Americas, Politics

Evaluating the Explanatory Power of Social Identity Theory, …


RESEARCH ARTICLE                                                       the rest volume 9, number 2, summer 2019

Evaluating the Explanatory Power of Social Identity Theory, Inter-group Contact Hypothesis, and Integrated Threat Theory in Explaining Prejudice against Muslim Americans in the United States

Malek Abduljaber* & Ilker Kalin**


* Lighthouse Academic Services, LLC, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

** Lighthouse Academic Services, LLC, Ann Arbor, MI, USA



Social Identity Theory
Contact Hypothesis
Integrated Threat Theory

Received 4 March 2019
Revised 7 April 2019
Accepted 3 May 2019

There has been limited empirical research on the determinants of prejudice against Muslims in the United States compared to prejudice directed at African-Americans and Hispanics. This research has failed to incorporate all relevant theoretical frameworks in a single model, leaving researchers with conclusions plagued by omitted variable biases, inflated explained variances, and inaccurate effect sizes. The most important contribution of the present study is presentation of the explanatory power for three well-cited theories and a single model blending these explanations. This study contributes to the ongoing debate about anti-Muslim attitudes in the US by merging social identity, contact hypothesis, and integrated threat theories. An ordinal regression analysis is utilized on current data available from a Pew Research study on American attitudes toward Muslims. Findings of this research indicate that social identity theory has weak explanatory power in explaining prejudice toward Muslims. Integrated threats theory, however, has a strong influence on prejudice, and contact hypothesis seems to be the strongest predictor, exhibiting that contact with Muslims reduces the likelihood of prejudice towards them.



In 2018, Muslims made up 1.1% of the total United States (U.S.) population and accounted for around 18% of the total hate crime incidents reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the previous year (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017; Mohamed, 2018). The FBI defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017). Since the election of President Donald J. Trump into the oval office in 2016, the hate crime rate against Muslims in the U.S. has skyrocketed, surpassing the spike following the September 11 attacks. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the Trump Administration also became apparent with the passing of Executive Order13769 “Protecting the nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” often referred to colloquially as the “Muslim ban” or “travel ban,” restricting entry to the United States of individuals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen (White House, 2017). In a 2018 American Muslim Poll, the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) concluded in their report that:

“A higher proportion of Muslims (61%) than any other faith group (or the non-affiliated groups) report experiencing religious discrimination. Women, Arabs, and the young are the most likely members of the community to experience religious discrimination” (Youssef & Mogahed, 2018: 4).

Islamophobic attitudes and behaviours have been associated with lower levels of mental and psychological well-being among Muslim-Americans (Herek, Gillis & Cogan, 1999; Jasperse, Ward & Jose, 2012).  Herek, Gillis and Cogan (1999) concluded that victims of hate crimes suffer from psychological distress more frequently when compared to victims of other types of crimes. Hate crime victims are also associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, anger, and post-traumatic stress disorder in comparison to victims of other crimes (Boeckmann & Turpin-Petrosino, 2002; Gerstenfeld, 2011; McDevitt, Balboni, Garcia & Gu. 2001). Studies have also found that Muslim children aged between 11 and 18 developed more social withdrawal, sadness, and distress as a result of experiencing difficulty in acculturation due to perceived or actual anti-Muslim discrimination (Goforth, Oka, Leong & Denis, 2014; Goforth, Pham, Chun, Castro-Olivo & Yosai, 2016). Further, Ali, Yamada and Mahmood (2015) reported lower levels of job satisfaction among Muslim women (both those who wear the hijab and those who do not) due to perceived or actual discrimination at the workplace based on their religious beliefs and traditions. The increasing rise of bias-related crimes has also caught the attention of a few authors, leading to their viewing hate crimes toward Muslim-Americans as a public health issue (Samari, 2016). Prejudice toward Muslim-Americans has also been associated with lower acculturation, integration, and assimilation rates at both local and national levels (Bhatia & Ram, 2009; Norris & Inglehart, 2012). Muslims therefore tend to refrain from political participation, civil society activism, and seeking employment at all government levels (Dana, Wilcox-Archuleta & Barreto, 2017; Cho, Gimpel & Wu, 2006). Hate crimes toward Muslim-Americans has also resulted in lower levels of trust in law enforcement, judicial, and governmentally-operated or funded institutions (Wahiba & Suarez, 2009; Robles, 2017).

Empirical investigation of the determinants of prejudice against Muslims in the United States has been limited and suffers from several inconsistencies. First, quantitative analyses of survey data on attitudes toward Muslims in America have generated conflicting findings across contexts. For instance, increased contact with Muslims was found to be positively associated with decreased anti-Muslim sentiments in one study while it did not exhibit any significant effect on feelings towards Muslims in another (Amir, 1976; Pettigrew & Troop, 2006; Jung, 2012; Hewstone & Swart, 2011). Meanwhile, a group of studies found that Republicans and conservatives have more antagonistic feelings toward Muslims compared to Democrats and liberals (Kalkan, Layman & Uslaner, 2009; Wike & Grim, 2010). A more recent nuanced analysis has found that liberals tend to view Muslims just as negatively as conservatives (Helbling, 2014). Studies on the determinants of Islamophobia often rely on only a single theoretical framework while many theories have been identified as potential explanations, thus jeopardizing the findings to model misspecifications and omitted variable biases.

