Why the president’s anti-Muslim tweets could increase tensions

Last week, President Trump retweeted to his nearly 44 million followers a series of videos purporting to show Muslims assaulting people and destroying Christian statues. These videos, originally shared by an extremist anti-Muslim group in the U.K., were shown to be inaccurate and misleading.

In response to widespread news coverage of the tweets, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the president was merely calling needed attention to the threat posed by Muslims and radical Islam, noting that “The threat is real.”

Many questioned how the president’s actions might affect American Muslims, who the FBI reports are already facing unprecedented levels of religiously motivated hate crimes. The State Department even worried that there could be violent reactions at American embassies around the world and an escalation of religious conflict.

Are such concerns warranted? Our research suggests yes.

Religious threat in the United States

We study the psychological consequences experienced by individuals who are the targets of prejudice and discrimination. In a recent study, we conducted a survey to investigate experiences of “religious threat” among nearly 1,000 Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Catholics across the United States. By religious threat, we mean the feeling that one is targeted, stigmatized or threatened because of one’s religion.

Muslims report the most religious threat. AP Photo/Swoan Parker
We were interested in comparing religious threat experiences between religious groups and between less religious and more religious individuals.

Predictably, Muslims reported feeling the most religious threat. In our sample, 52 percent of Muslims reported that it was “somewhat true” to “very true” that they felt targeted because of their religion. One Muslim participant in our study noted that people think, “I must be a terrorist.” Jews reported feeling the second most amount of threat.

In addition, we found that the more religious people were – that is, the more they considered religion to be important in their lives – the more religious threat they reported. This was especially true among Protestants. In fact, among people who were more religious, Protestants felt just as threatened as Muslims and Jews.

This last finding seems consistent with the belief shared among many religious Protestants that religious values and traditions are under attack in American society.

President Trump may be tapping into this increased anxiety.

Reaction to discrimination

A noteworthy aspect of our study is that we found that feeling targeted because of one’s religion may trigger defensive psychological reactions that can lead people to feel socially isolated and, perhaps ironically, fan the flames of intolerance.

We found that people who experienced more religious threat in our sample were less likely to feel that they belonged in the United States in general, or in their workplace or school. We found this to be true no matter what religion respondents belonged to.