The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans who distrust Muslims are likelier to back the war on terror

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Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University’s Dan Hopkins and George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington.

In the midst of the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombing, game show host Chuck Woolery tweeted:

In the ensuing controversy, one thing did not quite come through: Large numbers of Americans appear to agree with him.  Americans may not know enough to stereotype Chechens, but many know enough to stereotype Muslims—and in precisely the same way as Woolery did.

In two different surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, Kimberly Gross and I asked respondents to rate whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and “Muslims” or “Muslim-Americans” on a series of seven-point scales.  Respondents were asked at random about either Muslims or Muslim-Americans.  Each scale measured a particular attribute: peaceful-violent, trustworthy-untrustworthy, hardworking-lazy, intelligent-unintelligent.  Respondents were administered this survey via the Internet, which helps facilitate their willingness to express opinions that they might otherwise believe would face social condemnation.  Here are the averages on these scales, focusing on the responses of non-Muslim whites.  (We also found that black and Latino respondents tended to view Muslims in the same way as whites.)

These averages fall closer to the midpoint of the scale (4) than to the extremes (1 or 7), suggesting that most respondents do not think any group strongly embodies either positive or negative traits.

Nevertheless, on average these respondents rated both Muslims and Muslim-Americans as more violent than peaceful and as more untrustworthy than trustworthy. Put in percentage terms, 45 percent of respondents placed Muslim-Americans on the “violent” side of the scale, and 51 percent placed Muslims on this side of the scale. Given that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an American citizen, it is notable that respondents do not appear to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim-Americans.  Both groups are stereotyped in much the same way.

At the same time, Muslims and Muslim-Americans were perceived as more hardworking than lazy and as more intelligent than unintelligent.  Gross and I argue that this pattern fits the prevailing images of Muslims that Americans are exposed to in the news and entertainment media.  Muslims are portrayed, intentionally or not, as devious and violent more often than they are portrayed as lazy or dumb.

These surveys suggest that many Americans do not distinguish between the vast majority of peaceful Muslims and the very small number of Muslims who commit violent acts, as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are alleged to have done.  This is true even though many political leaders have made precisely this distinction.  (George W. Bush’s address to Congress after 9/11 is eloquent on this point.)  Instead, these Americans paint with a broader brush, believing that “Muslims” tend to be violent and untrustworthy.

In a forthcoming article, Gross and I show that these stereotypes are consequential.  Even after accounting for other factors, people with negative stereotypes of Muslims on the peaceful-violent and trustworthy-untrustworthy dimensions were more likely to support various aspects of the War on Terror.  (The paper also goes some distance to address the opposite possibility: that support of the War on Terror preceded any negative stereotypes of Muslims.)  The phrase “more likely” is important: these results merely describe a tendency.  It is certainly not true that everyone who supports the War on Terror has negative views of Muslims.

Nevertheless, stereotypes of Muslims appear to be an important ingredient in how Americans think about policies targeted at terrorism. The Boston marathon bombing is likely only to reinforce this.