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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Islamist terrorism and the reactions of Muslim immigrants in France: Some keys of understanding from social psychology

01.11.2016, by Sibylle Classen in opinion

Abdelatif Er Rafiy (Université de Poitiers, France)
Between January 2015 and July 2016, France experienced a series of events, ranging from a succession of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice to the Burkini ban. What are the possible impacts on, and the reactions of, the Muslim minority leaving in France?

Between January 2015 and July 2016, France experienced a series of events, ranging from a succession of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice to the Burkini ban in several other cities on France’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. Each of these events has been followed by hot discussions about the integration of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. In this paper, I want to discuss the possible impacts on, and the reactions of, the Muslim minority in this climate from a social psychological stance, hoping that it will inspire further research on these issues.
In the aftermath of the attacks, evidence of a backlash violence against Arabs and Muslims—and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim—grew considerably in France. For example, Cohu, Maisonneuve, and Testé (2016) suggested that the Paris attack increased outgroup prejudice although this effect was not long-lasting. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) reported that, in the six months following the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015, the average monthly number of physical assaults against Muslims in France had been almost as numerous as over the previous year as a whole. Such an Islamophobic environment could have a harmful effect on Muslim minorities’ health. Kunst, Sam, and Ulleberg (2013) noted that perceptions of Islamophobia were found to predict higher levels of psychological distress and higher levels of perceived stress across different Muslim minority groups (see also Liepyte & McAloney-Kocaman, 2005).
Because individuals care about the treatment of important in-groups (Iyer & Leach, 2008), Muslims in France could respond with negative emotions to the Islamophobia targeting their group. Emotions are expressed to address specific events that threaten an individual’s needs and concerns. These emotions have consequences for the way we cope with important events such as terrorist attacks. Among French Muslims, terrorist attacks could be reflective of two concerns. On the one hand, a concern about the loss of human life resulting from the terrorist attacks. As part of French society, the Muslim minority should therefore share this general concern for the victims, and as a result should experience sadness and shame in response to such deadly events (Lazarus, 1991). On the other hand, in response to the discrimination experienced by their in-group, Muslim French are also expected to express feelings of fear and anger in the days following the attacks as reflection of their concern with discrimination against their in-group.
What is the impact of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam on tolerant Muslims who repudiate terrorism? Social identity theory states that people are motivated to maintain a positive and distinct identity, with the social value of group memberships having implications for one’s personal sense of self (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Actions of deviant in-group members therefore constitute a threat to the reputation or positive evaluation of one’s own identity. When this occurs, members tend to develop strategies in order to restore the positive value of their group. For example, when their identification with the in-group is weak or when removing the deviant member from their in-group (i.e. a collective response) French Muslims might choose an individual response aimed at protecting their personal sense of self from their association with a group with a bad reputation. In this case, French Muslims could distance themselves from the group to which they belong by a process of disidentification (e.g., Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002).
The motivation of French Muslims to distance themselves from Muslim groups could be increased when they perceive themselves as having the same membership as the terrorists. When Muslims link themselves with the same superordinate group as mass murders, the level of tension associated with their Muslim identity increases, a phenomenon that Uz et al. (2009) characterized as ambivalent identification. Ambivalence refers to the simultaneous presence of positive and negative evaluations of the same attitude object that are in tension with each other (e.g., Priester & Petty, 1996). Having such mixed feelings is often experienced as a conflict (e.g., Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002). Accordingly, Uz and Kemmelmeier (2014) found that ambivalent identification is strongly felt when Muslim respondents find themselves in the same social category as Muslim terrorists. This process indicates that realizing that they share membership with terrorists could have important consequences for French Muslims’ religious identity.
French Muslims can also protect their religious identity from the negative implications of being associated with Islamist terrorists by deploying a strategy that corresponds to what Tajfel and Turner (1986) called “social creativity.” For instance, French politicians quickly suggested terms such as “Islam of France,” as a way to distinguish the Islam in France from other potentially more radical or violent forms. Thus, when confronted with threats, Muslims are likely to preserve (and maybe even assert) their religious identity, especially when their religion is being claimed by deviant members, who proclaim to act in the name of the faith as a whole (as is often the case for Islamist extremists). That is of paramount importance to Muslim social identity, especially in a traditionally secular country such as France, where a resurgence of Islam over the last decades has exposed this religion to many debates in the political scene (e.g., Kamiejski, Guimond, De Oliveira, Er-Rafiy, & Brauer, 2012). Moreover, to the extent that the French Muslim identity is defined in contradiction to the norms conveyed by the Islamist terrorist it might make them less vulnerable to radicalization or joining a radical group.
Conspiracy theories have also emerged after the terrorist attacks. Belief in conspiracy theories reflects paranoid thinking (Robins & Post, 1997). In intergroup relations terms, people can blame an out-group (instead of their own group) to be responsible for problems they encounter (Kramer, 1994). Some French Muslims can blame Western countries and particularly France as threatening the existence of Islam and Muslims and as being a main perpetrator of terrorism in France. This type of paranoid thinking contributes to attribution errors: An attribution of terrorism responsibility to the out-group in general (i.e., to the French people) (Doosje, Zebel, Scheermeijer, & Mathyi, 2007). In this regard, belief in conspiracy theories can be used by French Muslims as a means to regulate they pain in response to terrorist attacks that threaten their group identity (Hofstadter, 1966).
Public demonstrations by the French may also turn out to have an effect on French Muslims’ attitudes. For example, French Muslims who participated in the marches against the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo likely expressed ambivalence with the general atmosphere in the country at the time. French Muslims may be reluctant to take part in a demonstration that explicitly takes sides with a magazine that caricatures the Prophet (Mayer & Tiberj, 2016). They can also feel blamed or accused for the attacks by the white French majority. This environment of cognitive dissonance is liable to impede the expression of pro-Charlie sentiments by French Muslims (Festinger, 1957).
Social psychology has therefore much to propose to improve our understanding of the implications of terrorist attacks on the social environment and identities of Muslims living in a host country. It is our hope that this article motivates further researcher to investigate this timely and socially relevant issue.


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