While there area number of quite disturbing trends in American politics today, one thatdemands our attention is the use of propaganda to exploit the animosity, fearand explicit racism aimed towards Muslims. Thedepiction of ‘Muslim terrorist’ in the United States can be examined through thecritical analysis of propaganda in Jason Stanley’s book, How Propaganda Works. Different aspects of Jason Stanley’s analysiscan help us understand the false narratives surrounding Muslims, includingflawed ideologies, negative stereotypes and the threat these inequalities poseon a liberal democracy.
Because propaganda in today’s society is used to spreadthe false claim that there is an ‘Islamic problem’ and results in increased marginalizationand abuse of Muslim Americans, propaganda should attempt to uphold and enhanceAmerican democratic values instead of undermine them. Modern terrorism is intrinsically secular, withterrorism seen throughout history coming from all different religions. However,in today’s society, terrorism has become connected to the Muslim religion dueto the inflated use of propaganda in political discourse and the media.Agood place to start to understand our current situation regarding the stereotypesand derogative statements towards Muslims is with Yale philosophy professor,Jason Stanley, and his book, HowPropaganda Works. By exposing the ubiquitous but hidden nature of propaganda,Stanley gives insight into the mechanisms of control that ultimately exploit the’Muslim terrorist’ narrative, as well as the threat that such manipulation posesfor liberal democracies.
By suggesting that all terrorists are Muslim, Stanleyacknowledges that propaganda draws upon flawed ideologies, such as historicaltrends like racial stereotypes and white privilege. The distorted reality andpolarized environment that is created by propaganda regards truth asrelativistic and facts as fungible and ultimately results in exclusion andabuse for both Muslims and those who “look Muslim”. Jason Stanley and hisbrilliant analysis of propaganda in HowPropaganda Works reveal significant insight on the stereotypical discoursesurrounding American Muslims and their unjust experiences in today’s society,and ultimately illustrate theimportance of eradicating propaganda’s ability to undermine the equality,security, and reasoned deliberation that are so essential to a liberal democracy.
JasonStanley defines propaganda as the manipulation from elites, those who “controlsociety’s resources”, which reinforces false orexaggerated beliefs and ultimately cuts off rational debate (Stanley 231).Stanley notes that the content evoked by propaganda is difficult to recognizeand leaves the audience more susceptible to its manipulation due to its “not-at-issue content”. An example of this would bethe utterance of ‘terrorism’, which appears to be neutral, but its”not-at-issue content” is typically biased (Stanley 134). This innocuous wordhas the “at-issue content” of any violent action that is intended to intimidate,coerce or influence a civil population or government, but it also has the”not-at-issue content” of Muslims being the primary threat to society.
Thus,because politicians only mention Islam when speaking about national securityand countering terrorism, there exists a confused and distorted claim that amajority of the Muslim population favors Islamic law and violence againstAmericans. People begin to connect the word ‘terrorism’ to Muslims and the ideathat “all terrorists are Muslim” can easily morph into “all Muslims areterrorists”. In the United States, thosein control first ensure that people associate terrorism with Muslims byexclusively spotlighting Muslim terrorists, and then promise to focus onAmerican national security and the fix the ‘Islamic problem’ in order to gainsupport.Stanley argues that this form of propaganda iseffective because it, “exploits and strengthens flawed ideology”, which is aset of false or misleading ideas that is difficult to rationally revise inlight of counter evidence (Stanley 5). In the context of the ‘Muslimterrorist’, flawed ideologies are simply another way of describing raciststereotyping. These flawed ideologies canbe enhanced by propaganda explicitly, likestating that Islam hates us or accusing American Muslims of protectingterrorists, or it can be implicit, like the rhetoric used behind the executive order for the recent travel ban (Considine 1).
This order did not use the word Muslim, but it did apply tosix predominantly Muslim countries. It can ultimately be seen as religiousdiscrimination because the intent behind it was manifested in associations withnegative racial stereotypes towards Muslims. For example, saying thatAmerica has “bad people with bad intentions” flooding our airports does notsound as bad as racially profiling Muslim Americans; however, it still tapsinto the racist ideology that a portion of Americans hold and Stanley states, “thisis how propaganda works” (Stanley 157). These statements that are blatantlydehumanizing to Muslims invoke fear in the public and feed into people’s natural predispositions as they become implanted throughthe repeated association of propaganda. Unfortunately, the United Statesis full of experts who play to the public’s phobias and shape public opinion,which has resulted in the perception of Muslimas terrorists to become a dominant one.Stanley’s book, How Propaganda Works,arises the question as to why these flawedideologies exist in the first place and are almost impossible to refute withevidence. Stanley argues that people withflawed ideologies do no revise their beliefs because they derive them from one’s”social identity” and from self-interest, especially the belief that oneis good (Stanley 202). Flawed ideologies arguably arise from, “the myth ofwhite innocence and white superiority” and “the privilege of avoiding theterrorist label” (Corbin 455).
