I’m a big fan of the podcast On Being hosted by Krista Tippett who gave the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in June. Earlier in June, she aired a show in which she interviewed Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard professor of social ethics and co-author of Blindspot – Hidden Biases of Good People – subject for another sermon to be sure.
In the interview she described an experiment she did with her neuroscientist colleague Liz Phelps by associating a neutral face with an electric shock. A sequence of neutral faces was presented to the subjects. Some faces were associated with a slightly uncomfortable electric shock and others were not. A measurable fear response quickly developed to the faces associated with the electric shock. The faces associated with the shock were either all White or all Black. Half the White and half the Black subjects got divided so half of each group got shocks only when seeing exclusively White or Black faces. Then the shocks stopped but the faces continued to be shown and their body’s reflexive response continued to be measured for fear. The researchers wanted to know the half-life of their fear after the stimulus was removed.
Not surprisingly, white subjects fairly quickly lost their fear of other white faces and Blacks for Black faces. That wasn’t as true cross-racially. What they discovered was the people who didn’t have cross-racial positive relationships continued to experience fear much longer than those people who had positive cross-racial relationships.
In the show she commented:
Somebody who wrote a commentary on our paper actually likened our result to the real world question of terrorism. And why it is that we might lose fear to homegrown terrorists far more quickly than we do to foreign-born terrorists…
That made perfect sense to me as a basis for Islamophobia in America. Since Muslims are less than 1% of the population, most Americans probably have never met one. Far, far fewer have had a personal relationship with one.
So their only encounter with Muslims is through the media. Before September 11, 2001, most Americans had no fear or even any opinion about American Muslims. That is a little surprising since Muslims have been part of America practically from the very beginning in the sixteenth century when they started arriving. Some of the slaves brought from Africa were Muslim. Muslims fought in the Civil War. From 1840’s till World War One saw a steady stream of Turks and Yemeni immigrating here. After 9/11 however, the only stimulation most people had was what they saw on the television … which wasn’t very friendly – kind of like a little electric shock administered daily during the news hour.
Today, spend a little time as I did, in the comment sections of an islamophobic web site and you’ll read just horrific posts that show little or no appreciation or understanding of Muslims and the relationship they have to current events in the Middle East or global terrorism.
The first thing to know about American Muslims is … continued