On January 7th 2015, the world looked on in horror as news of the Charlie Hebdo shootings broke. The story of two brothers, identifying as members of the militant Islamist group Al-Qaeda, who forced their way into the satirical magazine’s Paris offices and killed 11 people is one that is now sadly well-known to people across the globe. A story that might be less well known, however, is that of the ramifications that the brothers actions had for members of the very faith that they were claiming to represent.

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Across France, in the days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, a wave of seemingly vengeful attacks on Muslims and Muslim places of worship were reported to the police. Training grenades were flung into a mosque courtyard in the city of Le Mans. A kebab shop, adjacent to a mosque, was decimated by an explosion in the town of Villefranche-sur-Saône. In the Vaucluse region of south-east France, a family was forced to hide in their car after being sprayed with bullets as they drove. In Poitiers, a mosque was left daubed with graffiti, the words ‘Death to Arabs’ smeared across its gate.

These are just a few in a wealth of examples. According to Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a total of 54 anti-Islamic hate crimes were reported to the French Police in the week following January 7th 2015. Of these incidents, Twenty-one involved shootings or grenade attacks and the remaining Thirty-three incidents were listed as verbal attacks, which entail threats, insults or the use of racist epithets.

A similar story was found in 2013, in the wake of the ‘Woolwich murder’. Anti-Islamic hate organisation ‘Tell Mama’ reported over two hundred hate crimes against members of the Muslim community in the following weeks. Six of these crimes involved objects being thrown, while eleven cases involved attempts to forcefully remove the hijab or other items of Islamic dress from members of the public. In 2005, following the 7/7 tube bombings in London, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) reported a 500% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes compared with 2004. Nine mosques were firebombed during the fortnight following 7/7, as well as a number of physical assaults, including one woman being punched on a train for wearing a hijab. Even back in 2001, after the World Trade Centre attacks on September 11th, there were over seven hundred reported crimes against Arab and/or Muslim Americans and nearly thirty cases of Muslims being denied places on airline flights. The FBI reported a 1,600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2000 to 2001, going from the second least report crime pre 9/11 to the second highest post 9/11.”

Unfortunately, while these statistics and stories are deplorable, they are sadly unsurprising. In recent years, ‘revenge’ attacks against innocent members of the Muslim community have become somewhat commonplace as the dust settles after Islamist terrorist attacks. These reoccurring statistics point to a persistent problem for both the Police and the Muslim community. From ISIS to the Sydney siege, the Boston bombings to the Copenhagen shootings, the threat of violence to modern-day Western society seems omnipresent.  We are bombarded daily with an onslaught of news about the ever mounting threat that Islamist terrorist groups pose to us, and with this comes the ever mounting threat of backlash towards innocent Muslims. But where does this desire for backlash come from? Well, science, and in particular, social psychology, may hold the answer.

Explanations from Social Psychology

As a discipline, Social Psychology has flourished in the last few decades, with a rise in the amount of research dedicated to looking at the nature of topics such as intergroup conflict, racism and prejudice. From Henry Tafjel to Gordon Allport, many renowned and respected psychologists have built their careers around the study of prejudice, discrimination and developing methods we might use to reduce their prevalence. Out of these careers have emerged streams of research which could help us, at least in some way, in our effort to explain these retributive attacks against the Muslim community and why they occur.

Integrated Threat Theory, first introduced by Walter G Stephan, can shed some light. The first principle of the theory is the perception of threat from one group to another. These threats may take a realistic or symbolic form. Realistic threats can be the physical threat of danger or competition of resources such as land. Realistic threats are tangible and pose a risk to an individual’s physical well-being. The risk of copy-cat attacks can be seen as one source of a realistic threat. In the example of the 7/7 tube bombings, there was a fear that the apparent ease with which the public transport system was attacked could inspire further copy-cat attacks. Realistic threats can also appear in the form of unapprehended criminals, who pose further danger to the citizens. In the hours after Charlie Hebdo, for example, the gunmen were still at large and there was a real danger posed to citizens of Paris and the surrounding suburbs.

