“The Savage Speaks:" The Psychology of the Anti-Muslim Hate Ad

Hateful advertisements calling Muslims “savages” appeared recently in ten New York City subway stations. Now, they’re in the metro stations of the nation’s capital. The posters, which read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Defeat Jihad. Support Israel,” remind me of what it was like to be an Iranian kid growing up in America, after the 1979 Iranian revolution—not always a Norman Rockwell picture. I was shot at with BB gun bullets, our car was shot with real bullets, I was sometimes called the “N word” (well, really the “Sand N” word), and I resorted to fisticuffs on more than one occasion. You see, responding to bullies who asked questions like, “Hey Eye-rainian, do ya wanna box?” with maybe pithy, but probably really just butter-knife wit retorts like “No thanks, I have a box at home,” didn’t always settle the matter.

Still, regardless of what and/or who we imagine we are, all of us face stereotypes at least a couple times a day, every day. Social psychologists argue that it is in fact these situations where you are stereotyped and treated differently, because of some category that you are supposed to fit into—what they call “identity contingencies”—that your sense of you (at least in part), comes from. This is an important point since so much of the work in the social and psychological sciences focuses on the interior, cognitive and emotional representations tied to identity. What is too often neglected is the degree to which these things are perhaps after-effects; mechanisms that may be designed to allow us to deal with situations and circumstances in our lives.

But, of course, we all have numerous identities. In a way, we are each plurals. Our social identities—group membership in categories such as age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity—and not just our personal identities (e.g., your personality), are integral to our sense of self. It’s also important to point out that you may be largely unaware of these categories if they do not affect the way you are treated in a particular setting—being a man in a roomful of men is not the same as being one in a roomful of women. Similarly, being from the “Near” or “Middle East” and living in the United States puts me in a different category or social identity than if I was, say, living in Turkey. There, my being from the “Middle East” would be less important, arguably, than say, the fact that I was born in Iran, or that I live in the United States.

It turns out that if you have to deal with things differently in situations because you have a certain identity, then that identity will become important to you. People often see themselves in terms of whichever their identities are under assault. When a cue places one of your identities under attack, then that identity will become consuming, even if others are ignorant of this identity. If somebody asserts something negative about an identity that you possess, what’s called a “stereotype threat,” you may experience anxiety since you can now possibly confirm such a negative stereotype. As such, you become concerned about this identity and so now it will loom larger, psychologically. It becomes a snake in the house: If you know there is a snake in your house, you will inevitably become preoccupied with it (e.g., What kind of a snake? How big?), imagining it crawling near you at the most inopportune moments.

The French novelist Amin Maalouf holds numerous social identities. A French, Lebanese-born Christian, he attended a Jesuit school and writes in French, though Arabic is his native tongue. Perhaps it is this wealth of identities that enables Maalouf to pen insightful works such as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Here, he describes that in the defense of identity, people can do things they would be less likely to do otherwise for themselves, even in self-defense. So, if you want to understand say, terrorism, or paths to violence in our society in general, it is important to understand that the social identities we feel to be under attack can make people vigilant and concerned about that identity (and perhaps even see the world through that identity).

Similarly, Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist, who studies terrorists and terrorism (amongst other things), demonstrates that personal humiliation, such as that suffered daily by Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints, in fact decreases the likelihood that an individual will act violently. On the other hand, the perception that others with whom one shares a common social identity are being humiliated can be a powerful driver for action. It is in the existence of a sense of community and identity, whether that be a group of local friends or the ummah (the global nation of Muslim believers), that he believes the roots of violence can be found. They do not, Atran insists, die for a cause; they die for each other.

So, our social identities are adaptations to the particular circumstances of our lives. If you didn’t need them to help cope with these circumstances, the perspectives, emotional tendencies, values, ambitions, and habits that make up the dispositional side of your social identities would disappear altogether.

To see this in your own life, consider the significant settings of your life: home, school, work, etc. If nothing in these settings are different for you because you are a boy, or young, are black-haired, or have a Persian accent, then none of these things—being a boy, being young, being black-haired, or having a Persian accent—will become significant social identities for you in those places. They may be distinctive traits you possess. You may even appreciate them for a whole host of reasons. But, they won’t much affect how you see things, or with whom you identify with, or how you react emotionally to events, etc. In other words, they won’t feature strongly in your sense of who you are there. If you were to say to me, back when I was ten, that I should be interested in my Persian heritage, then I would have probably listened to you with some interest—for a while anyway. But treat me differently and badly because of that heritage, even at ten, and guarantee that I become strongly interested in that identity.

Two conclusions then seem clear: If you want to make actual progress in the struggle against violent jihad, start with considering A) what Muslims (American and non-American) actually say and feel about Jihadism, and B) what can be done (if anything) about the rhetoric of those that seek further attacking the identities of American Muslims.

As far as the former, think how often you hear, “Why don’t Muslims condemn the terrorism of jihadist groups like al-Qaeda?” Setting aside the inherent problem that most Muslims, like most Christians, like most Hindus, like most atheists, are living their lives and should not have to comment on the atrocities and vile acts committed by such people—the fact of the matter is that there’s been thousands of condemnations made by Muslim leaders, recriminating the criminal activities of groups like al-Qaeda. From Hamas, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and beyond, there were and have been numerous declarations starting just after 9/11.

But, instead of taking advantage of these statements—to show the criminality of violent jihadism, we not only seemingly ignored these calls—but we did worse and we legitimized the jihadists concept of total and apocalyptic war by calling it a crusade, by solely targeting Muslim groups, and now through the growing Islamophobia in our own country—we are not only giving credence to the terrible lie that this is a war against Islamic identity, we are not just being un-American—we are losing the propaganda war against our real enemies.

By Siamak Naficy, Aslan Media Contributor
*Photo Credit: Rafael Alvez

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