A police officer stands guard next to bicycles that lie on a bike path on Nov. 1, 2017, at the crime scene after a motorist drove onto the path near the World Trade Center memorial, striking and killing several people the day before, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Study links anti-Muslim discrimination with radicalization

(RNS) — Every time a domestic terrorist kills innocent bystanders or heads abroad to join the Islamic State group, experts and pundits try to explain the inexplicable: Why would a person do that?

A new study takes a novel approach to studying radicalization. The findings suggest that it may be the outgrowth of ethnic, racial or religious discrimination.

The study, published in Science Advances, finds an association between anti-Muslim hate and susceptibility to Muslim radicalization in regions of the United States that are poorest and most homogeneous. And it suggests the ethnic diversity of the U.S. may protect against radicalization because people are less prone to pit one group against the other.

The study, done by sociologists at Duke University and a statistician from the University of California, Berkeley, examined internet search data provided by Google in 3,099 counties across the U.S. Specifically, the researchers looked at average monthly search data to see if people in the same geographical areas searched for phrases such as “Muslims are violent” and "How to join ISIS.”

The findings, collected between August 2014 and July 2016, suggest pro-ISIS sympathy is most prevalent in communities with high levels of anti-Muslim sentiment.

“One interpretation of this finding is that violent extremism results from the failure of ethnic integration,” said Chris Bail, a sociologist at Duke and the study's lead researcher. “People of immigrant background experience a disconnect between their family heritage and their receiving society’s culture and thus become vulnerable to extremist narratives.”

The researchers also found that anti-Muslim prejudice is particularly high in ethnically homogeneous communities where most people are white and where darker-skinned Muslims stick out, sharpening perceptions of “us” and “them.”

The authors note that studies about radicalization are notoriously difficult to undertake since few would-be extremists are likely to identify as such in surveys. People who hate Muslims are also unlikely to betray their true feelings due to social stigma. But the anonymity of the internet can provide researchers with a relatively objective measurement.

After gathering the data, which Google made available to potential advertisers, the researchers superimposed U.S. census data and other surveys to determine the amount of ethnic diversity in each area. The census doesn’t ask about religion, but researchers were able to identify ethnic backgrounds. They also measured the overall volume of searches for the term “halal” — the Muslim permissible-food laws — within each county.

The authors suggest their findings may also explain cases of domestic terrorism in which extremists do not identify with Islam, such as the killings of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, S.C. The terrorist in that case, Dylann Roof, worried that white men were becoming an imperiled minority.

The authors acknowledge that not all people who search “How to join ISIS” are would-be extremists. They may be law enforcement officers, journalists or even anti-Muslim activists interested in figuring out how to stop the group’s recruitment process. Further, many ISIS recruits have been known to join through social media, which the researchers didn’t examine.

Google no longer allows search range estimates for phrases such as “How to join ISIS,” potentially limiting further study of internet searches. Still, the study may be the first to show an association between religious discrimination and radicalization at the county level.

“I’ve never seen a cross-national study showing any correlation between racial discrimination and radicalization,” said Aziz Z. Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has studied counterterrorism policies that target Muslims. This study, he said, comes closest.

The results, he added, fit other evidence that suggests it’s not economic worries that lead people to support anti-immigrant policies and populist politicians but cultural anxiety, particularly the perceived threats from religious or ethnic minorities.

“We know Europeans massively overestimate the proportion of people in their country who are Muslim,” Huq said. “It’s not the objective fact of 'demographic threat.' What it is is that the presence of the first few outsiders will often trigger a large response.”

The researchers acknowledge their study cannot single-handedly explain radicalization. Other studies have suggested that people turn to violent extremism out of sexual frustration, feelings of powerlessness or financial struggles.

“We are not saying ethnic integration is the only predictor of violent extremism,” said Bail. “It’s almost surely the case that violent extremism has multiple causes. Our contribution is another brick to a building that many different scholars are building.”


  1. “And it suggests the ethnic diversity of the U.S. may protect against radicalization because people are less prone to pit one group against the other.”

