While suggesting that all terrorists are Muslim, Stanley

While there are
a number of quite disturbing trends in American politics today, one that
demands our attention is the use of propaganda to exploit the animosity, fear
and explicit racism aimed towards Muslims. The
depiction of ‘Muslim terrorist’ in the United States can be examined through the
critical analysis of propaganda in Jason Stanley’s book, How Propaganda Works. Different aspects of Jason Stanley’s analysis
can help us understand the false narratives surrounding Muslims, including
flawed ideologies, negative stereotypes and the threat these inequalities pose
on a liberal democracy. Because propaganda in today’s society is used to spread
the false claim that there is an ‘Islamic problem’ and results in increased marginalization
and abuse of Muslim Americans, propaganda should attempt to uphold and enhance
American democratic values instead of undermine them.

 

 

 

            Modern terrorism is intrinsically secular, with
terrorism seen throughout history coming from all different religions. However,
in today’s society, terrorism has become connected to the Muslim religion due
to the inflated use of propaganda in political discourse and the media.
A
good place to start to understand our current situation regarding the stereotypes
and derogative statements towards Muslims is with Yale philosophy professor,
Jason Stanley, and his book, How
Propaganda 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 poses
for liberal democracies. By suggesting that all terrorists are Muslim, Stanley
acknowledges that propaganda draws upon flawed ideologies, such as historical
trends like racial stereotypes and white privilege. The distorted reality and
polarized environment that is created by propaganda regards truth as
relativistic and facts as fungible and ultimately results in exclusion and
abuse for both Muslims and those who “look Muslim”. Jason Stanley and his
brilliant analysis of propaganda in How
Propaganda Works reveal significant insight on the stereotypical discourse
surrounding American Muslims and their unjust experiences in today’s society,
and ultimately illustrate the
importance of eradicating propaganda’s ability to undermine the equality,
security, and reasoned deliberation that are so essential to a liberal democracy.

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            Jason
Stanley defines propaganda as the manipulation from elites, those who “control
society’s resources”, which reinforces false or
exaggerated beliefs and ultimately cuts off rational debate (Stanley 231).
Stanley notes that the content evoked by propaganda is difficult to recognize
and leaves the audience more susceptible to its manipulation due to its “not-at-issue content”. An example of this would be
the utterance of ‘terrorism’, which appears to be neutral, but its
“not-at-issue content” is typically biased (Stanley 134). This innocuous word
has 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 security
and countering terrorism, there exists a confused and distorted claim that a
majority of the Muslim population favors Islamic law and violence against
Americans. People begin to connect the word ‘terrorism’ to Muslims and the idea
that “all terrorists are Muslim” can easily morph into “all Muslims are
terrorists”. In the United States, those
in control first ensure that people associate terrorism with Muslims by
exclusively spotlighting Muslim terrorists, and then promise to focus on
American national security and the fix the ‘Islamic problem’ in order to gain
support.

Stanley argues that this form of propaganda is
effective because it, “exploits and strengthens flawed ideology”, which is a
set of false or misleading ideas that is difficult to rationally revise in
light of counter evidence (Stanley 5). In the context of the ‘Muslim
terrorist’, flawed ideologies are simply another way of describing racist
stereotyping. These flawed ideologies can
be enhanced by propaganda explicitly, like
stating that Islam hates us or accusing American Muslims of protecting
terrorists, 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 to
six predominantly Muslim countries. It can ultimately be seen as religious
discrimination because the intent behind it was manifested in associations with
negative racial stereotypes towards Muslims. For example, saying that
America has “bad people with bad intentions” flooding our airports does not
sound as bad as racially profiling Muslim Americans; however, it still taps
into the racist ideology that a portion of Americans hold and Stanley states, “this
is how propaganda works” (Stanley 157). These statements that are blatantly
dehumanizing to Muslims invoke fear in the public and feed into people’s natural predispositions as they become implanted through
the repeated association of propaganda. Unfortunately, the United States
is full of experts who play to the public’s phobias and shape public opinion,
which has resulted in the perception of Muslim
as terrorists to become a dominant one.

Stanley’s book, How Propaganda Works,
arises the question as to why these flawed
ideologies exist in the first place and are almost impossible to refute with
evidence. Stanley argues that people with
flawed ideologies do no revise their beliefs because they derive them from one’s
“social identity” and from self-interest, especially the belief that one
is good (Stanley 202). Flawed ideologies arguably arise from, “the myth of
white innocence and white superiority” and “the privilege of avoiding the
terrorist label” (Corbin 455). For example, today, if a white person committed
an act of violence to intimidate a civilian population, they would remain an
individual, possibly a deeply troubled one, but would still retain their
humanity. This would not be the case for a Muslim perpetrator because of the
long history that enables white people to enjoy various benefits while
anti-Muslim sentiments classify Muslims as the demonized ‘other’. The dehumanization
of Muslims, “has deep historical roots, embedded in historical European
representations of the Islamic world that extensively utilized images of
barbarism and sexuality in context of a Christian/heathen dichotomy” (Miles and Brown 52). Therefore, these anti-Muslim
sentiments are not a new phenomena and non-Muslim
privileged groups ultimately, “justify their excessive control over the goods
of the society into which they are born” (Stanley 268). In other words, there
exists a self-justifying ideology of privileged groups where these members accept their privileges
based on natural facts about their intelligence or superiority in order to
protect their social identity.