This study contributes, therefore, to the scholarship on prejudice towards Muslims in the United States along several fronts. First, at the theoretical level, three widely cited frameworks (social identity theory, contact hypothesis, and integrated threat theory) that have been proposed to explain prejudice towards minorities such as Muslims in the U.S. are tested simultaneously by using a carefully specified model constructed with a recent data set from Pew Research (a non-partisan and nonadvocacy nonprofit organization dedicated to opinion polling, demographic data collection, and data-driven social science research).  Second, at a methodological level, most contemporary studies have utilized inappropriate statistical techniques, such as multiple linear regression and structural equation modelling, in addition to using ordinal level data that is best fitted by ordinal logistic regression as utilized in the present study. Third, at the substantive level, the study models the relationship between several moderating hypotheses, linking threats, social anxiety, and social categorization to prejudice by using cited demographic factors, age, educational level, and religious affiliation as moderators. The study also explicitly models the relationship between self-identified supporters of President Trump and prejudice towards Muslims. Finally, a number of applied policy proposals are presented along several fronts, aimed at mitigating the frequency and severity of prejudice against Muslims.

Findings of this research suggest that the contact hypothesis is the strongest predictor for explaining prejudice toward Muslims. Namely, the higher the frequency and quality of relationship with Muslim-Americans an individual has the lower their prejudice seems to be. This finding supports recent research on contact and intergroup conflict where Allport’s (1954) stringent criteria of contact has been challenged. Further, the study has found limited support for social identity theory as an explanation for prejudice toward Muslims. This may be due to the lower comparable status of Muslims in comparison to the majority group, Caucasians, in the United States.  Realistic threats have been confirmed to be one of the strongest predictors of prejudice toward Muslims and other minorities. Addressing the problem of prejudice towards Muslims is not an easy task, and work is needed on multiple fronts such as public education, media, mental health, and, most importantly, public policy.

Literature Review


Reviewing the increasing number of definitions for Islamophobia, Bleich (2012) found that most attempts at conceptualizing the term have failed in fully capturing its analytical elements. He refers to Islamophobia as “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims” (Bleich, 2012:182). This combines the unjustified fear of Islam and Muslims with the stereotyping reality of portraying the faith and its members in the West. This definition also resolves the increasing problem of dismissing the concept altogether, fearing its limited value for social scientific analytical purposes. Islamophobia under such conceptualization is similar to xenophobia or prejudice, real social phenomena which have been studied for decades. Scholars have increasingly proposed Islamophobia measures for countries such as the U.S., United Kingdom (U.K.) and Canada (Helbling, 2010; Helbing, 2013; Ciftci, 2012; Ho, 2007; Lambert & Githens-Mazer, 2010; Morgan, 2016; Bayrakli & Hafez, 2016). Few, however, have proposed full, reliable, and validated scales. Others have utilized survey, focus group, and interview data in measuring Islamophobia as either a unidimensional or multi-dimensional construct. One of the most promising attempts has been conducted by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in 2018 when they commissioned a large-scale phone interview survey among the general American public (including Muslims), and administered the Islamophobia Index poll. The ISPU measures included several survey-based items, asking respondents about their views on Muslims, authoritarian policies, gender attitudes, and citizens’ freedoms and rights (Youssef & Mogahed, 2018).

                Explaining Islamophobia

Social Identity Theory

In a series of articles, Tajfel, Turner, and their colleagues presented the social identity theory as a potential explanatory framework for prejudice and discrimination against minorities living in the West (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Tajfel, Turner & Austin, 1979; Turner, Brown & Tajfel, 1979). The theory posits that an individual goes through three distinct cognitive processes: self-categorization, self-identification, and social comparison when defining their social position with respect to their identity. Individuals are naturally prone to elevate their self-esteem, status, and social legitimacy by viewing the groups they identify with as socially victorious, glorified, and superior. In so doing they indulge in the process of denigrating other groups, particularly those that are outside of their self-identified choices. The social identity theory has been used and validated in explaining mainstream biases among Caucasians in the United States, particularly their discriminatory attitudes and behaviours toward African-Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic minority groups in America (Bonilla-Silva, Goar & Embrick, 2006; Negy, Shreve, Jensen & Uddin, 2003).

Studies on Muslims in the West confirm the empirical relevance of social identity theory for explaining the presence and persistence of Islamophobia. Caucasians view colour, religion, race, and worldviews of Muslims as distinct from the Judeo-Christian heritage and maintain a belief in them being inferior to the American way of life. Studies have demonstrated that American Caucasians frequently exercise ethnocentrism, producing negative effects on Muslim-Americans and their faith (Kalkan et al., 2009). Similarly, Xenophobia has been found to be a natural progression of in-group favouritism practiced by the mainstream group in the U.S. and Europe, Caucasians, placing other cultures at the bottom of the social legitimacy hierarchy (Allen & Nielsen, 2002; Goforth et al., 2014).

