Duke sociologist Christopher Bail examines ways organizations use digital resources to reach new and broaden existing audiences. He is the author of “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Organizations Became Mainstream.”
He recently discussed his research with Campaign Stop 2016 . Here is a lightly edited transcript:
Your research examines how anti-Muslim fringe organizations use social media to edge into the mainstream. What might surprise people about the messaging and tools these groups use?
I think many people might be surprised to learn that many people who describe themselves as terrorism experts actually have relatively little expertise in the area. Some of the most popular websites on the Internet that cover issues related to Islam and terrorism (such as Jihadwatch.com) have the appearance of legitimacy but are in fact highly unreliable sources of information about these topics.
Many anti-Muslim organizations came of age during a period where public advocacy was rapidly changing because of the advent of social media. Therefore, many of these organizations have large fan bases or followers, and use sites like Facebook and Twitter to circumnavigate the gatekeepers who would usually prevent false information from appearing within the public sphere.
As you watch the ongoing political debate surrounding Muslim immigrants, is there something you think is missing or intentionally being left out of the public conversation?
First, there is no conceivable mechanism whereby the United States could identify Muslims -- short of visual cues such as headdress or religious garb, which are not worn by many Muslims. Furthermore -- and perhaps more importantly -- it amazes me that people think that groups such as ISIS could not disguise themselves as non-Muslims. Once again, there would be no way of differentiating people’s religious background that I am aware of.
And at a much broader level, this debate simply sends the wrong message to the Muslim world. Muslims have been coming to the United States for centuries. Historians estimate that as many as one in three Africans who were brought to the United States hailed from regions with Muslim-majority populations. During the 1960s, the U.S. experienced successive waves of refugee migration from a variety of Muslim-majority countries as well. While immigration policy will not transform negative perceptions of America among foreign Muslims, overt calls to ban Muslim migration to the United States will only validate the narrative of groups such as ISIS who claim that the United States is at war with Islam.
Do moderate Muslim groups bear a responsibility to ‘condemn’ the actions of extremists? And is that now a dynamic debate within the mainstream Muslim population?
It is an ongoing debate. Many Muslim organizations feel that by condemning terrorism they somehow accept responsibility for it. This is not a wholly unreasonable position given that most mainstream Muslims are themselves the victims of extremists groups, or concerned that focusing on Muslims belies the fact that there are political extremists within most religions.
On the other hand, the current situation does not lend itself to such careful distinctions. Because of the lack of media coverage of mainstream Muslim organizations condemning terrorism, many Americans have the incorrect impression that Muslim-Americans either condone or tacitly support violent extremism.
In my experience, this is quite wrong. Surveys are a very imperfect measure of such attitudes, but the available evidence suggested very little evidence of radicalization among Muslim-Americans until quite recently. Another survey is needed soon to document whether these trends have changed in the wake of recent events -- not only the rise of ISIS, but the potential for anti-Muslim hysteria to increase radicalization among Muslim-Americans. Right now, there is no evidence for this link, but it seems plausible given recent events.