Ultimately, each exposure to propaganda reinforces
these flawed ideologies and the stereotypes surrounding the ‘Muslim terrorist’.
Stereotypes and prejudices are effective tools
for propagandists because they affect, “the information we acquire via
perception” and provide, “social scripts that guide us through the world, make
sense of it, and legitimate our actions within it” (Stanley 195). Stanley
further states that, “sincere, well-meaning people under the grip of flawed
ideology unknowingly produce and consume propaganda” (Stanley X). In other
words, the discriminatory thoughts and behaviors that propaganda brings to
surface aren’t necessarily intentional, but instead are a result of unconscious
cognitive processes that are already present in the individual. Once the flawed
ideology has been embedded, then propaganda simply has to reactivate the false
belief in order to reinforce it. This is when “confirmation bias sets in” where
people tend to notice, process, and remember information in a way that confirms
their preexisting beliefs (Corbin 465). Consequently, when Americans watch the
news covering a bomb attempt in an airport and the word “terrorist” arises,
they unconsciously associate it with a Muslim perpetrator and come away more
convinced than ever that they are in danger.

            Mass
media is a master forum that repeatedly links Muslims with terrorism and is significantly
responsible for endorsing and normalizing the biased discourse surrounding
Muslims. The media and its collective actors present more than just facts and
information, but also provide, “a central organizing idea…for making sense of
relevant events” and thereby “give meaning to an issue” (Bail 857). By
presenting competing diagnoses of crises and corresponding solutions to redress
them, these media frames have the ability to exert powerful influences on
public discourse. However, new outlets in particular take advantage of their
impact and have contributed to the mobilization of the stereotype that Muslims
are dangerous for our national security. Time after time, the media links acts
of violence committed by Muslims to their religion, while describing Christian
extremists as silent, shy people and showing their graduation photos instead of
their mug shots (Corbin 467). In addition, in the United States, “there is a
disturbing tendency to presume that mental illness is a cause when certain
violent acts are perpetrated by racists or other extremists, but is not a
factor when the perpetrator is a Muslim American” (Schanzer 41). By bending over
backwards to identify some psychological traits or personal trauma that must
have triggered a violent act committed by a white person, the media is
strengthening the idea of the ‘Muslim terrorist’. With all the lone-wolf
perpetrators who do not have obvious connections with a violent organization,
it is difficult to determine if they are terrorists or if mental illness may
have played a role in their violent conduct. However, because the identity or
religion of the perpetrator clearly results in different standards of
evaluation, these criminal reports are acting as propaganda and enhancing the unfavorable
views towards Muslims.

            Because
these propagandistic tools have led Muslims to become interchangeable members
of a terrorist conspiracy, there is also a tendency to leap to the conclusion
that a Muslim was responsible for the attack and these attacks will receive drastically
more media coverage. For example, the U.S media coverage of the recent massacre
at a mosque in Quebec City failed to mention that there were two men that
police were holding as suspects. Instead, Fox News reported there was a single
suspect, with the name, Mohamed Belkhadi, when it turned out that Mohamed was
the one who called the police when he heard the shots and the actual gunman was
the other man, a white French Canadian (Corbin 459). In addition, when the
perpetrator of a terrorist attack is Muslim or “looks Muslim”, it is expected
that attack will receive significantly more media coverage than if the
perpetrator was not Muslim. In a study on American news coverage for all
terrorist attacks between 2011 and 2015, researchers found that news outlets
gave significantly more coverage, about 449 percent, to attacks by Muslims even
though these attacks are far less common than other forms of terrorist attacks
(Considine 2). For example, the media focused substantially more on the three
people killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing than the seventy-five people
killed that same day in car bomb attacks in Iraq (Graziano 171). The Boston attack was executed by a Muslim, who
was ultimately labelled as a Muslim terrorist, while the Iraqi bomber was
Buddhist, and the phrase ‘Buddhist terrorist’ doesn’t seem to make sense in
today’s society (Graziano
172). The media’s goal is to feed a public with
a voracious appetite for scandal and entertainment and as a result,
people become, “imbued, by a mechanism of
repeated association, with problematic images or stereotypes” and their
distorted reality enhances their fear towards Muslims (Stanley 156).