One of the most important conditions for social identity theory to have a significant effect on prejudice is the degree to which sticky cleavages are institutionalized. Sticky cleavages refers to divisions between citizens based on race, ethnicity, religion, and skin colour (characteristics that are hard to change within individuals). In the United States, while such characteristics are important for explaining prejudice against African-Americans, they are not for Muslims. This is because Muslims are frequently identified as Caucasian in many contexts such as the national census. Therefore, Americans, many Caucasian, do not distance themselves as thoroughly from Muslims nor view them as completely different. As the above-mentioned surveys indicated, many Americans do not have Muslim friends or contacts. Therefore, social identity theory will not likely show much explanatory power unless refined measures that are currently unavailable are utilized.

Inter-group Contact Hypothesis

Gordon Allport (1954) suggested that prejudice towards minority groups and tolerance towards outside groups may fluctuate under a certain set of conditions. That is to say, if the two groups have shared goals and equal status, prejudice is likely to decrease. More recently, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006) found that contact decreases prejudice under most sets of conditions, excluding hostile settings. This line of research concluded that individuals’ attitudes toward a group may not necessarily differ from negative to positive. It argues that people start simply acting more positively due to an emotional feeling informing the individual that members of the other group are likable.

Studies on anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States and Western Europe have largely supported the contact hypothesis (Pettigrew, 2008; Jung, 2012). More frequent contact with Muslim friends, partners, work peers, and neighbours have all been associated with decreased levels of prejudice. Contact hypothesis literature on Islamophobia has not accounted for the effects of different levels, types, and intensity of contact, however, limiting its ability to generalize the contact hypothesis across prejudice against Muslim-Americans generally.

Integrated Threats Theory

Social scientists have proposed several arguments which explain prejudice against minorities, relying on perceived or real threats faced by the mainstream Caucasians in the US. Roccas and Brewer (2002) proposed three types of threats potentially felt by the majority group: aversive, realistic, and symbolic. Empirical investigations of intolerance toward minorities in the United States have found that Americans’ prejudiced attitudes and behaviours are informed by their feelings of threat (Charles-Toussaint & Crowson, 2010; Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003). Americans have been found to feel insecure about their jobs, welfare benefits, national security, and way of life in light of increasing immigration and multiculturalism.

Aversive threats refer to implicit negative perceptions toward minority groups. For example, many Caucasians believe that Muslims lack proper education, communication, and assimilation, thus threatening the stability of institutions (whether work, government, or education). Therefore, discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, occurs in many domains. Reports indicate that Muslims are discriminated against, especially in employment. Symbolic threats refer to perceived dangers of undesirable cultural change. Many Caucasian-Americans believe that the Muslim faith and its followers are changing the American way of life, however it is understood. Therefore, they spread messages and engage in actions that aim to reduce the number of Muslims in the United States, the Travel Ban being one example. Realistic threats refer to the immediate effects the minority group has on the majority group. These include loss of employment, services, or family and friends due to violent attacks.

Studies of Islamophobia have confirmed the logic of the integrated threats theory in America (Uenal, 2016a; González et al., 2008). Realistic threats have been consistently demonstrated to be the best predictor of anti-Muslim sentiment. Similarly, symbolic and cultural threats posed by Islam and the people associating with it in the US has been found to be a reliable predictor of intolerance towards Muslims (Uenal, 2016b). The integrated threats theory has therefore been the best potential framework for explaining Islamophobia in the West.

Moderating Factors

Ideological Orientations

Social scientists have found a strong association between political views and attitudes towards minorities. Authoritarian individuals typically value conformity, tradition, religion, and family while opposing cultural and societal change. As a result, these individuals have typically viewed minority groups with negativity and disfavour. In the US, Republican Party members have been found to exhibit less favourable views towards minority groups, including Muslims (Kalkan, et al., 2009). Similarly, Wike and Grim (2010) found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to hold negative views about Islam, associate Islam with violence, and believe that Muslims do not enjoy the same rights as other religious minorities. This finding has also been consistent across Western Europe where conservatives have been found to possess increased animosity towards Muslims in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Research on the prevalence of prejudice has highlighted the importance of ideological belief systems in predicting intolerance toward minorities. First, the just-world outlook suggests that the world has both good and bad people, stigmatized groups or individuals deserve their negative portrayal, and, therefore, they should be punished for the actions they have committed explicitly or implicitly. Oswald (2005) has demonstrated that individuals who subscribe to the just world view are more likely to exhibit prejudicial attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs living both in the US and abroad.  Research on minority intolerance has also noted the significance of social dominance theory in explaining the attitudes of mainstream group members toward minorities. Individuals who believe in social hierarchies and view their identity group as more deserving compared to others are more likely to exhibit anti-Muslim attitudes (Pratto et al., 1994). Gibson (2007) has also demonstrated that individuals who view their religious group as more worthy are likely to have higher levels of Islamophobia. 

