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Science & Environment

Terror Attacks Divide Muslims And Non-Muslims Living In The U.S.


Let's focus next on the aftereffects of terror attacks. Terrorism is commonly an attack on individuals. Somebody shoots up a room full of people, for example. But these attacks are designed to have wider effects on society. And some research now attempts to document how terror attacks drive a wedge between different kinds of people in America. The attacks separate Muslim immigrants from non-Muslims. NPR's Shankar Vedantam found research finding that's what happened in parts of the U.S. after 9/11. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the research really looks at this idea that terrorism produces predictable consequences. You have a terrorism attack. You have backlash against Muslims living in various parts of the United States. And as a result of the backlash, Muslims end up feeling like they need to huddle together. They end up being less assimilated in their local communities.

INSKEEP: Assimilation, important concept here. So what evidence shows that pattern? They're becoming less assimilated.

VEDANTAM: I was speaking with an American researcher, Eric Gould. His main affiliation is with Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Along with his colleague Esteban Klor - they're both economists - they've tracked, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of hate crimes reported against Muslims. Now, these hate crimes were not reported evenly across the country.

INSKEEP: Some states had more. Some states had less.

VEDANTAM: Precisely. Gould and Klor used this variation to study how the backlash affected the assimilation of Muslim immigrants across the country. And they track assimilation using a series of different measures. Most importantly, they look at how all these rates changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in states that had a big backlash against Muslims compared to states where the backlash was muted. Here's Gould.

ERIC GOULD: We find that in states which had a bigger backlash against the Muslim community, we find lower rates of assimilation, meaning they become much more likely to marry within their community, a lower likelihood of speaking English well and speaking English at home and lower rates of female labor force participation.

INSKEEP: OK, this is disturbing, Shankar, because terrorism experts will warn that unassimilated groups in your society are more vulnerable to extremist recruitment or terror recruitment. You're saying terror attacks make people less assimilated, which means it's a self-reinforcing pattern.

VEDANTAM: It potentially is a self-reinforcing pattern, Steve. Gould told me that in many ways, his thinking is that the groups that are carrying out these attacks are spending a lot of time strategizing. They're thinking carefully not just about their targets but about the consequences of these attacks. And terrorism turns out to be a very effective way to drive people apart and produce this very predictable response. Here's Gould again.

GOULD: The people perpetrating these attacks may actually be trying to instigate a backlash against the Muslim community in order to slow or halt their assimilation process.

INSKEEP: He says, may. Is there evidence that this is what terror groups explicitly want?

VEDANTAM: I think there is some language that terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida have used in the past that express their dissatisfaction with Muslims living in the West, in the secular West. Now, at the same time, I don't think we have hard evidence that the groups are planning their attacks in order to reduce the assimilation of Muslims in the West. But I think we can say this, Steve. Terrorism is a form of theater. It always has an audience in mind. And what's clear, I think, from Gould's research, is that one of the potential audiences of terror attacks are Muslim immigrants living in the West because if you look at the pattern of what happens after the attack, it squares very well with the long-term strategic goals of these groups.

INSKEEP: You know, sometimes after terror attacks, we've had public officials say, don't do the work of the terrorists. Don't commit acts that drive us apart. This research seems to support that warning that actually we can drive each other apart with dangerous consequences.

VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right, Steve. George W. Bush, when he was president right after 9/11, took great care I think to separate Muslims living in the United States from the terrorists causing attacks in the United States. And I think his thinking was very much along these lines, which is we must not do the terrorists' work for them.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who is NPR's social science correspondent and also host of the new podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.