Study: Muslim Americans living in prejudiced towns more likely to seek out ISIS

New research reveals empirical data on how anti-Muslim sentiment could be nudging some Muslim Americans toward extremism.


One common claim about the “War on Terror” is that the violence, both intended and unintended, from U.S. military forces in the Middle East has served to spawn new terrorists bent on battling the West.

New research suggests a similar phenomenon might be occurring within the U.S., only the American weapons are rhetorical and the terrorists are homegrown.

A paper published in Science Advances describes the discovery of a statistical relationship between U.S. counties with anti-Muslim sentiment and pro-ISIS internet searches. The researchers suggest that prejudice, which can prevent first- and second-generation immigrants from integrating into American culture, could be nudging some Muslims toward extremism.

The hypothesis is based on a sociological concept called group threat theory.

“This theory posits that prejudice results from a perceived threat between majority and minority groups,” the study authors wrote. “Majority groups often develop stereotypes about minority groups based on observation of a small group of deviants among them—particularly in settings where positive interpersonal contact between majority and minority groups is rare. Minority groups that experience discrimination from majority groups often feel threatened in turn because they view this prejudice as irrational or unjustified.”

The researchers posited that pro-ISIS sentiment would be highest in areas where people are more prejudiced toward Muslims, especially in places where residents are “ethnically homogeneous or poor.”

There was a problem in getting the data, however: Few people are going to admit, in interviews or on surveys, to being racist or having a desire to join ISIS. So the team instead looked at how often people searched online for phrases like “How to join ISIS” and “Muslims are evil” in every U.S. county between 2014 and 2016. They then cross-referenced the searches with census information about each community’s socioeconomic makeup.


Blue circles describe variables that have a positive correlation with each other. (Credit: Bail et al.)

 The results showed that people were more likely to search for phrases like “How to join ISIS” in areas where anti-Muslim searches were high, particularly in poor and ethnically homogeneous communities, as they had guessed.

“These are places where a member of a minority group might be more likely to be visible and perhaps more likely to experience discrimination because of their isolation,” lead author Christopher Bail told NBC News.

Bail said assimilation is key to building healthy communities.

“Historically, Muslim Americans have been very well integrated into American society, occupying upper-middle-class demographics, highly educated and, generally speaking, not clustered into communities.”

The study highlights the need for cautiousness when designing counterterrorism policy, the authors wrote.

“Although elected officials routinely promote counterterrorism policies that target Muslims more than other groups, our findings indicate that these policies may make communities more vulnerable to radicalization if they are interpreted as discriminatory or unfair.

Moreover, our analyses indicate that restrictions on immigration and refugee resettlement may accelerate the cyclical relationship between ethnic discrimination and radicalization, since ethnic diversity appears to mitigate the association between ethnic discrimination and radicalization.”

On that last part, the U.S. seems to have an advantage over Europe because it’s more ethnically diverse—Americans are generally less likely than Europeans to view the world in a binary “us versus them” framework, the authors wrote.

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