    That may have been true in the past when more people were inclined to believe that America was a great “melting pot” (remember that term? It seems almost quaint now.) Back then, there was a near-ubiquitous understanding that America was a nation of immigrants and therefore accommodation needed to be made in order to include everyone. But naturally there was resistance right from the start: the snobbish Cabots, Lodges, and other immigrants who came over from England on the Mayflower quickly turned on the American natives, who were generous enough to show them which crops to plant, etc. Then the English turned their noses on the Irish when they came over in the wake of the potato famine, who in turn looked down their noses on the Italians, who in turn denigrated African-Americans, etc. ad nauseum. So America has essentially been an experiment, a work in progress. The problem lately is that we seem to be going backwards – something which is a conscious decision made by those currently holding all the reins of power, i.e. Republicans.

  2. It’s a startling discovery that treating people like crap can generate resentment. Too bad it won’t change any of the bigots’ minds.

  3. Bob, comments like yours above are not helpful. Try to be more constructive.

  4. I wonder why we couldn’t posit that places generating the most “How to join ISIS” searches have the largest Muslim visibility and therefore attract the most anti-Muslim sentiment from those bigots here who feel America is being invaded by Muslims. We need to be wary of buying into the suggestion that westerners somehow cause Islamic extremism——when a clearer explanation is that blind devotion to messed-up holy writings is the cause of Islamic (and Judeo-Christian) extremism.

  5. Reminds me of the tongue and cheek study that show cancer causes smoking.

  6. Anti-muslim sentiment is exactly what ISIS wants. It aids in recruiting

    Anti-Muslim sentiment attacks the most effective weapon against radicalization and terrorist recruiting in a community, patriotic freedom loving Muslims

    Your average foaming at the mouth Islamicist is a useful tool for terrorists, an unpaid stooge.

    “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
    -Ben Franklin

  7. The two views of Brian Curtis and FriendlyGoat can be summed up in this way:

    The former has the view that Muslims have no agency, and need to be protected from bigots.

    The latter has the view that Muslims have just enough agency to read messed-up holy writings with blind devotion.

    These two views sum up the limited options that today’s intellectual discourse offers Muslims.

    Why not do more? Why not give Muslims the agency to solve the problems that Trump’s supporters are facing? After all, Trump’s supporters know that Trump is not a particularly nice man. Yet, they voted for him. That is because they have some problems that are not being addressed. Why shouldn’t Muslim Americans address them? Why invite Muslim Americas to address only Muslim-specific issues, and not the issues of, say, working class Caucasian Americans?

  8. Did you really have to write “Caucasian Americans?” Couldn’t just plain “Americans” have sufficed? But you did write it, didn’t you? Which begs the question: why?

  9. the more untrue any religion is to ELOHEEM here in TheTorah, the more radical they all become. you should not, blame others when you are the radical problems. in the last century pagans, and occultists were the most violent religions of all. even christians, got suckered in by the occultist hitler into killing other christians, jews and pagan. nor does it take hardly anything for muslims to murder, each other or anyone else. where the fake news was/is they all claim to be true to some other g-d. and is extremely doubtful they are worshiping THE ELOHEEM i know here in TheTorah.

  10. What I was trying to get at is an implicit hypothesis (in our social sciences) that different demographic groups are endowed with different amounts of agency. Caucasian Americans are positioned as having so much agency that they can take care of, not only themselves, but also of other demographic groups. Muslims are at the other extreme—they are positioned as having so little agency that they need to be protected.

  11. “I’m dreaming of the 1950’s”
    What the hell happened???

  12. 99% of terror originates in Pakistan Afghanistan Somalia Libya and the Euphrates region. Those are all almost 100% muslim countries. How the heck is this report unbiased if 99% of terror comes from 100% muslim countries where there are no Christians Hindoos Buddhists left “who could” discriminate and thus be a cause as this article suggests? Forcing Guilt is kinda silly and detracts from the real cause of Global Islamist Terror conundrum plaguing the world today. Notice the key word? “Islamist”!

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