            By purposely invoking these narratives in terms of national
security, Stanley qualifies the type of propaganda as undermining propaganda. This
form of propaganda is, “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as
an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those
very ideals” (Stanley 53). This is referring to propaganda that appears to be
appealing to national security but is actually undermining this ideal in the
process. Politicians are appearing to promote the right to live without fear
but 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 of
the Muslim community, and the many insistences attributing violence and
extremism to all Muslims are undoubtedly correlated to the increased number of
hate crimes towards Muslims. Muslims are often assaulted in the United
States and frequent hate crimes towards Muslim
groups have occurred, including intimidation and vandalism of mosques and other
places of worship. These are spaces where people should feel safe, but instead
they are often the targets for non-Muslim extremists. The Council on
American-Islamic Relations recorded a 57% increase in anti-Muslim bias
incidents over 2015, which was accompanied by a 44% increase in anti-Muslim
hate crimes in the same period (Considine 9). The statistics on anti-Muslim
crime incidents is likely even higher than documented because many incidents go
un-reported due to the, “certain level of desensitization”. Some American
Muslims often feel like nothing can be done when they are harassed for their
faith (Considine 10). Therefore, the goal of
establishing high levels of racial profiling and surveillance of the Muslim
community is not consistent with our democratic values and ultimately places an
extra burden on innocent American Muslims during their day-to-day living.

            The
devastating consequences of undermining propaganda show that a democracy raided by propaganda can be used to conceal
an undemocratic reality. Democratic ideals
require that a government affords liberty to all of its citizens, but having
liberty makes it possible to use propaganda to gain power that can ultimately
make a democracy unstable. Although
it is the hope in a democracy that politicians and pundits engage in reasoned
debate about the truth, this is not the reality of our political discourse and
instead, propaganda is used as
the, “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” (Stanley 48).
Because
it is difficult to engage with and contest the idea that Muslims are dangerous
when it is typically introduced in implicit ways, debate tends to be closed
off. In addition, propaganda that influences
through emotional or non-rational appeals can play upon deeper prejudices that deprive,
“us of the capacity for empathy towards them” (Stanley 127). Because propaganda
and its tactics lead people to associate Muslims as inhumane, this ultimately
undermines the ability of Muslims to employ their voice because they are
categorized as threatening and inferior. As a result, the perspectives of
Muslim Americans are excluded in public political debates about immigration
laws, refugee care and other issues that directly affect them. Policies and
laws regarding the lives of Muslims are enacted without taking into
consideration their perspectives and, therefore, are less reasonable and just. Ultimately,
American citizens cannot be rational actors who use the democratic system to
defend their interests and values if they are being manipulated into an
irrational public discussion.

            Throughout
his book, Stanley provides a theoretical explanation to why and how propaganda
arises in a liberal democratic society, but does not provide a strategy on
overcoming this propaganda and preventing its many consequences. Although it is
necessary to take steps to protect the right to live, which includes measures
to prevent terrorism, the current measures taken to counter terrorism are not
proportionate with our democratic values. Laws designed to protect people from
the threat of terrorism and the enforcement of these laws should be compatible
with all American’s rights and freedoms, including Muslim Americans. Therefore,
a way of overcoming propaganda is by including the citizens themselves who are
active and innovative agents of the common world. To be effective, propaganda
must be hidden from awareness, however, Briant argues that the, “rules which
govern propaganda (when, how, if and where it is used) should be debated”
(Briant 249). Because
propaganda relays messages mindlessly, the only way to defend against it is to
be more aware of the tactics being used. Because the American privileged elite will most
likely always have exclusive authority over knowledge and decision-making, at
the very least, the rules governing the use of propaganda should be transparent
and subject to enquiry. If public opinion corresponded to these decisions and the
intentions and goals of those employing propaganda were known, fresh
perspectives based on strong evidence could inform attempts to reform systems
in a democratic way and would ultimately encourage an informed electorate.

            Jason Stanley’s analysis of propaganda in his
book, How Propaganda Works, extends
beyond the examples he writes about and can inform us about the undermining
propaganda used against Muslims in our political and public discourse today. Because
media, television, and the internet encompass our culture, it is nearly impossible
to escape the stream of propaganda that exists in our everyday lives. In the
United States, headlines of destruction, reports of terrorist activity and stories
of the government’s daily efforts to enact legislation are pervasive. However,
because the undermining propaganda in these outlets link traditional
stereotypes about Muslims to these current events, people’s prejudices only
become reinforced with each exposure and their flawed ideologies continue to
shape their stereotypes. The consequences of propaganda are far worse than most
people consuming and even producing it realize and it ultimately contributes to
a less welcoming, less inclusive and less diverse nation. Although the current goal
of propaganda is to target the audience and help the speaker, propaganda should
instead 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, and
equality for all Americans. 

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