Individuals with liberal values have traditionally been more tolerant of minorities across the US and Western Europe. Recent studies indicate that liberals are more open toward the integration of Muslims into western society. However, despite holding favourable views towards Muslims as a religious group, some liberals have been found to be against the introduction of Islamic practices such as wearing headscarves in public schools (Helbling, 2014). They are likely to oppose such measures since they consider them contrary to modern, liberal, western values. In line with this argument, Sniderman and Hagendoorn (2007) demonstrated that people in the Netherlands view Muslims favourably, however, they exhibit disdain to their religious traditions and practices as gender biased and illiberal. This finding was confirmed in a Pew research poll asking individuals about their views towards banning the Muslim veil, finding consistent support for the ban across education and income levels (Lipka, 2016).


Religiosity has been found to have different effects on attitudes toward Muslims in the West, with many studies linking religiosity to intolerance and prejudice against minorities. The more religious individuals are, the more likely it becomes they will possess prejudiced attitudes toward outgroups (Batson & Stocks, 2005).  An early analysis demonstrated that increased levels of religious attachments are associated with applying negative associations to minority groups. Other investigations have found that higher church attendance is linked with increasingly negative attitudes toward religious minorities. Wike & Grim (2010) concluded that religiosity has a direct effect on negative attitudes toward Muslims in the US and Western Europe.  While this finding has been corroborated by many studies, Fetzer and Soper (2003) analysed levels of Islamophobia in France, Germany, and England, concluding that less religious individuals tended to view Muslims more favourably compared to individuals with high religiosity.  To the contrary of the expected outcome between religiosity and anti-Muslims attitudes, Ogan, Willnat, Pennington and Bashir (2014) found individuals in France who viewed religion as more important held positive views of Muslims. This confirmed Helbling’s (2010) idea, arguing that religious individuals are more likely to be favourable of immigrants, including Muslims, since their faith requires them to appreciate humans from all backgrounds.  Similarly, Helbling (2014) suggested that religious people are supportive of the introduction of Muslim practices into the public sphere in Europe.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hunsberger and Jackson (2005) found little to no relation between levels of religiosity and prejudiced attitudes toward minorities in the US and Western Europe. Similarly, Scheepers, Gijsberts and Hello (2002) conducted a cross-national study between eleven European nations, finding few significant impacts of religiosity on intolerance towards minorities. The authors concluded that such effects are weak and therefore have little to no practical significance on predicting intolerance. Ogan, Willnat, Pennington, & Bashir (2014) on the other hand, found no connection between religious practice and anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States.

Demographic Factors

Research on prejudice and anti-Muslim attitudes has pointed to demographic factors as potential variables for explaining negative attitudes toward minority groups in the West. Specifically, age has been found to influence the possession of negative attitudes towards racial, religious, and ethnic minority groups such as Muslims. Older individuals, in particular, are more likely to maintain negative portrayals and stereotypes of Muslims.   On the other hand, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute found that younger Americans are generally more tolerant of Muslims in addition to being less anti-Semitic (Markoe, 2011).

Studies of intolerance and prejudice have also investigated the intersections between an individuals’ socio-economic status, educational level, and gender with holding a negative attitude toward minority groups. Higher socio-economic status has been shown to be correlated with more tolerant views of Muslims and other minority groups, such as homosexuals, in the US (Keeter & Kohut, 2003; Ohlander, Batalova & Treas, 2005; Wike & Grim, 2010).  This correlation between higher socio-economic levels and acceptance of Muslims and other minorities has also been shown to extend throughout the West (Strabac & Listhaug, 2008). Despite these findings, ones’ level of socio-economic status has been measured differently across available studies and was found to be unrelated to prejudice against minorities in a few investigations (Sheridan, 2006; Shryock, 2010). Increased education has also been said to decrease the likelihood of harbouring intolerant views towards others (Hello, Scheepers & Gijsberts, 2002; Vogt, 1997).  Ogan, Willnat, Pennington, and Bashir (2014) found that individuals with higher levels of education had more favourable views of Muslims in the US, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Similarly, Fetzer and Soper (2005) found that more educated individuals in France, Germany, and England were less likely to view Muslims negatively. While gender has been included as a potential explanatory factor for intolerance towards religious or political outgroups, its influence has been found to be mixed. Golebiowska (2009) found women to be less tolerant of political out-groups while no difference between men and women was observed with respect to attitudes toward religious minorities. However, Wike & Grim (2010) found that women were less tolerant of Muslims in the West.

Research on intolerance and prejudice has also pointed to the importance of religious affiliation for explaining negative attitudes toward minority groups. Kalkan, Layman, and Uslaner (2009) found that Jews were more likely to hold negative feelings toward Muslims compared to other religious groups in the United States. They argued that this dynamic may be caused by the long-lasting conflict between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.  Religious Christians are also expected to exhibit higher animosity towards Muslims (Fetzer and Soper, 2005). This is likely because they constitute the majority religious group, thus seeking to preserve their dominance by decreasing the influence of growing religious groups such as Muslims.

