Anti-Muslim Propaganda in the US: a Study of Online Narratives and Communities

Summary

Muslim citizens of the US are uniquely discriminated against on religious grounds insofar as the Executive has sought to exclude their co-religionists from five countries around the world, minimise or stop the inwards migration of Muslims via conventional routes, and to drastically reduce the rate at which they are accepted when they apply to enter the US with refugee status. Given the US constitution, no other numerically significant religious group is treated in such a way by the State[1]. Certainly, no other religion is so regularly identified as a source of threat to the republic as Islam.

It is our view that the evidence for large-scale anti-Islam sentiment in the form of a wide range of actors, materials and settings available online is incontrovertible. Today US Muslims report a significant degree of harassment on the basis of their religion in their dealings with their fellow pupils, citizens on the streets and at the hands of public officials. This is corroborated by evidence from an array of sources. At a moment when more US Muslims are seeking public office and planning to vote than ever before, given the significance of digital media for recent US domestic politics, it is important to explore how Muslims might be impacted by social media, as used by themselves and others.

It is hard to demonstrate that the outpouring of material that stereotypes or demonises Muslims in the US is directed at the Muslim population, rather it is deployed by a whole range of individuals and organisations to maintain and enhance the narrative of Islamism. As the Centre for research and evidence on Security Threats at the University of Lancaster states:

The counter jihad is a transnational political network composed of individual activists, pressure groups, think tanks and aligned street movements. Ideologically the network is centred on anti-Muslim prejudice. This is underpinned for many activists by conspiracy beliefs centred on plots to Islamise Europe and the US.” (Centre for research and evidence on Security Threats, University of Lancaster 2017,p.8)

Our view is that the generalisation of the effort to characterise a global jihad movement in a life and death struggle with the (white) west is not a direct source of harassment itself. Rather it impacts upon US Muslims as a result of its capacity to influence the thoughts and actions of those most frequently exposed to the narrative: ordinary US citizens whose political leanings are to the right. It must be understood though that the effect of this propaganda effort spreads across the entire country irrespective of political orientation.

Everyday use of social media platforms by most citizens will not bring them into contact with most, if any, of the material we encountered, be they Muslim or not. Despite the volume of material involved, the core number of people involved in producing and disseminating the material should not be overestimated. Nor should we discount the impact that engendering and maintaining a deep sense of an urgent threat clearly does have on some US citizens, an effect that leads to acts of violence both local and personal, such as verbal abuse and worse. Most of the evidence in western countries points to the fact that it is women who face the brunt of these acts.

 

Introduction

Muslims in America are faced with a well developed economy of fear and loathing directed at their faith, ethnicity and presence in the country – if not their existence at all.

Manipulative political and dis-information campaigns carried out through use of digital technologies have been well documented in the past few years (Woolley & Howard, 2016). This paper is an attempt to analyse computational propaganda campaigns as they both target American Muslims in their online ecosystems and as they themselves are used as the raw material for other’s misinformation and sensationalist content.

At the apex there are political think tanks or propaganda operations such as the Gatestone Institute funded by significant donors and led by experienced political figures, such as the recently departed Director and now National Security Advisor Michael Bolton. This organisation produces videos which can accrue a viewership for individual videos of a 1,000,000 or more. Their experts provide evidence of a conspiracy across Europe and US as the Muslim communities are creating ‘enclaves’ where they observe Sharia law and plot the downfall of all (currently) white countries. These organisations are deeply connected with the right wing news outlets such as Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast group who share ‘stories’, pundits and other forms of on-air talent.

In the realm of digital media a host of self-described truth-telling and patriotic news outlets share propaganda product via their websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Periscope and Youtube productions. Channels such as RebelMedia can garner 2,000,000 million views for a video of Laura Southern at work. These providers develop material which ranges from original programming to confections of bogus scholarship, lies, innuendo and speculations. The Saudi government and their surrogates provide the resources for news mills manufacturing racially divisive and dangerous material directed at Muslim factions they disapprove of. In addition, the Russians work through a number of channels not always separate from those mentioned above, creating and hiding the origins of material and people, offering advice to those who join the fray: the ability to bolster the increasing racial and ethnic tensions undermining the political stability of its neighbours in Europe and the US is obviously of great value. The study by the newspaper USA Today (May 2018) of the Facebook advertisements placed by the Russian Internet Research Agency in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election reveals that of the 3517 advertisements, 55% mentioned ‘race’, and they garnered 25,000,000 impressions.

