What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
“The majority of people who weren’t primed by media reports to be angry didn’t care much about Facebook’s actions at all.”
“And when [my mom] looked up Islam online, of course, all she found was Jihad and Al Qaeda and Taliban.”
“How to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”
“Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News’ audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.”
There’s a telling trajectory to the conversation. Ahmed, in asking her question, presents herself as an individual, as resistant to caricature. She’s not some evil, brooding foreigner — she’s a human being suggesting some nuance be injected into the conversation. But if this were about nuance and about individuals, Act! for America and its fearful ilk wouldn’t exist. So Gabriel’s response seeks to zoom back out to a distant, hazy vantage point from which fearful Americans can chatter nervously about hundreds of millions — hundreds of millions! — of Muslims seeking to kill them and their families. It’s no accident that every step of the way she seeks to blur Ahmed, to make her into a vague, anonymous member of an outgroup rather than a flesh-and-blood human. Gabriel seems to feel threatened by Ahmed, and it shows.
This all ties into the “contact hypothesis,” the idea of increasing trust between members of different groups simply by having them interact. While there are specific situations in which it can backfire, overall, a broad swath of research (PDF — the second and third pages have a useful rundown of empirical evidence) suggests that it works. There’s evidence that even imagining an interaction with a member of an unfamiliar group can reduce one’s bias toward that group.
All of this, of course, should terrify the Gaffneys and Gabriels of the world. Their livelihood depends on Americans not interacting with Muslims in day-to-day life and therefore being easy marks for hysterical stories about Muslim conspiracies, infiltration of the government, and the like. Every time a Muslim takes part in public life the way Saba Ahmed did yesterday, it bleeds their poisoned ideology a little drier.”
“It is true that we Iranians live dual lives, and so it is true that to see us in focus, you must enter our inner sanctum. But the inner sanctum includes women who believe in the hijab, fat women, old women and, most important, women in professions from doctor to shopkeeper. It also includes men, not all of whom are below 30 years of age. If you wish to see Iran as it is, you need go no further than Facebook and Instagram. Here, Iran is neither fully veiled nor longing to undress itself. Its complex variety is shown through the lens of its own people, in both private and public spaces.”
“But, frankly, my experience as a veteran professional in this field is that the Facebook Gods will not smile on Max’s Thailand piece. It doesn’t have the key triggers of emotion, personalization, and identity-formation that drive success on Facebook.”
It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele’s research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.
Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.”