Last Saturday, the March Against Sharia was held in 30 cities across the country, gathering national media attention. In many places the number of counter-protesters who came out in support of Muslims was greater than those in opposition. But the response of those who take issue with such marches is worth reflecting on for those who want to be more effective in creating an America where its citizens can thrive even in the face of religious differences.
The march was put together by ACT for America, founded by Brigitte Gabriel. According to their website, the organization presents itself as the “NRA of national security” in order to “help protect and preserve American culture and to keep this nation safe.” ACT for America is but one of a large cottage industry of organizations that promote anti-Islamic sentiment in our never-ending post-9/11 and ”War on Terror” cultural footing. Despite any disagreements with their views, we must acknowledge that such organizations have done a great job at capitalizing upon fears, using social media, raising funds, and finding wedge issues like sharia to promote their efforts to a national audience. In light of their successes, those of us who are opposed to the actions and views of anti-Islamic organizations have to be strategic in our response if we want to provide a more effective counter-narrative and movement.
In what follows I will provide some critique of some of the major reactions to the March Against Sharia rallies, before setting forth some suggestions on how we might improve for the future. My critique does not mean that I think I have all the answers, or necessarily the right ones. I’m learning just like everyone else, and there is no silver bullet. Instead, I share my critique as a way of coming alongside like-minded others to develop what may be a better way forward based upon some of my research and reflections.
One of the first things I think we need to do is to recognize the extent of the challenge we face. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Americans tend to view Muslims in lukewarm fashion, similar to their feelings about Atheists. This same survey notes that Republicans have a more negative view than do Democrats. More troubling, the survey revealed that half of the country thinks that some U.S. Muslims are anti-American. More specifically related to the recent march, a 2015 LifeWay Research survey revealed that 37% of Americans are worried about sharia being applied in America, and that 51% of evangelical pastors agree with the idea that “ISIS is a true indication of what Islam looks like when Islam controls a society.” Although some solace may be taken in the small turnout for the recent anti-sharia marches, fear of sharia and uneasy feelings about Muslims are held by a large number of Americans, including evangelicals. Most of these folks may not have been at the march, but they are a part of the challenge.
With the scope of the challenge before us, the next task as I see it is to ask ourselves is, “What do we want to accomplish in response?” Do we want to want to respond to isolated events like the march as one-off efforts, or do we also hope to facilitate change over the long run by changing hearts and minds? If the latter is what we want to do, then I suggest we need to consider alternatives. And our responses need to work by drawing upon a sound theory of change working within our target audience. Here’s why.
I’ve seen three main responses to the March Against Sharia: counter-protest, negative labeling, and education. All of these may have a place, but how effective are they at accomplishing change within those with negative views of Islam and the views of its adherents? Let’s consider the counter-protests. This provided a visible demonstration to Muslims, the anti-sharia marchers, and other Americans, that there are many who support Muslims and oppose such march efforts. But a concern here is, beyond sending a message through symbolism, was much done by way of persuasion for others? Then there’s the negative labeling. I’ve seen social media posts and online articles referring to the protesters as “bigots” and “Islamophobes.” Perhaps they are, but while those opposed to the marches will approve the application of such labels, the marchers will not. Labeling like this helps “us” identify the offending “them,” but it doesn’t facilitate a hearing for alternative views. Then there were the attempts at education. Several articles circulated online that helped explain sharia so it could be better understood in distinction from the stereotype that promotes fears among many Americans. Education is important, but when fear is present, that emotion confirms the intuition that many have that sharia, and Islam, are to be feared. Education has its place, but individuals have to be in the right space before such educational efforts can get through.
If these three responses to the march are lacking somehow, what might be done differently in the future? Allow me to make a few suggestions, and in so doing invite others into a conversation and a strategization process.
First, we must acknowledge people’s fear. Some or many who participated in and supported the march may be prejudiced against Muslims. But many times such prejudices are related to real fears. If we can acknowledge and address the fears we’ve taken a significant step in rehumanizing the marchers beyond bigots and Islamophobes, and in feeling and understanding their motivations.
Second, we need to account for the particular moral foundations in play. All human beings have various psychological moral foundations that they draw upon as they view and act within the world. Research in social psychology by those like Jonathan Haidt reveals that conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. So while liberals emphasize care and fairness, and thus are more likely to oppose the March Against Sharia out of concern for Muslims, conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and purity. For conservatives the emphasis on these foundations means that Muslims are often seen as anti-American (loyalty), anti-constitutional because of a desire for sharia (authority), and they are feared as a contaminant that threatens the cleanliness of the nation (purity).[vi] When we account for the particular moral lenses through which the anti-sharia marchers view Islam then we will be better able to understand them, and frame our responses in ways that account for their moral foundations and challenge them to broaden their psychological and conceptual horizons.
Third, we need to work through the emotions before appealing to reason. Another helpful lesson from social psychology is an understanding of the relationship between emotions and reason in our cognition. Again according to Haidt, “emotions are a kind of information processing.” It works in concert with the reasoning portion of our cognitive processes, with emotion and intuition taking the lead. Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider sitting on an elephant. The rider is reason and the elephant is our intuitions formed through emotion. According to Haidt’s research, “intuitions come first; strategic reasoning second.” Looking to the metaphor, if the elephant wants to go its own way, the small rider will have a very difficult time pulling it the way he or she wants it to go. Returning to Haidt, what this means beyond the metaphor is that, “You can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.” This is because emotion and moral intuition are leading the way, and reason is legitimizing what is already intuited. In light of this psychological state of affairs in application to education and persuasion efforts for the March Against Sharia and others fearful of Islam, we should take steps to account for the moral intuitions of others with whom we disagree, work through them, and seek to “elicit new intuitions, not rationales.” If we are successful in facilitating new intuitions we will have an opportunity for more fruitful educational opportunities.
Of course, a lot more needs to be included in a long-term strategy to facilitate social change in people so as to help a significant number of Americans, including evangelicals, develop more positive views of Islam. But the three ideas above will hopefully get the conversation started about how we might add new tools to our toolkit. I hope those involved in interfaith, multi-faith engagement, and peacemaking will join me.