Symbolic threats come from a perceived difference in attitudes, beliefs and world views. They are intangible and their effects can be far more pervasive, often spreading to parts where a sense of physical danger is not as immediate. The majority of Islamist terrorist attacks are seen as attacks on Western policy, culture or freedom. For example, the Woolwich murder was ostensibly a protest against British involvement in the Middle East and Charlie Hebdo, a protest against our right to freedom of speech. These attacks seem to threaten our way of life, explaining why retributive hate crimes can be widespread and far from the initial attack site.

Integrated threat also cites negative stereotyping as a major cause of prejudiced behaviour and discrimination. According to the theory, negative stereotypes lead certain majority group members to feel anxious around members of minority groups, which in Western countries will often be Muslim communities. In the examples given, it’s likely that the perpetrators were already showing signs of either conscious or unconscious racism towards Muslims. Integrated Threat suggests that these violent attacks were not momentary bouts of anger from otherwise egalitarian citizens. Often the perpetrators of these attacks have been harbouring negative feelings about Muslims for months or years. In a way, the terrorist attacks act like the removal of a lid off a shaken fizzy drink: they allow the bottled up hatred to spill out in the form of violence.  It’s the combination of these pent up, pre-established negative stereotypes and the perception of immediate physical and symbolic threat that Integrated Threat Theory suggests leads to the occurrence of vengeful violence.

A second psychological perspective we can use draws on Social Identity Theory. This theory suggests that people define themselves based on which social groups they perceive to be a part of. For example, someone might identify themselves as ‘British’, or ‘American’, or perhaps a more specific group such as their family or a fandom.

There is lots of psychological literature that suggests that following a major terrorist attack, many citizens of the country in question feel their sense of national identity to a heightened level. A study by the University of Ohio State found that in the weeks after 9/11, blood donations saw a record surge, and army enlistments rose dramatically. According to the Social Identity Theory, identifying with an ‘in-group’, such as a nationality, provides grieving citizens the ability to categorize themselves in a time when disarray is rife and order is needed. It affords people the ability to make sense of disorder, to control their perceptions and behaviour towards others, and to gain a sense of stability.

However, the Social Identity Theory also says that in a situation where ones ‘in-group’ has suffered, a heightened sense of this identity can also lead to the belittlement of groups which we categorize as ‘out-group’ or ‘the enemy’. This is thanks to a feeling of anonymity and the need to boost ones self-esteem, which is now defined on a group level. In the case of terrorist attacks such as Charlie Hebdo or the 7/7 bombings, many people’s identities was activated on a national level. In the face of attacks, their most salient identity is as French, British, or American, and they view it as an attack on their country and their culture.

The media and members of governments can also play a part in perpetuating these national identities. Research conducted by the University of Houston found that pro-national themes were prolific in public communication by the Government and Military officials in the days after 9/11. George Bush famously warned that ‘If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists’. Similarly, after the 7/7 bombings, the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair publically declared that ‘when they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated, when they seek to change our country, our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed’. Speeches such as these are patently strategic, crafted to strengthen a countries resolve in a period of extreme shock. They do a lot for morale; belonging to a community in a time of tragedy has been proven beneficial to people’s biological well-being.

The problem of inducing this ‘them vs. us’ narrative, and perpetuating solely national identities, is they can often leave members of the Islamic faith vulnerable. Speeches such as Bush’s and Blair’s are lazy in their identification of the ‘enemy’. They aren’t specific, and the time calls for specificity. As a result of this laziness, Muslims are painted as the antithesis to national identity. Hate-crime perpetrators use the same group-level identification as they are using for themselves to group members of Islam together. Instead of rationally deducing that this attack was caused by a small minority of individuals acting in the name of Islam, they cluster all Muslims into a bracket of culpability, tarring all with the same ‘guilty’ brush.

Research by University of Colorado at Boulder can help us understand this ‘tarring’ phenomenon. According to the research, psychologists found that people are far more likely to view members of a group that they are not part of as more similar to each other than members of their own social group are. This effect is called the “out-group homogeneity effect”. So people are far more likely to view Muslims as homogenous with other members of the Islamic community, than they are members of their own communities.

