Using Empathetic Practices May Ease Polarization in a Post-9/11 World

Much has changed in America since 9/11. Today, for example, pundits and scholars frequently bemoan the increasing polarization that is driving Americans apart. We are no longer disagreeing merely on policy issues. Instead, our partisan affiliations are morphing into broad identities that even include factors like what we eat, drive, where we live and shop, and what our race or sexual orientation is.

Unfortunately, this grouping has also affected religious communities and religious liberty, so that conservative white Christians (and their religious claims) are associated with the Republican Party, and the claims of religious minorities (particularly Muslims) are associated with the Democratic Party. Solving this divide might unlock solutions to resolving our polarization more generally.

Political scientist Lilliana Mason has a word for these wide-ranging, new identities: “mega-identities.” A single vote now indicates more than a person’s partisan preference; it also indicates his or her religion, race, gender, and a host of preferences such as their favorite grocery store. This applies to Muslims and conservative white Christians, too.

[MORE: Numbers of U.S. Latino Muslims Growing Rapidly]

Consider the post-9/11 shifts in voting patterns: In 1992, American Muslims voted 2-to-1 for George H.W. Bush, and even though they supported Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2000, more than 70% of Muslims voted for George W. Bush on the premise that Republicans were “natural allies” on matters of faith and morality.

But then, driven by foreign policy concerns such as the Iraq War and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, most Muslims switched teams. More than 90% of Muslim-Americans voted for John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, 89% of Muslims voted for Barack Obama, and 85% voted for him in 2012. In 2016, 75.9% of Muslims voted for Hillary Clinton, and 69% voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Even though American Muslims’ positions on social issues still lean conservative, they’re now more likely to prioritize civil rights and public policy above symbolic debates over private morality.

As these shifts are happening, the connection between conservative white Christians and the Republican Party is growing stronger. Religiosity, too, has come to be associated with Republicans. While more Americans are now religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”) and there is less public confidence in organized religion, most nones are Democrats. Meanwhile, conservative Christians are overwhelmingly Republican.

Taken together, many Christians have come to be suspicious of Democrats and of Muslims as allies of Democrats. Muslims today are seen not just as religious outsiders but also political outsiders. (Nothing captures this political football better than variations of Obama’s “Hope” poster with a woman in a hijab. The poster is used to protest Donald Trump and was, for example, ubiquitous in the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.)

Unlike the simpler dynamics of the immediate post-9/11 context, where Muslims faced base stereotypes about, for example, their proclivity for violence, today, Muslims are up against the forces of political polarization, too. Pew’s findings published on Sept. 1 reflect exactly this trend. When Pew asked Americans in 2002 whether “Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence … Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were only moderately more likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaners to say that Islam encourages violence more than other religions — and this was a minority viewpoint in both partisan groups.” Now, the divide has become starker, with “Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say they believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions.”

[GLOBAL SURVEY: U.S. Is One of the 10 Worst Countries for Racial Equality]

This double effect of political and religious polarization has a strong, negative impact when it comes to legal and political discourse around religious liberty. Many white conservative Christians seek to cut out Muslims from legal protections. For some, hate crimes against Muslims are “fake news” and don’t happen, and discourse about Islamophobia is mere political correctness — purportedly, a liberal attempt to shut down critical discourse. They prop up and often repeat the claims of extreme anti-Muslim actors, and sometimes explicitly advocate for restrictions on Muslims’ legal rights. Some Christian groups are also mega-funders of initiatives that spread anti-Muslim hate; a 2019 investigation found that they donated $48.1 million to such efforts.

The problems are real and finding a solution can help secure equal rights for Muslims. What’s more, because the Muslim-Christian divide is a facet of our political divides, finding a solution here can potentially teach us how to solve political polarization more broadly.

There are multiple strategies we can employ. For example, social scientists have devised strategies such as self-affirmation, superordinate goals, and unsorting. Self-affirmation involves helping people self-affirm the good parts of their identity, which in turn helps prevent destructive ideologies that are rooted in low self-esteem. Superordinate goals are about taking groups that oppose each other and having them work together if they have a goal that both are dedicated to. And unsorting requires us to realize that our social and even theological positions don’t line up cleanly along partisan lines, which in turn helps us avoid conflating religious identification with particular political tribes.

No matter the strategy, empathy is crucial to forward progress. The nonprofit More in Common studies political polarization and notes that each side of a divide has its own stories of oppression and victimhood, but “[t]ribalism makes conversations about these issues harder, because it robs individuals of their humanity and reduces them to members of in-groups and out-groups.” We are so used to seeing the religious and political out-group as stereotypes that we fail to see people for their full selves. Even tolerance is not enough — tolerance implies a “putting up with” dissenting beliefs and practices, whereas empathy goes further in trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Empathy in our engagement with others means that what is present before us is not an argument, but a person.

Much has changed in the two decades since 9/11, and unfortunately, the change has not been for the better. But with the right strategies, the next two decades can be better.

More from U.S. News

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