Specialists such as the UTT (Understanding the Threat) organisation sell books and videos, make paid and unpaid presentations, and take consultancy assignments in order to fulfil their self-appointed role as a “Leader on National Security matters re: the Islamic threat”. A review of their training course used as a credit on their website “This was the best training I have had in my entire 25 years as state police officer or a member off the National Guard” Lt.Col., Indiana National Guard. Other attendees credited with positive statements about their training are officers serving in the FBI, US Army and Police forces across the country. At the periphery are a host of websites, blogs and Youtube channels that edit, aggregate and repurpose material from elsewhere in order to build an audience for an emotional, not to say violent response, to the threat supposedly posed by the activity of Muslims in the US. As UTT puts it; “The Islamic Movement in the United States manifests primarily as an espionage and counterintelligence threat, not merely as a “terrorist” threat.”

At all levels materials such as videos, blogs and ‘news’ items are cross referenced and incorporated by groups, channels and individuals with a burning commitment to protect Britain, Austria, Australia, Holland, Germany, France, Poland, Hungary, Italy and other countries. These materials warn of the near term threat of collapse in the face of Sharia law being imposed by liberal politicians; freedom of speech being taken away from those who speak the truth about pedophile gangs; Muslim no-go areas or enclaves; and the horrible truth that Muslims have more babies than non-Muslims in every county in Europe as well as the US.

 

Methods

We examined a range of empirical evidence from US official records and reports, independent public organisations, and academic sources, to lay the contextual groundwork for our research.

For the purposes of this study we examined the digital presence of a small group (21) of highly visible US based organisations that focus solely upon the Muslim community. We examined the content of their Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what concerned the Muslim users of these sites and those who seek to add their comments from another perspective. We took a sample of the Twitter feeds over a short period of time to look at the ways in which people talk about Islam and Muslims on the platform. In particular we examined the key hashtags associated with Islamophobia and looked at the ways in which people who use such hashtags described themselves.

We researched the content shared by these accounts and their followers, as well as prominent Islamophobic material shared online. Much of this was new but some is now being repurposed in order to undermine Islamic US politicians and to remind US citizens of the supposed threat posed by any and all Muslims in the US.

We conducted content analysis of the posts and comments left on the Facebook, Twitter and Youtube platforms during the period of the study. Twitter data was collected over a three-week period using the Twitter streaming API to collect tweets using the 8 most common hashtags encountered in a preliminary study of tweets mentioning Islam, Muslim and Muslims. These hashtags were: #muslim, #politicalislam, #afterseptember11, #muslimwomen, #shariakills, #Islamophobia, #cairishamas, #muslimbecause

In total we found 16,607 tweets using this hashtag over the study period from 16248 users.

Facebook data was acquired through the Netvizz app. We collected data on all posts from 1st January 2017 until 25th September 2018. We found a total of 8427 posts and 22499 comments. The vast majority of user IDs were hidden so we can’t be clear on how many individuals we found commenting on Facebook posts.

We attempted to interview Muslim respondents who are active in Muslim organisations, to discuss the extent to which digital harassment affects the way such organisations operate and the extent to which religion or racial harassment online affects them as individuals. The interviews questions were around their perceptions of online communities, the use of social media and other digital networks for their own communications, and their experiences of digital harassment targeting their identities. Unfortunately due to the very real difficulty of making contact and building trust within the community we were only able to interview two individuals in the time available. We find such lack of success in engagement via traditional social media and email connections notable in itself, perhaps demonstrating differences in experience and expectations of the digital world. It should be noted however that the researchers are not embedded in American Islamic culture and were attempting to form these relationships cold.

