The Fringe Effect: Emotional Energy and Islam in the American Public Sphere

By Christopher A. Bail

“Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism more often?” I asked this question to the leader of one of the largest Islamic organizations in the United States. “I condemn terrorism one hundred times a day,” he told me, “… I condemn terrorism in my sleep.” A few weeks later, I turned on Fox News to watch coverage of the unfolding controversy about the construction of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero. Pamela Geller—the telegenic leader of the Stop the Islamization of America Movement— is fuming. The proposal, she says, is part of a worldwide conspiracy to launch a violent Islamic empire under the guise of political correctness.

Geller is not the only social movement leader who is convinced that Islam represents an imminent threat to the future of democracy in the West. Many Evangelical Christian organizations believe the September 11th attacks are a harbinger of the clash of civilizations. Hawkish neoconservative think tanks now decry the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood with the same vitriol once reserved for the Soviet Union. Even liberal human rights organizations often complain of intrinsic gender bias within Islam.

Yet if you survey the leaders of the organizations competing to shape public discourse about Islam on the nightly news or major newspapers, you won’t find many Muslims. I was so struck by the absence of the very group at the center of these debates that I began collecting every press release about Muslims that I could find. Next, I used plagiarism detection software to compare these press releases to more than fifty thousand television transcripts and newspaper articles produced during the same period.

What I discovered was shocking. There were dozens of Muslim organizations that dispatched press releases condemning nearly every episode of terror worldwide. These organizations had also formed broad coalitions with Jewish, Evangelical, and Non-denominational organizations designed to invert the violent stigma attached to Islam. Even though the vast majority of social movement organizations deployed such pro-Muslim messages in the wake of the September 11th attacks, I found that journalists were captivated by a small cadre of fringe organizations convinced Muslims represent a fundamental threat to the future of American democracy.

The success of these anti-Muslim fringe organizations was particularly intriguing given the current orthodoxy within the social movements literature. For example, numerous studies suggest the peripheral messages of fringe organizations are unlikely to resonate with prevailing cultural views. Similarly, resource-driven theories of collective behavior suggest fringe organizations are usually unable to marshal the social and financial resources necessary to create social change.[i]

Sufficiently puzzled, I headed into the field. I began conducting ethnographic observation of a controversy about the construction of a mosque in a town near my house. I attended a town hall meeting that was so well attended that it had to be rescheduled due to lack of seating space. Opponents of the mosque began taunting the mosque proponents as they quietly filed out of the meeting hall. But one young Muslim man couldn’t take it any longer. He snapped out of line and began shouting at the mosque opponents. Other members of the mosque quickly grabbed him and pulled him away—but the damage had already been done.

That night, the local news began with a thirty-second video clip of the furious young Muslim man screaming at the opponents of the mosque. The experience made me revisit the recent renaissance in the study of emotions in the social movements literature. Already convinced that shared emotions lead people to join social movements, I now realized that emotions may also have critical implications for social movement outcomes as well.

I began coding the emotional content of the press releases in my study. Sure enough, I discovered that anti-Muslim fringe organizations were far more likely to exhibit negative emotions— and the mass media was far more likely to cover such libidinal displays. In contrast, the media almost completely ignored the calm, dispassionate statements mainstream Muslim organizations produced to condemn terrorism.

Of course, media sensationalization is hardly anything new. But I soon learned that exchanges of emotional energy between social movement organizations have critical implications for the evolution of public discourse more broadly. For example, I found that emotional anti-Muslim organizations leveraged their newfound standing within the public sphere to forge powerful network ties to groups such as the American Enterprise Institute. They also amassed more than forty million dollars to launch a large campaign to mobilize public opinion against Islam. It worked. In recent years, negative public opinion of Muslims has almost doubled even though it decreased in the first few years following the September 11th attacks.

The rising tide of Anti-Muslim sentiment in the American public sphere infuriates many Muslims—and the media has taken notice.  Though the dispassionate denunciations of terrorism receive little media attention, Muslim anger about “Islamophobia” has become potent media drama. Screaming matches between large Muslim organizations and the anti-Muslim groups described above are now a regular feature on the nightly news. This “centrifugal emotional force” has further propelled anti-Muslim organizations into the mainstream. As the leader of one of these organizations told me, “when Muslims get pissed off at us, it only helps our cause. It only makes more people hear our message.”

Frequent media coverage of Muslim anger about Islamophobia—and the absence of media coverage of Muslims condemning terrorism—also enhances the narrative of anti-Muslim groups. “Not only will you never hear them condemn terrorism,” the leader of one such organization told me, “But they go ballistic anytime we criticize them. That shows who they are and what they really want… Shari’ah [Islamic holy law] in the United States”

The emotional turbulence of the public sphere has trapped mainstream Muslim organizations between Scylla and Charybdis. If they react angrily to their opponents, they risk calling further attention to the very stigma they are trying to remove. Yet if they do not display negative emotions, they risk forfeiting the representation of their collective identity to the fringe.[ii]

Perhaps most importantly, recent events such as the Qur’an burning affair suggest the emotional messages of fringe organizations are avid travellers. The rising tide of anti-Muslim messages within the American public sphere not only threatens foundational principles about religious tolerance, but also validates foreign extremists who claim the United States is at war with Islam. Unfortunately, the “fringe effect” described above has marginalized the very mainstream Muslim organizations that are uniquely positioned to discredit such claims—both at home, and abroad.

[i] In fact, one classic study suggests fringe organizations increase the capacity of mainstream organizations to accumulate resources. See Herbert Haines. 1984. “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights,” Social Problems 32(31).

[ii] For more about this type of dilemma, see James Jasper. 2006. Getting Your Way: Strategic Dilemmas in the Real World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

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