Theory Building – Conceptual Model

From the aforementioned literature review on prejudice against Muslims in the United States, it is clear that authors have utilized three main social scientific theories to explain the phenomenon under investigation: social identity theory, contact hypothesis and integrated threats theory. Notice that none of the existing studies has evaluated the merit of all theories together, exposing their research findings to omitted variable biases and misspecification. Further, most current research has not explored the moderating effects of demographic factors such as age, gender, educational level, political affiliation, and religiosity on the relationship between hypothesized exogenous constructs and endogenous outcomes of intolerance toward Muslims.

Figure 1 displays a unified conceptual model that tests the direct and indirect effects of the widely hypothesized relationships between prejudice against Muslims in the United States and the numerous theories and demographic factors mentioned previously. Note that the model holds that there is a direct effect which connects the social identity, contact hypothesis, and integrated threats theories. In addition, the model holds that demographic factors moderate only a few of the relationships connecting various constructs in the three theories with prejudice against Muslims. Based on the literature review, this research sets the stage for empirically testing the relevance of the thirteen hypotheses exhibited in table 1.

Figure 1. Conceptual Model

 To see the figure please download the article


Table 1. Theory Building and Suggested Hypotheses

Theory/Variable Hypothesis
Social Identity Theory  
Self-Categorization Higher perceptions of self-categorization with the majority group are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
In-group Favoritism Higher perceptions of in-group favoritism are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Out-group Criticism Higher perceptions of out-group criticism are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims.
Contact Hypothesis
Frequency of Contact Higher levels of contact with Muslims are associated with less prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Intensity of Contact Higher levels of quality relationships with Muslims are associated with less prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Integrated Threat Theory  
Social Anxiety Higher perceptions of social anxiety are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Symbolic Threats Higher perceptions of symbolic threats are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Realistic Threats Higher perceptions of realistic threats are associated with higher levels of prejudice against Muslims in the United States.
Moderating Hypotheses  
Age*Symbolic Threat The relationship between symbolic threat and prejudice against Muslims is more pronounced among older Americans.
Religiosity*In-group favoritism The relationship between in-group favoritism and prejudice against Muslims is more pronounced among more religious Americans.
Political Affiliation*Social Anxiety The relationship between social anxiety and prejudice against Muslims is more pronounced among Americans who self-identify as conservatives.
Protestant*Self-categorization The relationship between those who identify as members of the majority and prejudice against Muslims is more pronounced among individuals who self-identify as Protestants.
Educational Level* Out-group criticism The relationship between out-group criticism and prejudice against Muslims is less pronounced among Americans with higher levels of education.





The target population of this study is all United States citizens. A nationally representative sample of this population was previously drawn utilizing a probability sampling technique developed by Pew Research Centre and its partners. This research applies this recent dataset on American attitudes toward politics and religion to answer questions spanning a variety of topics, including attitudes toward Muslims and Islam. Using a sample of 2,009 adults, interviews were conducted between Jan 7th and Jan 14th, 2016.  Sample participants were drawn from landline and Random Digit Dial (RDD) cell phone frames. The sample was weighted based on demographic information obtained from the American Community Survey and drawn based on a multi-stage probability design. The Pew survey was also pre-tested with a pilot sample administered by experienced interviewers. Responses from the pilot study were analysed and changes made in order to increase the quality of the questionnaire and protocol of the interview. Questions included items asking Americans about their attitudes toward Muslims and other religious groups. The questionnaire also included a detailed demographic section, asking individuals to report their age, educational level, income, social status, and religiosity.

In light of data availability and accessibility to robust measures of social identity theory, contact hypothesis, and integrated threats theory, this research utilizes a wide range of binary and ordinal measures offered by the Pew data. Notice that the choice of the Public Opinion Survey (2016) offered through the Pew Charitable Trust over more recent data has been informed by the nature of the questions asked in the utilized data. This data included direct measures of American’s views toward Muslims, contact with Muslim-Americans, and an array of social anxiety and integrated threat indicators.

To measure the dependent variable, prejudice against Muslims, the research utilized the following question “regardless of the specific candidates who are running for president, we’d like to know how you generally feel about some different traits….First, would you be more likely or less likely to support a candidate for president who is a Muslim?” (Q63). The measure is an ordinal level variable where respondents can choose from “more likely,” “less likely,” or “does not matter.” The variable was recoded where 0 = more likely, 1 = does not matter, and 2 = less likely. In this recoding procedure, higher scores correspond to a lower likelihood of voting for an American president who is Muslim, which indicates higher perceptions of prejudice toward Muslims in America.

To measure the social identity theory, three constructs were operationalized: self-categorization, in-group favouritism, and out-group criticism. Self-categorization was measured by whether the individual identified with the majority or minority groups, and was operationalized with race, 0 = non-White and 1 = White (Caucasian). In-group favouritism was measured by the degree to which Americans desired their president to share their religious beliefs. This is an indication of ones’ value of their self-identified group. This was operationalized with an item asking respondents “how important is it to you that a president shares your religious beliefs?” This is an ordinal variable that was recoded to reflect higher score correspondences to higher values of importance, 1 = not at all important, 2 = not too important, 3 = somewhat important, and 4 = very important. Finally, out-group criticism was operationalized with a binary measure asking respondents “which religion or religions, in particular, have teachings that promote violence, Islam?”