 

Empirical Evidence

The evidence of harassment experienced by Muslim citizens comes from four major sources that we have identified: Federal records of hate crimes; public sampling work carried out by independent polling organisation the Pew Research Centre (Anderson and Smith, 2018; Matsa and Shearer, 2018); academic research to collect and analyse evidence of reported incidents across the US from large number of jurisdictions (Betus, Kearns and Lemieux, 2018); and the Centre for the Study of hate and extremism at California State University (Levin and Reitzel, 2018). Other sources include work done on behalf of national Muslim organisations: Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) quarterly report on incidents of anti-Muslim bias (Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2018); and the Institute for Social policy and Understanding (ISPU) annual American Muslim Poll (Buageila, Chouhoud and Mogahed, 2018).

We can demonstrate empirically that American Muslims, their institutions, actions and images are deployed and appropriated to enhance these efforts: ordinary Muslims, Muslim organisations and activists, especially political activists, regularly have their digital traces appropriated and deployed against them. Other material is produced and reproduced by a variety of actors often crafted using disinformation, doxing and projecting guilt by association. But the negative portrayal of Muslims in US society is not limited to the internet or groups with what might be characterised as extreme views. Criminal behaviour by Muslims attracts 350% more attention from conventional media than that of non-Muslims for example (Kearns, Betus, and Lemieux, 2017).

According to the ISPU poll conducted in 2018, 61% of Muslim participants reported experiencing religious-based discrimination. This stands in contrast to the levels reported by other religious groups; 48% of Jews, 21% of Protestants, and 19% of Catholics reporting discrimination based on faith affiliation (Mogahed and Chouhoud, 2018).

An empirical study undertaken in Europe suggests that here the algorithm used by Facebook can actively steer viewers to fringe and conspiracy videos on extreme right wing themes, not because of any political agenda on behalf of the service provider, but rather because of the viewing habits of their users (NYTimes, 2018). Recent academic work undertaken to explore the relationship between levels of Facebook activity amongst right wing activists and acts of interpersonal violence targeting minorities in Germany provides hard empirical evidence for the view that violence spills out onto the streets from such sources Karsten and Schwarz (2018). Constant exposure to and a proclivity to take part in discussions diminishing and demeaning other people because of their faith and colour while calling for ‘action’, is dangerous insofar as some actors can and will express their feelings in the real world by using violence.

 

Case Studies

 

Comments on Muslim Organisation Facebook Pages and Twitter

Most Popular Hashtags found on Twitter:

Description Hashtags     Tweet Text Hashtags  
#maga 838   #muslim 5874
# 253   #tripletalaq 2350
#2a 222   #hindu 2198
#kag 214   #muslimwomen 1349
#nra 141   #islam 746
#trump2020 112   #california 600
#buildthewall 104   #media 502
#1a 99   #mainstream 460
#trump 95   #zionism 447
#wwg1wga 84   #arabs-not 441
#conservative 83   #jews-not 441
#patriot 81   #judaism-not 441
#qanon 77   # 371
#prolife 74   #texas 355
#draintheswamp 72   #china 336
#walkaway 64   #chri 289
#americafirst 64   #christian 255
#trumptrain 64   #uyghur 231
#christian 60   #chinese 214
#islam 46   #islamophobia 205
#freepalestine 43   #hijab 180
#kag2020 42   #ethiopia 177
#muslim 36   #auspol 166
#vets 36   #mesqel 158

 

US Citizens acquire a significant amount of ‘news’ from Social Media and platforms such as YouTube. They are sceptical about what they are shown but increasingly these are the most significant sources of information in terms of the amount of time spent reviewing materials by US citizens (Pew, 2018). In our study we identified and sought to examine the origin, frequency and content of multiple hashtags we collected from the Facebook postings and comments of the Muslim focused organisations in our list.