The researchers blame this phenomenon on the effect of stereotyping. They suggest that you are more likely to ignore information that contradicts your already pre-established stereotypes of a social group. This effect is furthered by a lack of knowledge about the group you are categorising, so the less you know about a group, the more likely you are to think that they are ‘all the same’. Researchers point that this lack of knowledge can also lead to the assignation of a cultural ‘essence’. That is, a sort of intrinsic temperament that they believe makes up the entire culture. In the case of Muslims, this might be violent and extremist.

So as a consequence of this lazy identification, a scapegoat emerges. A kind of fall guy – a community who will suffer for the sins misguidedly committed in their name. Inflamed by rhetoric from the Government and the media, the perpetrators use innocent members of the enemy ‘out-group’ to bolster their self-esteem, secure their uncertainties and rid them of fear. According to the Social Identity Theory, against the imminent threat they feel rising against them, getting vengeance against any Muslim, guilty or not, means that their group is winning.

How can social psychology help?

Evidently, social psychology can offer some interesting perspectives when we try and explain this violence, ones that are often not engaged with by law enforcement and other disciplines. But perhaps this psychological research can serve a more constructive purpose than merely offering explanations. A lot of the theories and research that can explain retaliatory behaviours can consequently offer advice on how we can reduce backlash attacks in the future.

From a social psychological perspective, one of the most important factors in controlling backlash attacks is the initial extension of the social identity. As said before, events as tragic and heinous as terrorist attacks often reverberate around the world. In examples such as 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo, these attacks weren’t just seen as attacks on New York or Paris, but rather attacks on freedom of speech and ‘the West’ as a whole, something which many Western Muslims have a stake in too. It’s therefore important to perpetuate and enhance this idea of an inclusive, global victim who can be of any faith or creed.

Statements such as ‘an isolated attack on freedom’ and an emphasis on multicultural country would be effective in such aims. The media should play down the ‘war’ aspect of the narrative, and could perhaps focus on the helping efforts during the crisis. A flip of the narrative to a more positive outlook on such a negative incident would promote cohesion and harmony, rather than hostility and aggression. It may also be effective to have interviews with group members from the social group that the perpetrators claim to be representing. So, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, it would have been useful to interview other French Muslims.  This would allow the public to differentiate between the terrorists and masses of innocent members who are also appalled by the incident.

It might seem counterintuitive to be highlighting the very faith the alleged attackers are purporting to represent. But psychologically, this is exactly what the situation needs. The benefits of a wider social identity have been shown repeatedly, best demonstrated in a study involving football fans. Psychologist Mark Levine showed that when a specific identity is made more obvious to someone, such as reminding someone that they are a fan of their favourite football team, then they are more likely to help someone who is clearly a supporter of that team, like someone wearing their kit, than someone wearing a shirt from an opposing team or in neutral clothing. Yet, if you simply make the identity of a general football fan salient to someone, then they are more likely to help any football fan, regardless of team, than someone in neutral clothes. By demonstrating the ductility of social identity, Levine showed that help can be offered to a wider scope of people, as long as their identity is widened.

Another step to avoiding a similar aftermath would be the promotion of education. As we know from research into the ‘out-group homogeneity effect’, naivety and lack of knowledge play a critical role in how ready people are to carry out violence after these events. As is typical of many things, people tend to react negatively to things that they don’t understand, and this is heightened in times of panic. Much of the public are still largely in the dark about Islam’s principles and what it stands for. Instead, much of their attention is focussed on the destruction that’s been caused in its name.

In a study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), 60% of participants admitted that they are ‘not knowledgeable’ about Islam. 10% of the survey thought that Muslims believe in a ‘moon God’, and only a third indicated they believed Muslim leaders opposed terrorism. What’s more, almost 40% of the study admitted that they had some level of intolerant feelings towards Muslim citizens, and believed that they should show more care and invest more effort into changing the Muslim image for the American population.

Manfred Bornewasser, a social psychologist who researches xenophobic attitudes, identifies familiarity as a critical source for these xenophobic behaviours. He argues that as people mature, they establish ‘familiar worlds’ to make sense of life through, almost like a lens to interpret the world. As they age and are exposed to more things, these things become more typical for them, and therefore gradually more accepted. He states that the introduction of something foreign and strange can be initially daunting, and when it’s considered a threat, can be met with anger and hostility, so in order for minority groups to be fully accepted, the general public needs to become more familiarised.