Measuring contact hypothesis is difficult given the paucity of measures on contact between Americans and Muslims in the United States. The Pew data, however, contained two direct measures of contact with Muslims. First, a binary measure asking respondents “do you personally know anyone who is Muslim, or not?” is utilized. Second, an ordinal measure asking Americans “and about how many people who are Muslim would you say you personally know” is used as an indicator of intensity and quality of the relationships. The logic behind this is that the more Muslims an American knows, the more quality and intensity the relationship with one or more Muslims would show. The measure was recoded into 0 = only one, 1 = some, and 3 = a lot.

Integrated threat theory was measured by three indicators. First, the realistic threat construct was operationalized utilizing the question “what’s your impression – how many Muslims in this country, if any, are anti-American?” The variable was also recoded into 1 = Just a few, 2 = some, 3 = about half, 4 = most, and 5 = almost all. Symbolic threat was measured by an ordinal variable asking respondents “which of the following statements comes closer to your view even if neither is exactly right? (1) The next president should be careful not to criticize Islam as a whole when speaking about Islamic extremists; (2) The next president should speak bluntly about Islamic extremists even if the statements are critical of Islam as a whole; (3) Neither/both equally; (9) Don’t know/refused.” The measure was recoded into 0 = less critical of Islam, 1 = neither statements/neutral, and 3 = more critical of Islam.  Social anxiety was measured by an ordinal scale asking respondents whether Donald J. Trump would be a great president if elected. Higher scores represented positive perceptions of Trump.

One of the most noteworthy observations to be made about the measurement of the proposed variables is that the items available to test the merit of the proposed arguments suffered from measurement issues. First, direct measures of the three proposed theories do not exist. Therefore, indirect measures were utilized, which exposes the analysis to problems of validity. While few items are arguably related to the constructs that were intended to be measured in this analysis, such metrics may further fail to capture the complexity and breadth of the construct. Therefore, the findings should be accepted with caution and future research should focus on collecting and using more refined metrics.

The survey also includes measures for demographic data, including age, religion, religiosity, educational level, and political affiliation. Religiosity is measured by an ordinal variable asking respondents about their frequency of attending religious services. Educational level is measured by an ordinal variable asking about the highest level of education attained. Religion is assessed by a binary measure regarding whether the respondent was Protestant or not. Finally, political affiliation is measured by whether respondents self-identified as Republicans or Democrats.

To fit the conceptual model ordinal logistic regression is utilized with the 2016 Public Opinion Survey data available from Pew Research. This statistical procedure is more appropriate than those used in previous studies given the measurement level of the dependent variable: ordered categories. Ordinal logistic regression produces more robust and accurate estimates of explanatory variable coefficients in comparison to multiple linear regression or binary logistic regression. It also preserves the nature of the outcome without needing to modify its measurement to fit another technique, such as the presence or absence of the outcome, as is the case in binary regression models.


The study began by comparing American attitudes toward Muslims and other religious and minority groups living in the United States. Table 2 displays the percentages of Americans willing to support a presidential candidate who is a Muslim, an evangelical Christian, atheist, or homosexual. The percentage of Americans who are willing to support a Muslim presidential candidate is less than all other comparison groups; 2.7% compared with 21.8% for evangelical Christians, 5.7% for atheists, and 3.5% for homosexuals. Those differences were also found to be statistically significant when t tests were conducted (not shown for space saving).


Table 2. Would You Support a Presidential Candidate Who is a (an) …?

More/Less Likely to Support Muslim Evangelical Christian Atheist Homosexual
More Likely to support 2.7 21.8 5.7 3.5
Less Likely to support 43.4 21.4 51.6 26.0
Makes no difference 51.7 54.1 41.6 69.0
Don’t know/Refused 2.1 2.7 1.1 1.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Table 3 shows the percentages of Americans believing that certain religions promote violence. It can be seen from this table that among those who responded to the question, 71.7% agreed with the statement that Islam is more likely than Christianity and other religions to promote violence. This difference does not require the performing of a t test since the difference is significantly large. Both tables 2 and 3 demonstrate that Americans possess anti-Muslim attitudes which are likely to be more pronounced compared to other minorities.

Table 3. In Your Opinion: Which of the Following Religions Promote Violence?

Religions Percent
Christianity/Christians 6.3
Islam/Muslims 71.7
Something Else 1.6
All Religions 5.1
Don’t Know/Refused 15.4
Total 100.0

Table 4 displays the ordinal logistic results from three distinct models, testing the explanatory power of each identified theoretical framework separately. Model 1 investigates the effect of the social identity theory on prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Results indicate that in-group favouritism and out-group criticism are statistically significant in explaining anti-Muslim prejudice in the country. The results indicate that self-categorization with the majority group is not statistically significant. On average, however, there is an increase seen on in-group favouritism; in other words, Americans who believe that the president should share their beliefs are almost twice as likely than those who do not share this view to not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate. Similarly, Americans who believe that Islam promotes violence are twice less likely to vote for a Muslim candidate. Identifying as a member of the majority group, Caucasian, does not seem to influence Americans’ likelihood of supporting a Muslim candidate for the presidency however.