 

Our findings, in summary, were as follows:

  • Mainstream Muslim cultural and advocacy organisations differ from their rightwing counterparts to the extent that they or their members commonly deploy a different subset of hashtags reflecting a very different universe of concerns.
  • Right wing organisations are concerned with ISIS, Islamism, Jihad, terror incidents, female genital mutilation and Shariah law.
  • There is a surprisingly small number of mentions in mainstream Muslim Facebook content and mentions of these hashtags, in many cases the feed from Muslim organisations provided no mentions of these issues.
  • Mainstream Muslim organisations have a range of concerns which provoke a high number of mentions and associated hashtags, the most important topics concern religious observation: Ramadan and stories at sunset are the most frequently used hashtags.
  • Following these are a series of still high frequency hashtags. #muslimban is by far the most numerous hashtag after religious observances.

We examined the reach and content of the responses garnered by material we identified as arising from the established anti-Muslim sources. The use of the hashtags examined on Twitter portrays a polarised set of two communities who do not appear to communicate with each other

We wrote a programme to examine coincident hashtags in both the tweets themselves and the descriptions the accounts offered for themselves. Not only is there a clear community of Islamophobic Twitter users but they have a comprehensive catalogue of markers they employ to mark membership of their community.

 

Up to Top 25 Co-incident Hashtags on Twitter used with Seed Hashtags:

 

#afterseptember11 115 #muslim 5874 #muslimwomen 1349 #shariakills 59 #islamophobia 68
#taliban 8 #islam 611 #muslim 57 # 18 # 10
#usa 8 #california 599 #hijab 55 #maga 16 #bbcqt 7
#west 7 #media 494 #jilbab 52 #islam 6 #marr 4
#911wtc 3 #mainstream 460 #tudung 52 #luton 4 #windrush 4
#neverforget 2 #zionism 445 #kerudung 52 #freetommy 4 #racism 3
#remember911 2 #arabs-not 441 #cantik 52 #sharia 4 #tories 1
#maga 2 #jews-not 441 #selfie 52 #never 2 #thebodyguard 1
#timetounite 2 #judaism-not 441 #manis 52 #buildthewall 2 #disappointed 1
#coexist 2 #texas 353 #comel 52 #americafirst 1 #finale 1
#repar 2 #chri 289 #cute 52 #sisi 1 #silly 1
#islamophobia 2 # 170 #beautiful 51 #islamisthethreat 1 #institutionalracism 1
#musl 2 #hijab 168 #islamicart 51 #texas 1 #recordhomlessness 1
#september11th 1 #auspol 165 #muslims 22 #byebyekeith 1 #ukip 1
#alqaeda 1 #christian 160 #muslimah 19 #stepdownkeit 1 #right-wingers 1
#guantánamo 1 #mumbai 149 #rinkeby 18     #best 1
    #religionofpeace 148 #sweden 18     #apology 1
    #hindu 140 #oppression 14     #breaking 1
    #britain 140 #islam 14     #christineblaseyford 1
    #ied 121 #islamicstate 13     #islamization 1
    #firingsquad 121 #thursdaythoughts 13     #refugees 1
    #bansharia 121 #politicslive 12     #xenophobia 1
    #nomassmigration 121 #womenempowerment 9     #rac 1
    #nochain 121 #melayuhijab 7        
    #sikh 116 #malaysia 5        

 

 

Most Popular Co-Incident Domains used in Twitter Profiles:

 