For example, today, if a white person committedan act of violence to intimidate a civilian population, they would remain anindividual, possibly a deeply troubled one, but would still retain theirhumanity. This would not be the case for a Muslim perpetrator because of thelong history that enables white people to enjoy various benefits whileanti-Muslim sentiments classify Muslims as the demonized ‘other’. The dehumanizationof Muslims, “has deep historical roots, embedded in historical Europeanrepresentations of the Islamic world that extensively utilized images ofbarbarism and sexuality in context of a Christian/heathen dichotomy” (Miles and Brown 52).
Therefore, these anti-Muslimsentiments are not a new phenomena and non-Muslimprivileged groups ultimately, “justify their excessive control over the goodsof the society into which they are born” (Stanley 268). In other words, thereexists a self-justifying ideology of privileged groups where these members accept their privilegesbased on natural facts about their intelligence or superiority in order toprotect their social identity. Ultimately, each exposure to propaganda reinforcesthese flawed ideologies and the stereotypes surrounding the ‘Muslim terrorist’.Stereotypes and prejudices are effective toolsfor propagandists because they affect, “the information we acquire viaperception” and provide, “social scripts that guide us through the world, makesense of it, and legitimate our actions within it” (Stanley 195).
Stanleyfurther states that, “sincere, well-meaning people under the grip of flawedideology unknowingly produce and consume propaganda” (Stanley X). In otherwords, the discriminatory thoughts and behaviors that propaganda brings tosurface aren’t necessarily intentional, but instead are a result of unconsciouscognitive processes that are already present in the individual. Once the flawedideology has been embedded, then propaganda simply has to reactivate the falsebelief in order to reinforce it. This is when “confirmation bias sets in” wherepeople tend to notice, process, and remember information in a way that confirmstheir preexisting beliefs (Corbin 465). Consequently, when Americans watch thenews covering a bomb attempt in an airport and the word “terrorist” arises,they unconsciously associate it with a Muslim perpetrator and come away moreconvinced than ever that they are in danger.
Massmedia is a master forum that repeatedly links Muslims with terrorism and is significantlyresponsible for endorsing and normalizing the biased discourse surroundingMuslims. The media and its collective actors present more than just facts andinformation, but also provide, “a central organizing idea…for making sense ofrelevant events” and thereby “give meaning to an issue” (Bail 857). Bypresenting competing diagnoses of crises and corresponding solutions to redressthem, these media frames have the ability to exert powerful influences onpublic discourse. However, new outlets in particular take advantage of theirimpact and have contributed to the mobilization of the stereotype that Muslimsare dangerous for our national security. Time after time, the media links actsof violence committed by Muslims to their religion, while describing Christianextremists as silent, shy people and showing their graduation photos instead oftheir mug shots (Corbin 467).
In addition, in the United States, “there is adisturbing tendency to presume that mental illness is a cause when certainviolent acts are perpetrated by racists or other extremists, but is not afactor when the perpetrator is a Muslim American” (Schanzer 41). By bending overbackwards to identify some psychological traits or personal trauma that musthave triggered a violent act committed by a white person, the media isstrengthening the idea of the ‘Muslim terrorist’. With all the lone-wolfperpetrators who do not have obvious connections with a violent organization,it is difficult to determine if they are terrorists or if mental illness mayhave played a role in their violent conduct. However, because the identity orreligion of the perpetrator clearly results in different standards ofevaluation, these criminal reports are acting as propaganda and enhancing the unfavorableviews towards Muslims.
Becausethese propagandistic tools have led Muslims to become interchangeable membersof a terrorist conspiracy, there is also a tendency to leap to the conclusionthat a Muslim was responsible for the attack and these attacks will receive drasticallymore media coverage. For example, the U.S media coverage of the recent massacreat a mosque in Quebec City failed to mention that there were two men thatpolice were holding as suspects. Instead, Fox News reported there was a singlesuspect, with the name, Mohamed Belkhadi, when it turned out that Mohamed wasthe one who called the police when he heard the shots and the actual gunman wasthe other man, a white French Canadian (Corbin 459). In addition, when theperpetrator of a terrorist attack is Muslim or “looks Muslim”, it is expectedthat attack will receive significantly more media coverage than if theperpetrator was not Muslim.
In a study on American news coverage for allterrorist attacks between 2011 and 2015, researchers found that news outletsgave significantly more coverage, about 449 percent, to attacks by Muslims eventhough these attacks are far less common than other forms of terrorist attacks(Considine 2). For example, the media focused substantially more on the threepeople killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing than the seventy-five peoplekilled that same day in car bomb attacks in Iraq (Graziano 171). The Boston attack was executed by a Muslim, whowas ultimately labelled as a Muslim terrorist, while the Iraqi bomber wasBuddhist, and the phrase ‘Buddhist terrorist’ doesn’t seem to make sense intoday’s society (Graziano172). The media’s goal is to feed a public witha voracious appetite for scandal and entertainment and as a result,people become, “imbued, by a mechanism ofrepeated association, with problematic images or stereotypes” and theirdistorted reality enhances their fear towards Muslims (Stanley 156).
