Year of Publication

2019

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

Political Science

First Advisor

Dr. D. Stephen Voss

Abstract

The central theory guiding my research is that interstate conflict, at least as covered in mass media, leaves residual cultural attitudes that can shape the political context in which elites formulate policy. Specifically, U.S. interventionism in the Middle East has given rise to fundamental hostilities, founded on misguided biases, that shape involvement in the region today. I focus on one step within that broader theory, to test it empirically: the hypothesis that anti-Muslim stereotypes, when activated, will shape an individual’s foreign-policy preferences. I begin by considering competing accounts that link 1) ethnocentrism or 2) targeted stereotypes with support for the use of military force in the Middle East. After careful review of the group-based and social-identity theories that undergird the two accounts, I synthesize them.

My more-complete theory can be summarized as: Someone will exhibit an ethnocentric response toward an out-group when negative stereotypes about the group combine with an individual’s in-group identity to result in perceived threat. Applying the logic of that hypothesis to Muslims and American foreign policy, I argue that, for American whites, Muslims are uniquely situated to be perceived as realistic and symbolic cultural threats to their core national identity because they may differ in terms of ethnicity, culture, and religion. Mass media portray Muslims as violent and encourage Americans to evaluate them in terms of such cultural dissimilarity. On the other hand, Muslims present little identity threat to blacks, whose core in-group identity typically revolves around their status as a racial minority in the United States. Even blacks who identify with the nation will not view Islam as incompatible with their national identity because that identity is typically not predicated on looking, living, or believing a certain way.

I develop these ideas into testable hypotheses and investigate how anti-Muslim attitudes shape opinion about important contemporary Middle East issues. Using survey and experimental data, I find compelling evidence linking anti-Muslim attitudes – among whites – to support for using military force (rather than diplomacy) against Iran and against Islamists. Those attitudes also predict opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. Finally, I turn from this narrative of negativity to argue that the anti-Muslim stereotypes many citizens bring to bear when forming judgments of Middle East policy can be shifted. I base this optimistic expectation on media framing theories, which suggest that issue frames can shift opinion when they emphasize strong and credible arguments. After constructing frames from debate statements during the 2016 Presidential Election, and an original frame that affirms counterstereotypes of Muslims, I expect and find evidence that strong frames emphasizing the obligations of American identity and factual counterstereotype-affirming information can shift those who oppose accepting refugees to more moderate positions.

Broadly, my research offers a theoretically-grounded schematic for how stereotypes and identity construction operate together cognitively to shape public opinion. My methods offer leverage to those endeavoring to explain how these idea elements shape opinion in other issue domains. I also divulge important nuances about how specific actors (i.e., whites) propagate a cycle of anti-Muslim attitudes, warfare, and terrorism. I contribute to rivalry theory in international relations by explaining how cultural biases shape an enduring rivalry of the grandest scale: the perpetual U.S.-Middle East conflict. My framing research offers both academic and practical contributions by providing evidence on behalf of existing theory and by suggesting how media and political elites – by describing issues in unbiased ways – could knock off course the perpetual cycle of American interventionism, retaliatory terrorism, and resulting anti-Muslim stereotype generalizations.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/etd.2019.178

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