#maga 838 #kag 214 #patriot 81 #muslim 36 #quran 2
#kag 184 #maga 182 #maga 63 #sunnah 5 #hadith 2
#2a 170 #2a 55 #conservative 29 #islam 5 #deen 2
#nra 108 #nra 43 #nra 25 #students 5 #allah 2
#trump2020 95 #trump2020 38 #kag 23 #youths 5 #muslim 2
#buildthewall 91 #buildthewall 27 #2a 21 #sufism 5 #repent 2
#trump 79 #trump 27 #buildthewall 19 #quran 5 #islam 2
#1a 77 #1a 26 #trump 16 #peace 4 #peace 2
#draintheswamp 66 #wwg1wga 26 # 14 #radicalism 4 #sunnah 2
#conservative 63 #americafirst 23 #christian 13 #hadith 3 #theprophetmuhammad 2
#patriot 63 #patriot 22 #1a 12 # 3 #invitetoislam 2
#qanon 62 #prolife 21 #trump2020 11 #gay 2    
#wwg1wga 61 #conservative 20 #kag2020 8 #pakistan 2    
#americafirst 53 #draintheswamp 20 #trumptrain 8 #islamic 2    
#trumptrain 51 #qanon 19 #qanon 8 #humanitarian 2    
#prolife 47 #christian 18 #draintheswamp 8 #pakistani 2    
#walkaway 46 #walkaway 18 #vets 7 #deen 2    
#christian 44 #trumptrain 15 #veteran 6 #allah 2    
# 39 #backtheblue 14 #prolife 6 #repent 2    
#kag2020 35 # 12 #potus 6 #theprophetmuhammad 2    
#deplorable 28 #military 11 #wwg1wga 6 #invitetoislam 2    
#vets 28 #vets 11 #constitution 5 #bearded 1    
#backtheblue 25 #deplorable 8 #military 5 #pukhtoon 1    
#constitution 22 #israel 7 #usa 5 #salah 1    
#ccot 22 #ccot 7 #walkaway 5 #pray 1    

 

The same is not true of the non-Islamophobic accounts we found. Political and campaigning hashtags from non-Islamophobic accounts also focus on discussions about their beliefs and responses to significant events (e.g. #webelieve, #muslimwomen, #internationalwomensday). This is in contrast to the proclamations of the Islamophobic community that there is a significant political effort from the Muslim community to, for example, spread Sharia law. There is evidence of concern for women’s issues and political developments but not a focus on International or domestic terrorism.

 

Top 20 Hashtags used in Comments on Muslim Facebook Pages:
Hashtag No. Comments tag appears in
#ramadan 555
#storiesatsunset 236
#webelieve 216
#isna54 196
#muslimban 193
#internationalwomensday 185
#sharingislam 106
#servinghumanity 106
#rohingya 104
#justiceforall 95
#freepalestine 95
#la 86
#justice4nabra 85
#whyislam 75
#islam 74
#allah 74
#america 73
#muhammad 72
#prophet 72

 

Top 20 Hashtags used in Comments on Muslim Facebook Pages:
Hashtag No. Comments tag appears in
#ramadan 555
#storiesatsunset 236
#webelieve 216
#isna54 196
#muslimban 193
#internationalwomensday 185
#sharingislam 106
#servinghumanity 106
#rohingya 104
#justiceforall 95
#freepalestine 95
#la 86
#justice4nabra 85
#whyislam 75
#islam 74
#allah 74
#america 73
#muhammad 72
#prophet 72

 

 

We looked at the hashtag #afterseptember11, which in the preliminary study period (including that date) became popular amongst Muslim users. It was initially being used by Muslim-Americans to discuss their experiences of being in the US in the wake of the terrorist attack on New York in 2001. By the time we started collecting data, its use had fallen and it had notably been overtaken by activists upset that the hashtag was not paying enough respect to the victims of the event.

Finally, we extracted the domains being shared over Facebook, either in posts or comments, in the 21 groups we identified (too few were shared over Twitter using our chosen hashtags to contribute a dataset). As can be seen in the final table, a few of the organisations studied are included in the list and the rest are fairly normal non-junk news identified content producers. None of the links are to the Islamophobic or abusive content we have found elsewhere.

 

25 Most Popular Non-Facebook Domains shared on Facebook:

 

Domain Count
ciogc.org 227
bit.ly 117
eepurl.com 91
youtu.be 89
youtube.com 83
soundcloud.com 71
mailchi.mp 52
huffingtonpost.com 49
freep.com 46
buzzfeed.com 42
isna.net 42
washingtonpost.com 39
cnn.com 37
ow.ly 36
nytimes.com 32
eventbrite.com 30
t.co 30
americanmusliminstitution.org 28
detroitnews.com 26
imancentral.org 26
icna.org 25
launchgood.com 23
independent.co.uk 23
theguardian.com 22
mpac.org 22

 

 

We must allow for the possibility that abusive and otherwise unwelcome content from Facebook users to these pages are moderated and removed – this would not turn up in the dataset. We attempted to look for “holes” in the timestamps of comments left to see if there were any times where there seemed to be fewer comments left than expected – a possible indication of deleted comments. However this method didn’t turn up any obvious data.

