Research suggests anti-Muslim bias in descriptions of mass killings

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A new study from Goldsmiths, University of London has found that acts of violence are more likely to be described as ‘terrorism’ when perpetrated by Muslims rather than white, non-Muslims.

Police cordon at Borough Market. © David Arnold

Police cordon at Borough Market. © David Arnold

In the first of two experiments, 60 white, non-Muslim British people were randomly asked to read either a real news article about an attack perpetrated by a Muslim, or an almost identical article that had been altered to describe a white, non-Muslim perpetrator.

The story described the plot by Muslim-American soldier, Naser Jason Abdo to use an explosive to kill other American soldiers in 2011. In the edited article, Abdo’s name was changed to ‘James Douglas Ross’ and he was described as Christian rather than Muslim.

Researchers Dr Keon West and Dr Joda Lloyd then asked the participants to indicate whether they perceived the perpetrators’ behaviour to be ‘terrorism’ on a scale from one to seven.

The average rating for the Muslim perpetrator was 5.87 compared to 3.8 for the white, non-Muslim perpetrator.

The second experiment featured the same conditions, with the genuine article now featuring a white, non-Muslim perpetrator and the altered article including a Muslim attacker.

The real article described Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Oslo and Utoya in 2011, with Breivik labelled a ‘blond, blue-eyed and right wing Christian’. In the edited article, his name was changed to ‘Abu Abbas’, who was described as a ‘brown-haired, brown-eyed, right-wing Muslim’.

The average rating for the perception of the fictional Muslim attacker’s behaviour as ‘terrorism’ was 5.87 compared to 4.77 for Breivik.

Dr West said: “In the wake of numerous, unpredictable mass killings, negative emotional reactions are to be expected. However, it remains crucial to assess negative behaviours without bias, and to avoid racial, ethnic or religious prejudice in our perceptions of, or responses to, these terrible events. These experiments suggest that anti-Muslim prejudice does play an important role in the current choice of vocabulary surrounding attacks which take place around the world. Awareness of this bias should encourage a certain amount of caution when using or avoiding the ‘terrorism’ label.”