This Is the Face of a Terrorist: White People Must Understand the Damage Done by Group Blame that Follows Other Terror Attacks
Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old white man who self-identified as conservative in a 2012 blog, killed two people in Austin with bombs, apparently targeted for their race, and injured many others. He then blew himself up in an actual suicide bombing, injuring a police officer in the process.
But he’s not being called a terrorist.
If he were Muslim, that label would be a given, long before any evidence was provided of ideological motives. And with him, an entire community would face trial.
For me as a visible Muslim, and for many other members of marginalized communities, every act of violence is a double calamity: We mourn the loss of life and grieve for the victims’ families. We then brace ourselves for the public punishment and collective blame for a crime we didn’t commit if the perpetrator happens to share a dimension of our identity.
In America, this dual trauma after a national tragedy is a burden exclusive to communities of color. Though white men carry out the majority of mass shootings and ideologically motivated violence, white people don’t face collective criminalization when “one of them” behaves badly.
We don’t change laws, implement more surveillance, reform curriculum, demand condemnations or ask what the assailant heard in his church’s last sermon. We treat the incident as isolated, an aberration, something we could not have prevented or predicted, and most certainly not a reflection on the shooter’s culture, race or religion more broadly.
This double standard in perception is more than a regrettable media bias; it provides public cover for targeted state oppression.
In research published in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau found that American respondents who blamed individual Muslims for terrorist acts they did not commit were more likely to support government policies that would ban Muslim refugees, target Muslim communities for mass surveillance, create a Muslim registry and restrict Muslim American religious freedom.
These participants were also more likely to actually agree to sign a petition urging Congress to implement these actions. Collective punishment follows collective blame.
And collective punishment is not limited to state action. According to a 2017 ISPU poll, Muslims report more faith-based discrimination than any other religious community in America, with Muslim women and young people the most targeted. Muslim families also are the most likely to say their children have been bullied because of their faith (42%), with a quarter of these incidents involving a teacher or administer as the bully. Hate crimes targeting Muslims and those perceived to be, which the FBI reports have spiked in recent years, are another consequence of this misdirected blame.
Though far less studied, collective guilt impacts members of targeted communities in another way as well: by making them internalize shame for actions they did not carry out.
A Muslim-American intellectual recently confided that one of the layers of emotions he experienced after 9/11 was guilt, like he had done something wrong, when rationally he knew that he was as much a victim of these attacks as anyone else. This invisible cost of Islamophobia – the burden of shame for something you had nothing to do with – is widespread.
According to ISPU’s 2017 poll, half of Muslims believe that their leaders and organization should condemn terrorism to reassure the public they don’t sympathize with it. This compares to 44% of the general public and just 28% of Americans of no faith who put the onus on Muslim to prove their innocence rather than expecting the public to assume it.
This experience of shame is not limited to adults. According to a study by Sana Aaser with the Noor Kids, one in three Muslim children didn’t want to tell others they were Muslim, and one in six pretended they were not.
Blaming an entire group for the actions of one individual when that group is perceived to be “other than us,” while isolating the actions of a criminal to his or her own agency when the criminal is “like us” is a type of implicit bias. The best research on countering this error of reason finds that simply becoming aware of this human tendency and actively challenging oneself to think more objectively can go a long way to correcting it.
So the next time you hear that a Muslim or any other minority committed an act of violence and you are tempted to attribute this moral failing to their culture or race, ask yourself this: What would I think if he looked and prayed like me?
Dalia Mogahed is Director of Research at The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
This article originally appeared on March 21, 2018 in the Daily News.