 

Islamic Public Organisations

We used Google to find twenty of the most frequently searched-for Muslim focused websites and examined these in a number of ways. Each of these were contacted by email in order to gain an interview and none responded.

We looked at each organisation and its Facebook and Twitter accounts. Two of these were funded and constituted as an explicit antidote or alternative to the other mainstream public Muslim organisations we had found. They were connected by funding, cross membership and explicit intent, to the movement to identify and nullify the threat to US public life they believe exists in many if not all Muslims, their beliefs, practices and long term goals.

Following on from this and not unconnected was the discovery the Google search algorithm placed the most significant public Muslim organisations alongside the organisations created and funded to monitor and/or stop their activities. Anyone who Googles Muslim Public Affairs Council, for example, will see just below their website, Twitter and Facebook location, the link for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC): Public Investigative Project, an organisation dedicated to exposing and preventing the activities of the MPAC and other such significant Muslim organisations. Below that there is Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC): Clarion Project, an organisation dedicated to challenging radical Islam. This is repeated with the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose entry on Google is closely accompanied by three websites for organisations that identify it, its members and their activities as a danger to the safety and security of the US. The Clarion Project is concerned with the danger presented by the social media platforms: they declare “It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is a soft playground for Islamists.” They make clear their views on the relationship between such platforms and what they characterise as Islamist organisations; “The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the largest philanthropic arm in the United States, routinely gives sizeable donations to Islamist organisations like CAIR and Islamic Relief” (Clarion, 2018). Similarly the Clarion Project lists most of the public Muslim organisations we identified for the purposes of this study, presenting an interactive website which allows the user to locate them either by state or using a map of the United States beneath the following explanation: “The purpose of this section is to document activity and connections that can be reasonably described as extremist, anti-democratic, subversive, hateful and/or supportive of terrorists.”

Each of the organisations dedicated to addressing the Muslim ‘threat’ were present online using all of the common platforms e.g. Twitter, Youtube and Facebook. Interestingly we note that while the Google search listings for prominent Muslim organisations are definitely populated by these organisations, none of them seem to be buying Google ad-space in order to gain that prominent space on the search page.

US Muslim organisations with a public face, especially those with a national advocacy role such as CAIR, are very much in the spotlight when it comes to a new continuous thread of materials; blog posts, articles, videos, tweets, Facebook entries all directed towards the creation and maintenance of the narrative that they are an enemy of the US, misogynistic, anti-semitic and an active supporter of terrorists and terror organisations. Most significantly for this report is the effort that is expended by those seeking to counter the Islamic threat to ‘expose’ any mainstream politicians seen in the company of, or worse still being supported by, organisations such as CAIR. In the period leading up to the mid-term elections, any interaction between someone seeking public office and CAIR is being rapidly called out as an act of treason and support for terrorism.

As this kind of allegation is being produced on behalf of politicians running against Muslim candidates across the US, this is now perhaps a ‘normal’ form of anti-Muslim harassment. Both the politicians who welcome and support the prosocial behaviour of Muslim public organisation and the organisations themselves are subject to almost ceaseless insinuation and condemnation. Racist and Islamophobic Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even robocalls (Guardian, 2018) are being deployed to undermine civil participation by US Muslims.

The task of ‘policing’ the activities of Muslim organisations that hold conferences, public events or meetings falls to smaller and less well funded organisations than the Clarion Project or the Public Investigative Project. A number of different groups have taken up this practice, demonstrating and making use of their right to bear arms in public while registering their dislike of Muslims praying and holding public meetings. The unarmed men and woman entering and exiting these events might reasonably feel themselves to be the subject of harassment, especially if they were aware of the feelings expressed by the members of groups such as the Texas Patriot Network or The Soldiers of Odin on their respective websites and/or Facebook groups. The 55th annual Islamic Society of North America convention in Houston was the target of a plan by members of Texas Patriot Network, an Islamophobic and armed group, to surround the convention centre apparently seeking the opportunity to assault people (Daily Beast, 2018). A group of male and female members of the Texas Patriot network armed with semiautomatic weapons spent the day monitoring proceedings. Audio recordings of their communications coordinating actions outside the conference centre apparently indicate that they intended physical harm to someone. As a result of these recordings a request has made to the FBI to investigate the threat of violence on the day.