But whose responsibility is it to increase this familiarity? Well, the burden can be shared equally between the education system and the media. Children should be taught about the different types of faith from a young age, particularly as Western countries are growing to become more multicultural. Weeks such as ‘Sikh Week’ or ‘Islam Week’, where time is set aside to teach children about the different faiths and what they believe in, would be really beneficial. It’s important to embed this knowledge from an early age, so familiarity is established early on. Installing knowledge from young ages will breed awareness and acceptance for the future.

The media could also consider its portrayal of minority groups. Many television shows feature plots involving terrorism, and for the most part, the terrorist characters are Muslim. Yet there are many different types of terrorism, from many different social groups. Television, although an entertainment medium, is incredibly educational and can be influential in how many form their worldviews and beliefs. Given the media’s influence on society, greater care should be taken to ensure that every ethnicity and religion is shown in a light that is equal and fair. While complete avoidance of Islamic culture would also be detrimental to the cause, there are other groups that could be used. It’s not about wrapping Muslims up in cotton wool, it’s about a fair and equal representation.

A final piece of advice is based on a theory termed ‘The Contact Hypothesis. Devised by psychologist Gordon Allport, it suggests that managed, personal contact between groups can dramatically reduce prejudice and overcome ethnic and community tensions. The belief is that as groups begin to spend time with each other, they will begin to understand each other’s way of life, reducing the anxiety felt on both sides. Recent studies in the Netherlands have shown that citizens who live in regions with high numbers of Muslims are more at ease and hold less prejudiced attitudes. Similarly, surveys of adolescents in Norway have found that higher association with members of out-groups translated into more positive attitudes towards of these members.

Practically, the contact hypothesis could be difficult to implement. However, one feasible option could be for Governments is to designate awareness weeks across the national calendar. This could take the form of events in public areas, as well as television campaigns and other forms of media coverage. Increased contact could also be applied to schools; it could also be interesting to develop some sort of pen-pal scheme with different cultures, which could increase contact and interest, as well as providing an educational benefit. ‘Twinning’ is a concept which has also been implemented in recent years. ‘Twinning’ is the idea of pairing Mosques and Synagogues, or other religious establishments, allowing them to hold joint events which celebrate the commonality between faiths. As well as fostering good social bonds between intergroup members, it also increases awareness and creates a sense of unity that could be crucial in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

Schemes similar to Restorative Justice programs, involving perpetrators of hate crimes meeting with their victims in controlled environments may also be useful. However, the efficacy of these schemes would depend on the victim’s willingness. A more practical alternative would be to have offenders attend awareness courses where they meet members of the community their victims come from. These could run for a few weeks, giving them contact with members of these communities and an opportunity to ask questions and gain understanding. Contact is the element that the Muslim community themselves can have an active role in, and in this two-way street, an effort should be made on their part, too.

Social psychology is a small and misunderstood discipline. Yet if it’s engaged with, it can offer an unparalleled insight into the minds of the violent and vengeful, and how we can stop them. If the statistics are anything to go by, the problem of retaliatory violence and vengeful hate crimes is not going away. Hate is like a virus: it can spread quickly and silently, and can be imperceptible to others. Sometimes the carrier might not even know they have it themselves. Currently, we’re steering away from understanding, from opening up the mindset behind retaliatory violence. Instead, we’re focusing our energy on preventing and punishing violence, without understanding that it’s the desire for vengeance that comes first. While Psychology may not be the cure to rid us of retributive violence, an understanding is certainly helping us on our way.

Journal References: Bratt, C. (2002). Contact and attitudes between ethnic groups: A survey-based study of adolescents in Norway. Acta sociologica, 45(2), 107-125.

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books

Bornewasser, M. (1993). Social psychological reactions to social change and instability: fear of status loss, social discrimination and foreigner hostility. Civilisations, 91-103.

Council on American-Islamic Relations (2006) American public opinion about Islam and Muslims.

Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shape helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443-453.

The Media and Society Research Group (2002) Restrictions on Civil Liberties, Views of Islam, & Muslim Americans.

Stephan, W. G., Diaz-Loving, R. & Duran, A. (2000). Integrated threat theory and intercultural attitudes – Mexico and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 31 (2), 240-249.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information April 1974 13:6593,

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