychological hate narrative in which the enemy appears uncivilized, one who shares neither language, religion, nor is capable of civil society. Muslims in this sense are uniquely cruel, ready to attack, undeserving of intimacy because incapable of rendering it, and threatening. 


Here I take up one central claim: that ISIS/Daesh purveys Islamophobia in order to manufacture, in others, a “clash of civilizations.” When its propaganda is successful among out-groups, they mirror back to Daesh it’s own worldview, closing the loop of propaganda. ISIS engages in industrial scale propaganda, performance violence, and now lone-wolf attacks in the West as deliberate means to generate fear, ignorance, and prejudice toward Muslims and of Islam. These desired ends are strongly analogous to the Islamophobia industry in Europe and North America which similarly attacks normative Islam as a myth, cultivates fear by collapsing violent political extremism into Islam, and concludes that such displays are proof that Islam is not a religion but an “ideology.” 

Muhamad Mansour, an Egyptian journalist, recently wrote for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Daesh’s manipulation of Western politicians and electorates. He wrote:

Internationally, ISIS is adopting [an] approach based on hit-and-provoke attacks, stoking reactionary comments from Western pundits that drive alienated, isolated, and unassimilated Muslims to welcoming communities dedicated to online recruiting and radicalization.

In fact, ISIS relies on this negative reaction towards Muslims to access Westerners willing to carry out further lone wolf attacks based on the notion of “martyrdom” espoused by ISIS. With the strict scrutiny of international travel, self-radicalized Western citizens or those who became radicalized through a stint in Syria and Iraq are far better options for ISIS and far more difficult for Western counter-terrorism forces to track and handle. 

Astutely, Mansour notes that hit-and-provoke tactics intend an overreaction among politicians and others who shape public perception, which in turn may alienate Western Muslims already struggling to fit into a society unreconciled to their very presence. If some of these beleaguered Muslims encounter ISIS propaganda and radicalize, the clash of civilizations mythology is said to be confirmed and seized upon both by Daesh and politicians, as if a self-fulfilling prophecy. The creation of self-fulfilling prophecies are endemic to hate narratives; haters are “finding what they seek, or turning what they find into what they seek” (Sternberg, 314). 

In 2015 Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger published one of the first book length studies of ISIS, and it remains one of the most valuable because of its interdisciplinary competencies. They concur with Mansour that ISIS has embarked upon “psychological warfare” as much as battlefield and guerilla warfare, seeking to provoke “reactionary policies.” 

It is crucial that we gain clarity from risk analysis. Stern and Berger note that “you are significantly more likely to die in a car accident, especially if you fail to wear a seatbelt, than to be attacked by ISIS. Wear your seatbelt.” Perhaps the lone humorous statement in the book, it makes the point that risk analysis offers clarity and helps one to appreciate how terrorism is a strategy to instill fear and prey upon the better angels of our nature. They also note that “inevitably and often inadvertently, the media tends to facilitate terrorists’ theatrical performances.”  Of course, terrorists know this, from Ayman al-Zawahiri leader of Al-Qaeda Central to Dylann Roof in Charleston and Anders Breivik in Norway. We tend “to exaggerate the likelihood of available events that are easy to imagine or recall, when a visual or aural image is taped to the brain.”  Images really matter. Moreover, we can overestimate the likelihood of rare events, and underestimate the likelihood of more common ones. Stern and Berger maintain that we have a difficult time distinguishing between ten deaths and ten thousand, and so risk analysis attempts to foster statistical rather than emotional judgments. Societies actively need to combat what Daniel Kahneman has called the “availability cascade”, namely, the psychological process wherein a “an extremely vivid image of death and damage, constantly reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation, becomes highly accessible . . . The emotional arousal is associative, automatic, and uncontrolled, and it produces an impulse for protective action.”  In light of this research, public policy should consider the benefits of multiculturalism over against nativism, the integration of immigrants rather than stigmatization, and it should foster a culture of emotional transparency wherein we interrogate our responses to vulnerability and fear.  Humanistic education offers so much along these lines.

After all, hate studies show us how hate responses always involve an in-group seeking to secure its own foundation by projecting a denigrating negative stereotype onto an out-group. The Alternative Right is an example.


In February 2017, Stephen Bannon was featured on the front page of the online publication of Al-Qaeda, Al Masra. His picture along with negative comments he has made for years on Islam were featured on its front page, seized upon to reinforce the propaganda perspective Salafi militant organizations seek to perpetuate, namely, a ‘clash of civilizations’ in which Islam and the West are viewed as antithetical and zero-sum. Elisabeth Kendall, a senior researcher in Arab and Islamic studies at Oxford, noted that Al-Qaeda’s headline read “The War is with Islam as a Religion,” and that references to “America” in this particular issue of Al Masra rose to 75 compared to 32 in the past issue , confirming the assessment of every expert I am aware of, that while the Bannon-Miller-Trump travel ban may quell nativist and nationalist worries at home and play to the base, such rhetoric and policy are intended outcomes of terrorist propaganda, part of which is to undermine the ability of Muslims to reconcile Islam with democratic institutions and citizenship.  By creating a climate of confusion, in which ignorance and fear enable prejudice, ISIS has enjoyed relative success in expropriating mainstream Muslims from their own voice and identity in civil society, and it has discovered Western allies in this cause.  With fear-based treatments of Muslims and of Islam gaining greater visibility than average Muslims and normative Islam, we seem to be settling into a social reality across multiple global regions in which Muslims find themselves expropriated from their own identity. In short – and it may stun one to put this way – we have far-right agitators in Raqqa and now in Washington, D.C. agreeing with each other in a strange circular feedback loop, with mainstream Muslims being pinched on both sides.