 

Video Sharing

There are several websites that record all of the towns and cities in the US with a large Muslim population, often negatively characterised as Muslim ‘enclaves’. Such enclaves are an important part of the anti-Muslim narrative both in the US and Europe. We traced the impact of this list by searching for the locations and finding video(s) that have been made to portray the ‘problem’. Dearborn and Hammtrack in Michigan have been the subject of considerable broadcast media and mainstream print media attention and also from those on the political right who seek to demonstrate the nature of an unfolding crisis.

The video SHARIA LAW IN Dearborn Michigan for example, on Youtube (Colón 2017), attracted 13,469 Comments, 11,000 of which endorse the overwhelmingly anti-Muslim sentiment of the video. The most popular comment with 879 positive responses is: “bulldoze every fkn. mosque in america now”. Nobody disagreed via the comments. Amongst those that agree (no-one disagreed via the comments):

“I keep saying it, it’s time to rise my people. We can’t keep doing nothing, burn down their stores beat their men, and tell their woman to carry their ass back to the desert.”

“People of Dearborn, protect yourselves. Start handing out your own death sentences!.”

“Thrust a broken bottle into there necks and watch there Islam life drain.”

“If everybody would stop trying to step on President’s Toes, and let him do his job you’ll get these people out of our country”

“What happened in that city constitutes high treason of local government aiding hostile foreign takeover… According to constitution US citizens have right to use firearms there to fix the problem…Hopefully people get informed and lynchmob forms.”

 

People

We interviewed two American Muslims who identified themselves as politically engaged but with different perspectives on what that means. They were both in their late twenties or early thirties and had direct knowledge of Muslim oriented political activities and were users of social media in their private lives. We were interested in the extent to which they felt that harassment on the basis of their religion was part of online experience of political conversation, either connected to political activity or not. We further explored their perception of the impact of political harassment on their friends and co-workers, either as part of their political activities or in their private lives.

Our respondents made it clear that they had not personally been exposed to any online harassment and nor had they been exposed to any as a result of using social media. Although both use social media, one reported a decline in activity or recent withdrawal due to the nature the conversations they encounter – but not with racists or Islamophobes. Our respondents indicated that they follow individuals and organisations and include in their newsfeeds sources of information and commentary that are sympathetic to their views and values. They were aware and indeed volunteered that this probably means that they are not seeing a lot of material that might exist. One elaborated that this probably contributed to the shock they experienced when Hillary Clinton was defeated, because their online social circle presented a more positive picture of the situation. Nevertheless the same respondent indicated that the material she was being exposed to during the period immediately prior to our interview made her feel “positive about the experience of politics in the run up to the mid-terms because of the candidates and positions we can see”.

It is important to note that although concerned with activism and human rights issues our respondents do not emphasise their religion when talking to most people they encounter online. In fact we gathered that unless and until religious issues are the topic of conversation they do not introduce the issue themselves. In one case we were told that whereas her religion was not a source harassment online, she had been subject to harassment both in her native Iran and in the US. Our respondent made us aware that for her and her female friends gender-based harassment is both more common and more distressing as a feature of online communications.

In the views expressed to us by Muslims who seek to advance an agenda for the evolution of Islamic practices driven by a concern for human rights, they claim and provided some evidence that it is inherently more difficult within the US than it is abroad. Given a domestic political scene dominated by extreme positions, the space for peaceful change and the evolution of the lived experience of Islam amongst the faithful is hard to create. It is challenging for those who seek to clear the way for a conversation about, for example, the need to change attitudes and practices around the status of FGM (female genital mutilation) within the Muslim faith in the US. The practice of FGM is not common to all US communities of Muslims, nor indeed in Muslim communities around the globe. However it is a source of clinical harm, with particular consequences for the women affected when it comes to childbirth, as reported to us by a medical practitioner who works with a small community particularly impacted by the practice. There are Imams who see the observance of FGM as important and Imams who work with communities to help them understand that it is not a requirement for following Islam at all.

