ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Muslim leaders are often backed into a corner when asked to respond to terrorist attacks committed by extremist Muslim groups or individuals. If they respond with empathy for the victims, they often satisfy non-Muslims; but if they accept any kind of group responsibility for the act, they unwittingly cultivate a sense of collective guilt, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan.
It’s a conundrum that leaders of many minority groups face: having to thoughtfully — and very carefully –advocate and fight for equality and justice without triggering more prejudice and bias among the dominant group. They are often asked to respond publicly to the transgressions of individual group members. Even though Muslim extremists represent a tiny portion of this minority group as a whole, Muslim leaders must tread carefully in their response to terrorist attacks. If they say nothing at all, they risk even more negative feelings directed toward them and their communities.
“Muslim Americans are presented with the unique challenge of responding to the acts of individual extremists in ways that address the psychological needs of the majority group, without further damaging their own group’s reputation or perpetuating perceptions of group culpability,” says lead author Daniel Lane, a UM doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies, in a media release.
The conclusions about the delicacy Muslim clergy and officials must exhibit when reacting to terrorist attacks were drawn from three experiments that featured two real extremist attacks and one fictional attack. Researchers sought to examine how empathy and responsibility in Muslim leaders’ media-based responses negatively or positively affected the response satisfaction of non-Muslim audiences — who may draw conclusions about Muslims from these responses.
In all three experiments, the researchers manipulated public messages by Muslim leaders to either express or not express empathy, and to accept or deny responsibility.
The first experiment involved 472 participants who viewed an online news article several weeks after terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016. The article mentioned that ISIS claimed responsibility and included a response about the attacks from a Muslim American leader. Researchers manipulated the levels of empathy and responsibility in the response, then polled the participants on their feelings.
Similarly, 333 people were presented with material on Omar Mateen, the Muslim American gunman who opened fire at the Orlando nightclub “Pulse” in 2016, killing 49 people. Participants were surveyed on their levels of trust in Muslim Americans after reading various responses that showed empathy and/or responsibility from Muslim officials.
A third test involved a fictional attack in Oslo, Norway presented to a sample of 397 participants.
The authors found that expressions of empathy generally got positive responses and stronger feelings of trust from participants, but the problems for Muslim leaders came from accepting responsibility.
“These results demonstrate that by increasing perceptions of collective guilt, statements that accept responsibility can backfire, and increase the perception that Muslim Americans as a group are to blame for terrorist acts,” explains Lane.
In other words, researchers conclude that empathy seems to be the best route when it comes to commenting on terrorist attacks, but either way, leaders are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
“Although we demonstrate that accepting responsibility can perpetuate the perception that Muslims are collectively responsible for extremism, it is possible that denials of responsibility may nevertheless be held up by some politicians, journalists, or elites as evidence of complicity,” the authors write. “For groups such as Muslim Americans who are viewed negatively by the American public, deciding whether to accept or deny responsibility for extremism remains a perilous decision.”
The study was published in the journal Media Psychology.