Model 2 investigates the explanatory power of the contact hypothesis. Results indicate that, on average, Americans who have contact with Muslims are generally less prejudiced toward Muslims in the United States. Having Muslim contacts also decreases the likelihood of not supporting a Muslim presidential candidate. Further, knowing more Muslim-Americans also significantly decreases the likelihood of Americans to be less likely to support a Muslim candidate to the presidency.

Model 3 investigates whether the integrated threat theory explains prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Results support the logic behind the threats hypothesis. Social anxiety, measured by support for president Trump, increased the odds of Americans to be less likely to support a Muslim-American candidate by two-times, compared to those who do not support him or reflect ambivalent feelings toward him. Further, Americans who believe that the president should be critical of Islam’s threat to America are twice as likely than those who do not to withhold support for a Muslim presidential candidate. Finally, Americans who believe that most Muslims in the United States present a real threat to America are also twice as likely as those who do not to be hold back support for a Muslim candidate to the U.S. presidency.

Notice that the contact hypothesis carries the strongest effect on prejudice against Muslims in the United States. The Psuedo-R2 associated with the contact hypothesis is 0.35. This is stronger when compared to the integrated threat theory (0.29) and the social identity theory (0.21). Such a result should be taken carefully and interpreted in light of the constructs’ measurements being limited by the availability of data.

Table 4. Ordinal Logistic Regression Results Models 1-3

  Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Theory/Variable OR P< OR P< OR P<
Social Identity Theory
Self-Categorization 1.08 0.83
In-group Favoritism 1.93 0.01
Out-group Criticism 1.99 0.01
Contact Hypothesis
Frequency of Contact 0.22 0.01
Intensity of Contact 0.28 0.01
Integrated Threat Theory
Trump Support 2.18 0.01
Symbolic Treat 1.96 0.03
Realistic Treat 2.12 0.01
Pseudo R2 0.21 0.35 0.29


Table 5 presents the findings of the ordinal logistic models performed with model 4 testing all three theories simultaneously and model 5 including all proposed hypotheses. Model 4 confirms the findings highlighted in table 4. The contact hypothesis constructs appear to be the strongest predictors of prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Further, the influence of social identity theory was weakened by the introduction of more explanatory variables. The effect of in-group favouritism was seen to fade, and thus became insignificant statistically. Outgroup criticism was found to be the only statistically significant construct in the social identity theory framework. Finally, the effect of the integrated threat theory appears to be consistent where all of its constructs are still statistically significant, except for symbolic threats.

Model 5 tests the effects of all three theories in addition to the moderating hypotheses proposed in figure 1 above. The model indicates that the contact theory is the strongest predictor of prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Further, the effect of social identity theory seems to be further weakened with only out-group criticism being a statistically significant construct. Symbolic threat is also the only construct that is not statistically significant within the integrated threats theory. Notice that only one of the five moderating hypotheses was supported. Religious Caucasian Americans seem to be less likely to support a Muslim candidate for the presidency in comparison to non-religious Caucasians. Notice that the addition of the moderating relationships does not add a great value in explaining prejudice against Muslims in the United States, 6 percent, which represents the difference between the two Pseudo-R2s.

Table 5. Ordinal Logistic Regression Results Models 4-5

Model 4 Model 5
Theory/Variable OR P OR P
Social Identity Theory
Self-Categorization 1.19 0.49 1.05 0.89
In-group Favouritism 1.22 0.81 1.19 0.87
Out-group Criticism 1.69 0.04 1.69 0.04
Contact Hypotheses
Frequency of Contact 0.34 0.01 2.33 0.01
Intensity of Contact 0.31 0.01 0.39 0.01
Integrated Threat Theory
Trump Support 1.97 0.01 1.82 0.02
Symbolic Threat 1.46 0.47 1.26 0.67
Realistic Threat 2.09 0.01 1.98 0.01
Moderating Hypotheses
Age*Symbolic Threat 0.94 0.78
Religiosity*In-group favouritism 1.12 0.64
Political Affiliation*Social Anxiety 0.82 0.89
Protestant*Self-categorization 1.87 0.02
Educational Level* Out-group criticism 0.82 0.84
Pseudo R2 0.47 0.53

Discussion and Conclusions

The findings of this study confirm earlier results from the literature exploring prejudice toward minorities, particularly Muslims, in the West. Threat perceptions were found to be important predictors of fear toward Muslims in America. More importantly, contact with Muslims seems to be the strongest remedy for anti-Muslim attitudes and behaviours. These findings point to the relative strength of the contact hypothesis, as well as the integrated threat theory, in explaining anti-Muslim perceptions among the public in the US.

