Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:
It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time. Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.
How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina. The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.