Iowa State links media with anti-Muslim ideas

University of Iowa student: 'I'm an American, but it's a bit scary'

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Media outlets across the nation and world daily report on conflicts in the Middle East, violence perpetrated by Islamic terrorist groups, and the spread of anti-Muslim ideology — specifically among U.S. presidential candidates.

And one recent Iowa State University study confirmed the correlation between such negative reports and the rise in support for military actions and restrictions against Muslims.

ISU psychology professor Craig Anderson, among the researchers involved in the study published in the journal “Communication Research,” said that finding isn’t necessarily surprising. But, he said, the degree to which negative news has influenced anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment is.

“I’m surprised by the extremity of the prejudicial statements they’ve been able to make,” Anderson said. “And I’ve been further surprised by the number of people who are not totally turned off by that. It’s shocking.”

But according to the ISU research, the more people see, hear and read negative news related to Muslims, the more willing they are to accept extreme speech and ideas — such as those being proposed by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

During his bid for the White House, Trump has said the United States should ban all Muslim travel into the country and require all Muslims to register in a database.

The more those comments circulated, the more traction those ideas seemed to get among some groups — even though Anderson said they’re unconstitutional and show “a lack of appreciation for the basic values that this country was founded on.”

‘The opposite direction’

Still, Anderson said, the news-public perception link appears to go both ways, as the ISU research found that positive media reports about Muslims increased positive sentiment.

Take, for example, President Barack Obama’s first visit to a Mosque this past Wednesday, during which he condemned the “inexcusable political rhetoric” against Muslims. Or a news story shown to the study’s participants that featured Muslims volunteering during Christmas.

“The people who saw the positive Muslim-American video and news story — their response went in the opposite direction,” Anderson said. “They showed less of a belief that Muslims are aggressive. Less support for military action, and less support for restricting Muslim-American civil rights.”

Anderson and his colleagues said those findings show it’s possible to affect the conversation.

“Muslim American groups could be more proactive with outreach programs to educate everyone about their beliefs and positive contributions to U.S. society,” he said. “If news media provide more reports of such activities, we might be able to create a more accurate and accepting view of people of all religions.”

University of Iowa junior Arham Pasha said the UI Muslim Student Association is taking steps to do just that — with plans to host an open forum on campus in April and give community members the chance to ask any and all questions.

“With the way the campaign is shaping out to be, this could be the most important year that this happens,” said Pasha, vice president of the student group. “I fear that we have come to the top of a mountain, and we can either fly off in the right direction or go back down and chip away at what we’ve built in American for so many years.”

Pasha said the public forum will occur during the group’s Islam Awareness Week from April 4-8, and it will focus on the theme of “Muslims Within America.”

“We are here like everybody else to support the country,” he said. “We are American citizens.”

Pasha was born and raised in the United States and long has held aspirations to get into politics. But lately, he said, those hopes seem increasingly far-fetched.

“It’s scary to me to think, ‘Will I be accepted to go into politics now?’” he said. “I’m an American, but it’s a bit scary.”

Pasha said he wants to contribute to his community by volunteering and pursuing an education in health care. But over lunch Friday, he and his friends lamented about how much safer they felt here more than a decade ago.

“There’s all this negativity, and it’s scary,” he said. “No one knew there was so much pent up anxiety toward Muslims.”

‘I just want to give back’

Pasha and his peers question whether anti-Muslim feelings long have existed in the United States or whether local and international events and news have incited them.

“I think there might have been kind of little feelings and little notions that might have been there, and those emotions were switched on by the media and the political news,” he said. “Maybe if those notions could have been addressed in the past, we never would have gotten to this point.”

That is why his group hopes to provide education and counter the misinformation that he said some presidential candidates are spreading.

“It hurts me as an American to think, ‘I’m an American, I love being here, this is my country, and so many people don’t want me here,’” he said. “I just want to give back to the country that made me into the person I am today.”

Raluca Cozma, an ISU associate professor of journalism, said the recent research not only emphasizes the role Muslims can play in combating negative stereotypes, but the obligation journalists have to inform, not inflame.

“Journalists should be careful and selective with their sources, stories and choice of words,” she said. “They should avoid or at least challenge advocates and biased politicians with an agenda.”

Cozma said Trump’s second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses shows his strategy of capitalizing on “emotions and safety-related fears following the coverage of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks” didn’t work as well as polls predicted.

But ISU’s Anderson said he’s concerned about where the rhetoric could go with Middle East conflicts continuing and terrorism a new reality.

“I’m pretty scared about this election because of the support that some of these candidates have gotten in spite — or because — of the extreme statements they’ve made,” he said.

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