A computer simulation suggests that one-sided media reports are making us all unconsciously Islamophobic
A recent experiment, soon to be published in the journal of experimental social psychology, offers provocative evidence that Islamophobia operates in the dark recesses of our unconscious. In the experiment, participants played a computer simulation and were asked to shoot individuals carrying weapons and to spare those unarmed. Participants were more likely to shoot unarmed individuals who were wearing turbans or hijabs. More interestingly, they were unaware and incredulous that they were doing so. The author of the experiment, Christian Unkelbach, a visiting scholar at Australia's University of New South Wales, has called this "the turban effect" and blames one-sided media reports.
Unkelbach's experiment is timely. As was reported in the Independent, Shahid Malik MP, a minister in the Department for International Development, believes Muslims in the UK increasingly feel hostility from members of the British community and misrepresentation by the media. Indeed, if Unkelbach's conclusions are correct, it raises a number of questions about the responsibility of the media in perpetuating Islamophobia in western countries.
Unkelbach's experiment also presents the occasion for deeper reflection. While Shahid Malik points to blatant and conscious discrimination, the "turban effect" is more insidious, because it highlights the danger of unconscious prejudices. Unkelbach blames the media post 9/11, although perhaps we should look further back. Edward Said's famous argument in his book Orientalism is that western society has a long history of categorising Muslims and Asians as "the other" – as different, dangerous and violent. Thus, the wearing of a turban or a hijab marks the wearer with a sense of otherness, of being inscrutable and thus deemed threatening.
But before we sharpen our knives and turn on the media, it is quite possible that the "turban effect" does not reveal a deep-seated (and recently revived) prejudice, but rather our instinctual disposition towards inductive reasoning – that is, making predictions about the future on the basis of past experience. The fact remains that the attacks of 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid were committed by individuals in the name of Islam (albeit a perverted interpretation). Is it not then somewhat rational to take greater notice – even if unconsciously, as much of our instinctual reasoning takes place behind the scenes – of visual representations of Islam in the context of assessing threats, simply because the last notable large-scale incidences of violent attacks were committed by self-proclaimed Muslims?
The only problem, of course, is that none of these men were wearing turbans during their respective attacks, or in their portrayal in the media. Not only that, even though inductive reasoning forms the basis of our everyday reasoning, it is often fallacious, and in the current context it could prove particularly pernicious, if it leads to such simple and unthinking connections.
Ultimately, whatever Unkelbach's experiment may reveal about our prejudices or the structure of human rationality, it at least brings our unconscious prejudices and implicit assumptions to our attention. Only then might we begin to understand them and move beyond them. [Link]
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