By purposely invoking these narratives in terms of nationalsecurity, Stanley qualifies the type of propaganda as undermining propaganda. Thisform of propaganda is, “a contribution to public discourse that is presented asan embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode thosevery ideals” (Stanley 53). This is referring to propaganda that appears to beappealing to national security but is actually undermining this ideal in theprocess. Politicians are appearing to promote the right to live without fearbut this is simply being used to justify actions that diminish the freedom,fairness and equality of Muslims.
The discriminative discourse used in politics,the ‘travel ban’ on Muslim countries, the policies increasing surveillance ofthe Muslim community, and the many insistences attributing violence andextremism to all Muslims are undoubtedly correlated to the increased number ofhate crimes towards Muslims. Muslims are often assaulted in the UnitedStates and frequent hate crimes towards Muslimgroups have occurred, including intimidation and vandalism of mosques and otherplaces of worship. These are spaces where people should feel safe, but insteadthey are often the targets for non-Muslim extremists. The Council onAmerican-Islamic Relations recorded a 57% increase in anti-Muslim biasincidents over 2015, which was accompanied by a 44% increase in anti-Muslimhate crimes in the same period (Considine 9). The statistics on anti-Muslimcrime incidents is likely even higher than documented because many incidents goun-reported due to the, “certain level of desensitization”. Some AmericanMuslims often feel like nothing can be done when they are harassed for theirfaith (Considine 10). Therefore, the goal ofestablishing high levels of racial profiling and surveillance of the Muslimcommunity is not consistent with our democratic values and ultimately places anextra burden on innocent American Muslims during their day-to-day living.
Thedevastating consequences of undermining propaganda show that a democracy raided by propaganda can be used to concealan undemocratic reality. Democratic idealsrequire that a government affords liberty to all of its citizens, but havingliberty makes it possible to use propaganda to gain power that can ultimatelymake a democracy unstable. Althoughit is the hope in a democracy that politicians and pundits engage in reasoneddebate about the truth, this is not the reality of our political discourse andinstead, propaganda is used asthe, “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” (Stanley 48).Becauseit is difficult to engage with and contest the idea that Muslims are dangerouswhen it is typically introduced in implicit ways, debate tends to be closedoff. In addition, propaganda that influencesthrough emotional or non-rational appeals can play upon deeper prejudices that deprive,”us of the capacity for empathy towards them” (Stanley 127). Because propagandaand its tactics lead people to associate Muslims as inhumane, this ultimatelyundermines the ability of Muslims to employ their voice because they arecategorized as threatening and inferior. As a result, the perspectives ofMuslim Americans are excluded in public political debates about immigrationlaws, refugee care and other issues that directly affect them.
Policies andlaws regarding the lives of Muslims are enacted without taking intoconsideration their perspectives and, therefore, are less reasonable and just. Ultimately,American citizens cannot be rational actors who use the democratic system todefend their interests and values if they are being manipulated into anirrational public discussion. Throughouthis book, Stanley provides a theoretical explanation to why and how propagandaarises in a liberal democratic society, but does not provide a strategy onovercoming this propaganda and preventing its many consequences. Although it isnecessary to take steps to protect the right to live, which includes measuresto prevent terrorism, the current measures taken to counter terrorism are notproportionate with our democratic values. Laws designed to protect people fromthe threat of terrorism and the enforcement of these laws should be compatiblewith all American’s rights and freedoms, including Muslim Americans.
Therefore,a way of overcoming propaganda is by including the citizens themselves who areactive and innovative agents of the common world. To be effective, propagandamust be hidden from awareness, however, Briant argues that the, “rules whichgovern propaganda (when, how, if and where it is used) should be debated”(Briant 249). Becausepropaganda relays messages mindlessly, the only way to defend against it is tobe more aware of the tactics being used. Because the American privileged elite will mostlikely always have exclusive authority over knowledge and decision-making, atthe very least, the rules governing the use of propaganda should be transparentand subject to enquiry. If public opinion corresponded to these decisions and theintentions and goals of those employing propaganda were known, freshperspectives based on strong evidence could inform attempts to reform systemsin a democratic way and would ultimately encourage an informed electorate. Jason Stanley’s analysis of propaganda in hisbook, How Propaganda Works, extendsbeyond the examples he writes about and can inform us about the underminingpropaganda used against Muslims in our political and public discourse today. Becausemedia, television, and the internet encompass our culture, it is nearly impossibleto escape the stream of propaganda that exists in our everyday lives.
In theUnited States, headlines of destruction, reports of terrorist activity and storiesof the government’s daily efforts to enact legislation are pervasive. However,because the undermining propaganda in these outlets link traditionalstereotypes about Muslims to these current events, people’s prejudices onlybecome reinforced with each exposure and their flawed ideologies continue toshape their stereotypes. The consequences of propaganda are far worse than mostpeople consuming and even producing it realize and it ultimately contributes toa less welcoming, less inclusive and less diverse nation. Although the current goalof propaganda is to target the audience and help the speaker, propaganda shouldinstead be used as an exchange of ideas between the speaker and the audience,where the speaker is conversing with the audience instead of speaking to them,in order to stop undermining, and start enhancing the freedom, security, andequality for all Americans.