More importantly, the findings allude to prejudice toward Muslims being similar to those characterizing unjustified fear of other minorities. The moderating effect of Protestantism on the majority self-categorization also appears to be statistically significant. This indicates that the majority of Americans, protestant Caucasians, feel they belong to an unique group from the rest of the US and are threatened by the exponential increase in the size and influence of minority groups across the nation.

The findings of this research also carry significant theoretical implications. First, social identity theory was found to be a weak explanatory framework for understanding prejudice toward Muslims in the United States. This finding is consistent with more recent analyses on social identity theory.  Lalonde (2002) found that social identity theory is most relevant when the members of the majority group compare themselves with socially comparable groups, such as Canadians versus Americans in Canada. Muslims in the United States do not exceed 2% of the entire population, and the vast majority of Americans do not interact with Muslims on a daily basis, thereby making Muslims a non-socially comparable group to the Caucasian majority. Further, the prevalence of multiple identities in self-categorization for many Americans is more likely to weaken the cognitive process of filtering groups into static social conglomerates (Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015).

Findings also lend support to the strong influence of integrated threats on prejudice toward minorities. More specifically, realistic threat has been consistently found to be a strong predictor of prejudice across different groups. The lack of significance by symbolic threats in some of the previously tested models may be due to the lack of precise measures for symbolic threats in the utilized dataset. Further, social anxiety as measured by support of President Trump indicate a clear and significantly positive relationship between anxiety and prejudice. In short, supporters of the president are more likely to be found less tolerant toward minority groups.

Chief among the findings of this research is the fact that simple contact with Muslims reduces the likelihood of prejudice toward them. This finding is consistent with more recent developments in intergroup-contact scholarship. While Allport (1954) concluded that contact reduces intolerance, he stipulated a number of stringent assumptions. Recent meta-analyses concluded that simple contact reduces prejudice, which was confirmed by more recent studies (Paluck, Green & Green, 2018). More importantly, the more Muslims that Americans maintain contact and establish relationships (whether personal, work-related, or romantic) with, the less prejudice is seen. While data on the quality of relationships between Americans and Muslims living in the United States is limited, recent reports have indicated the existence of such benefits in these relationships (Scacco & Warren, 2018).

This study has also sought to test the moderating effects of demographic factors, cited to be predictors of prejudice toward Muslims, on Americans’ likelihood of supporting a Muslim candidate for presidency as an indicator of prejudice. These findings did not find support for the four moderating hypotheses. One of the hypotheses was supported, however, the influence of Protestantism on being a member of the majority group. This finding has been supported elsewhere in the limited literature on anti-Muslim prejudice within the United States. A recent report has even noted that evangelical Caucasians are the group that is most likely to be prejudiced towards Muslims in America.  

Note that the current study has been limited by data availability on prejudice toward Muslims as well as other measures used to operationalize the specified constructs. This is a handicap since the current research is cross-sectional and intergroup relations are influenced by social and political environments. Muslims in the United States today are subjected to an increased frequency of hate crimes in comparison to other periods, reflecting the changing nature of potential effects for the explanatory factors utilized in this analysis. Therefore, the effects of noted theories and constructs are not by any means static and shifts contingent on the zeitgeist of any specific time period.

Future research on anti-Muslim attitudes should focus on precise individual-level measures rather than attitudes. Survey-based research is subject to a plethora of biases, including systematic and random measurement errors. Therefore, experimental fieldwork is necessary and recommended in this area of research. It helps policy-makers, scholars, and informed readers better understand the pinpointed factors that constitute the most important predictors for prejudice toward Muslims in the United States.

Jack Shaheen, an expert on stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, concluded that the reduction of prejudice toward Muslims begins with the media (Shaheen, 2000). He asserts that Hollywood stakeholders and Television producers should take serious steps toward addressing the negative structural stereotyping in the industry. He further recommends the involvement of Arab and Muslim staff members, producers, and interest groups in revising scripts and scenes (as in the case of the most recent Disney production of Aladdin).

One of the foundations of America’s multicultural institutions is public education, which can also be utilized in reducing prejudice toward Muslims. Administrators, teachers, and leaders in public education are urged to be more active in multicultural campaigns, which raise awareness and education, thereby contributing to the benefits of diversity for everyone in America. This reform should not only revitalize curriculum, engaging Muslims in textbooks and educational material, but also in instruction and assessments where teachers ensure that all children have access to fair and unbiased information on Muslims.

Muslim civil society groups and leaders at both national and local levels should also call for a total engagement campaign by Muslim-Americans. Muslims, as individuals and as groups, should not embrace an isolationist stance. They should be involved in the political, social, and cultural fabrics of America. Without active involvement, the civil rights campaign and struggles of minorities in the history of the United States would have never come to fruition, nor justice achieved by providing legal defenses for victims of hate crimes and discrimination. Therefore, the system should not be the only focus of the fight for mitigating Islamophobia. Muslim-Americans must engage their communities and should be the best advocates for their own voice and faith in the nation.


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