 

Conclusions

Perhaps the first thing we need to say is that that our respondents made it clear that acts of harassment are not a feature of their experiences online. Rather they cultivate and are supported in their choices, by for example the Facebook algorithm, to identify and pay attention to news sources and friends who reflect their values and aspirations. So, despite the evidence of a large quantity of online material that aggressively seeks to demean their values, patriotism and indeed in many cases their right to be in the US at all, such material does not form a backdrop to their lives, let alone figure in their experience of looking for conversations or news of a political kind using social media. Our respondents were well aware that their experience may well differ from that of other US Muslims who do not live in a metropolitan area, are not similarly well educated and with professional occupations. Finally two of our respondents made it clear that for whatever reason they do not post about their religious opinions and nor do they discuss them, let alone attack any one else for their religious views.

It is also clear from the materials we collected and reviewed in preparing this paper that the US Muslim community online, via social media including Youtube, does not call for violence against all Christians, changing the laws of the US to conform to the needs of Sharia, or indeed many of the things that activists concerned with the Muslim threat articulate. There may be US-based Muslims that wish for and indeed act to support such aims, but they are not to be found by looking at social media.

By contrast a large and sophisticated ecosystem exists to produce and disseminate a host of lies and half-truths which seek to paint a picture of Muslims in the US and around the world as a life threatening global conspiracy which requires constant (armed) vigilance to prevent the fall of the US. This material creates a background against which any political activity by or on the behalf of Muslims in the US must play out, and it has significant consequences.

There is little doubt that the most pressing problem with the creation of a media ecology dedicated to the creation and maintenance of a narrative that presents Muslims in the US as a source of physical threat and an enduring source of systemic damage to the constitution and American way of life, driven by the power of social media platforms, is itself a danger to life. The presence of heavily armed citizen members of groups who surveil and attend gatherings of Muslims in places of worship and conference locations, with a view to intimidating or worse, puts Muslims and their supporters in danger.

More common and more significant is the situation where membership of Facebook groups, Youtube channels, and websites provides constant exposure to the materials produced to ‘monitor’ the continuing threat of violence and sedition from Muslim communities. The commentaries associated with the videos and articles distributed by professional channels and amateurs alike reveal that many citizens are prepared to say things and countenance or actively call for acts which will cause physical harm to innocent people. This plays out in the schools and streets of the US.

Another and more subtle cost of this polarisation is the manner in which it plays out with regard to conventional politics. Setting aside the far right or non-traditional media and its concerns, the Democratic and Republican parties both have to respond to this degree of polarisation in the ways in which they engage with the Muslim communities in the US. Here we must limit ourselves to the evidence and simply report that our respondents made it clear that they believe that politicians (as well activists and activist organisations) frequently fail to address the nuances of the situation with regard to the Muslim presence in the US.

More particularly and for the future, of greater concern is the lack of a space for Muslims to have conversations amongst themselves about their religion, to address issues such as the position of women. Such conversations require time and space and a commitment to evaluate ideas expressed with a degree of nuance entirely absent in the US. Similarly, the growing awareness of and support for a human rights driven development model across the globe finds little sympathy in US domestic political discourse. In some ways the evolution of a ‘modern’ lived Muslim experience is held back in the US by the need for all parties to address and work within the ‘reality’ of a deeply polarised polity and an inherently hostile if not dangerous atmosphere for Muslims.

 

 

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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/world/europe/youtube-far-right-extremism.html

SHARIA LAW IN Dearborn Michigan (Youtube) (1,231,293 views)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8sWK2fp3DM

 

 

[1] Indigenous First Nations peoples’ beliefs have often been legally disregarded, along with so many of their rights that are too numerous to list here, but they are not a religious group and as such beyond the remit of this paper.