January 1, 2012

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

The Worldview Backfire Effect

The third and arguably most potent backfire effect occurs with topics that tie in with people’s worldviews and sense of cultural identity.

Of the three backfire effects mentioned in this handbook, I would consider the worldview backfire effect to be the most difficult for Muslims to overcome. Many non-Muslims treat Islam as a threat to their worldview on a number of different fronts: religiously, culturally, racially, linguistically, and so on.

One cognitive process that contributes to this effect is Confirmation Bias, where people selectively seek out information that bolsters their view. … The study found that even when people are presented with a balanced set of facts, they reinforce their pre-existing views by gravitating towards information they already agree with. The polarization was greatest among those with strongly held views.

This should not be surprising. We Muslims frequently see this reaction from non-Muslims, and Americans see this from a political perspective as well (liberals vs. conservative). It is the extremely rare – and brave – non-Muslim who is willing to research Islam from genuine Islamic resources and not just regurgitating the lies and half-truths presented by the Islamophobes.

What happens when you remove that element of choice and present someone with arguments that run counter to their worldview? In this case, the cognitive process that comes to the fore is Disconfirmation Bias, the flipside of Confirmation Bias. This is where people spend significantly more time and thought actively arguing against opposing arguments.

For non-Muslims this is par for the course. But I say this from the perspective that virtually all non-Muslims go through this stage at some point. The key difference is in the attitude they have toward Islam and the Muslim world. At one extreme are those people who hate Islam and argue constantly against Islam. Their minds are not open and they have no interest in learning about Islam; they argue for the sake of arguing. They are ignorant time-wasters and they are best left alone. (I have dealt with more than enough of these people myself.) At the other extreme are those people who have an open mind toward Islam and are willing to learn. They may never become a Muslim, but they tend to be respectful and ask questions in a positive way.

If facts cannot dissuade a person from their preexisting beliefs - and can sometimes make things worse - how can we possibly reduce the effect of misinformation? There are two sources of hope.

First, the Worldview Backfire Effect is strongest among those already fixed in their views. You therefore stand a greater chance of correcting misinformation among those not as firmly decided about hot-button issues. This suggests that outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority.

It is keeping in mind these potential reverts to Islam, those who are genuinely interested in learning about Islam and the Muslim world that we Muslim writers need to focus our efforts on. The haters will continue to hate, and there is little if anything we can do about them. But we can present our message to everyone else, those whose minds are more open. So if you are not responding to a specific person (or people) in mind, make your target reader those people who are potential reverts. Make your essays dawah-oriented. In this way we will also be following the Qur’an’s advice:

Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance. (16:125)

Second, messages can be presented in ways that reduce the usual psychological resistance. For example, when worldview-threatening messages are coupled with so-called self-affirmation, people become more balanced in considering pro and con information.
Self-affirmation can be achieved by asking people to write a few sentences about a time when they felt good about themselves because they acted on a value that was important to them. People then become more receptive to messages that otherwise might threaten their worldviews, compared to people who received no self-affirmation. Interestingly, the “self-affirmation effect” is strongest among those whose ideology was central to their sense of self-worth.

We Muslim writers are not going to be able to ask our readers to go through the self-affirmation exercise the authors of this handbook mention above. But what we can do is to focus our writings, when possible, on the common values we Muslims share with non-Muslims. Remember, we’re not focusing on countering the myths about Islam, but to present the facts. Non-Muslims share many of the same values Muslims have, but perhaps the non-Muslims don’t understand this as well as we would like them to. So stress the commonalities we have with other non-Muslims, regardless of whether they are of the People of the Book or not.

Another way in which information can be made more acceptable is by “framing” it in a way that is less threatening to a person’s worldview. For example, Republicans are far more likely to accept an otherwise identical charge as a “carbon offset” than as a “tax”, whereas the wording has little effect on Democrats or Independents—because their values are not challenged by the word “tax.”

This goes back to the idea of how we choose to write our essays, what terminology we use. In the simplified form, we may benefit from not using our terminology so as to increase understanding. The preconceived notions non-Muslims have about various words of ours (e.g., jihad, shari’ah, etc.) may distract the non-Muslims from understanding and accepting the message we wish to share with them.

Next: Filling the Gap with an Alternative Explanation

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