The concern with immigrants seems to be located in a broader nationalist desire to deconstruct several interconnections waged by globalization, like global economic flows and global flows of ethnically and religiously diverse persons and, arguably, multiculturalism. Bannon famously referred to Breitbart as the “platform of the Alt-Right,” and while we struggle to define this loosely organized demographic, it is clear that the Alternative Right constructs narratives of purity around nation, race, civilization, and culture, fomenting personal and social biases such as racism and nativism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism.  Richard Spencer since 2011 has been the movement’s leader and head of a faux think-tank called the National Policy Institute, which seeks to return white nationalism to the political mainstream to achieve separate racially exclusive homelands for white people even while insisting this isn’t white supremacy. While the Alt-Right is more a culture than formal group, it is clear that white nationalists have flocked to it, and that according to Thomas J. Main of CUNY, all who support it are confirmed in their opposition to globalism, civil rights, gun control, feminism, gay rights, and favor deportation of undocumented immigrants and protectionist trade policies.  The various efforts of Spencer's National Policy Institute promote what he calls “the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent  in the United States, and around the world.” 

Similar movements have gained traction in Europe, and American alt-right actors associate with them. Earlier this Spring in the Netherlands long-time far-right politician Geert Wilders campaigned for Prime Minister on a strong anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment on the basis of an alleged Islamicization of the Netherlands and Europe (what he frequently labels ‘Eurabia’). Repetitive campaign promises included: banning the Koran; shutting down mosques and Islamic schools; banning immigration from Muslim majority nations, pedaling stereotypes of immigrants as a unified mass of criminals – “Moroccan scum” – who are said to oppress the Dutch majority and from whom the Dutch want their country back; recapturing our land which is in the process of being given away; and a frontal attack on democratic institutions like an independent judiciary and independent media under the guise of “free speech” protection. Perhaps all of which can be encapsulated by Wilders’ talking-point misnomer that Islam is not a religion but an “ideology” with no place in a free society, a standard in the playbook of the Islamophobia industry. These campaign promises typify multiple overlapping social-psychological hate narratives, including the “impure-other” story, the “controller” story, the “subtle infiltrator” story, and the “criminal” story. These hate narratives share the cognitive commitment to the devaluation of the target population, achieved through repetitive programming or education, so that the stereotype becomes cemented and immune to data. His preference to communicate through Twitter rather than the media is directed at the gut of the Dutch electorate, more of whom gravitated toward Wilders after the Trump victory and after Wilder’s own December 2016 criminal conviction for inciting discrimination against Moroccan immigrants. For Wilders, it seemed no publicity could be bad publicity.

At the June 2016 at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Wilders’ relationships with American Alt-Right representatives were on display, as he went to parties at which Richard Spencer was present and gave a speech at the “Wake Up” party hosted by disgraced former Breitbart editor Milo Yianoppolous and Pamela Gellar – a key figure in the American Islamophobia industry, at which he characterized Europe’s immigration policies as “suicide,” and the presence of Muslims as a challenge to our national existence. Here Wilders clearly typifies Sternberg’s “Thwarter-destroyer of destiny” story, in which immigrants of brown and black skin are perceived as displaying white European men from the land and demographic rightfully theirs. And it reflects the “murderer story,” in which the ignorant acceptance of immigrants is likened to national suicide. The defeat of Geert Wilders in the recent Dutch elections was encouraging but came at the cost of him dictating the political terms on which the election would be decided, pulling to the right the eventual winner, incumbent center-right Mark Rutte, whose campaign rhetoric shifted to suggest that immigrants who do not work harder to fit into Dutch society should leave. 

Aim of the paper: 
To suggest why we need more than Islamic studies and (more) Muslims speaking up to clarify wrong views. This deflects we non-Muslims from taking responsibility to educate ourselves and speak on behalf of our Muslim neighbors and citizens. They need a break!
We need to ask why these views are durable and gaining ground, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 
We pay them too much compliment by accepting a debate about Islam, as if the views of propagandists are credible. Social psych is a powerful analytical tool. 


Martha Nussbaum, The Clash Within (Harvard, 2007), 212.  

Muhamad Mansour, “Islamophobia: what the Islamic state really wants,” The Washington Institute for Nearest Policy 

Fawaz Gerges, A History of ISIS (Princeton University Press, 2016), 231. 

Dr. Elisabeth Kendall, Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Phil Gurski, “How Islamophobia Makes Us Less Safe,” October 20, 2016, International Center for Counter Terrorism – The Hague.

Consider that “confusion” is a coded finding related to the experiences of the families of Daesh recruits. “Shariaz Maher and Peter R. Neuman, “Pain, Confusion, Anger, and Shame: The Stories of Islamic State Families,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2016.   

Carol Shursten LaHurd, “Unpacking the Trump Upset,” Dialog 56/1 (2017): 5-11. The Associated Press, The Guardian, and The New York Times are now insisting that the term alt-right must be accompanied by the explanation that it means “a racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.”

Thomas J. Main, cited in Los Angeles Times, 11/30/16.

National Policy Institute. 

Michael Birnbaum, “The peroxide blond crusader who could soon top Dutch elections,” The Washington Post, March 12,2017.