Asma Uddin is a religious liberties lawyer and author of "The Politics of Vulnerability" and "When Islam is Not a Religion". She applies identity science to her own work.
Dr. Dominic Packer is a social psychologist who co-authored the book "The Power of Us". He shares how our groups shape how we see and respond to the world.
Mussab shares his story of watching the twin towers collapse from his bedroom window as a 4 year old. He is a lawyer and the youngest Muslim elect in Jersey City.
Part 1: Mussab and Dr. Packer
Amna: Its been more than 2 decades since 9/11, but the day still weighs heavily on the hearts of millions of people. Not only because of the deaths of almost 30 00 people, but because for many, it was the start of an increasingly divided America. An overwhelming majority of those old enough, remember where and what they were doing when they learned about the attacks. Mussab Ali remembers too.
Mussab: 9/11 happened when I was just 4 years old
Amna: Mussab had a doctors appointment that day so he was at home at 9 am that morning. So I live in jersey city which basically overlooks downtown Manhattan so we could see the twin towers from my bedroom
Mussab: And I remember looking out of my bedroom window and watching the second plane hit the tower. My mom that day was working in manhattan and so. I just remember really being really scared about if my mom was going to come home.
Amna: Mussab siblings were at home with him just as terrified. With cell service down, and the subway station blocked, they had no way to know if their mom was safe.
Mussab: Like really worried, it was getting really late, and then thankfully eventually my mom got back home. She didn’t get home that day until 2-3 am in the morning because there was really no way out of the island. Cell service was also down. But in the coming days there was definitely a lot of controversy around what exactly happened. And for me I didnt necessarily understand what that meant
Amna: A few days later, in a cloud of fear, Mussabs dad also lost his job
Mussab: What happened is, they basically said to him, ok you have to go get a background check done now. His name was muhamamd and because of his name, they just never approved him to go back to work and so effectively he was just terminated forever, just because of his name. And my mom who wears the hijab and goes to school, she used to take the public transportation into manhattan everyday and I remember she told me for years, no one would sit beside her. Just because she wore the hijab.
Amna: This was a particularly isolating experience because Mussabs mom thrived on social interaction. Prior to 9/11 she loved having her bus ride to work as a time to talk to the bus driver and fellow commuters. Its part of what made her such a beloved teacher at her school. But it wasn’t the only type of discrimination she faced.
Mussab: There was one day when we were at the park, and I remember teenagers throwing rocks at my mom. You know when they were throwing these rocks and saying go back to where you came from, I think that moment really stuck out to me as a moment after 9/11 where we really saw what discrimination could look like in our own city. And it became from muslim identity not necessarily being something that was centered to that being one of the first things that people noticed about me and started to make stereotypes about my identity and who i was.
Asma Uddin: I think 9/11 had an impact on I would say almost every American Muslim in the sense that were forced to become public spokespeople for our religion so whether or not you wanted to do that you have to do that or you were expected to do that.
Amna: Thats Asma Uddin, shes a religious liberty lawyer who not only defended some of the most important cases in America, but has done an impressive amount of research figuring out how to repair bonds between whats really become an identity battleground around the world.
Mussab: For me you know you fast forward 14 years and in 2015 when trump was running for office, he makes this claim about jersey city where he says there were thousands and thousands of muslims cheering on the rooftops. Again thats my town, thats where I grew up and I remember it. There was no one who was cheering on that day. It was a really somber day, and so in response to those comments I ended up running for office becoming the first muslim elected in Jerseys history. I think part of that narrative is what inspired my parents to share their histories about what happened to them during 9/11.
Amna: 9/11 and its aftermath was really an identity war.
Mussab:You know, you gotta realize, we’ve never really had a war happen on our home turf.
Amna: And it was particularly symbolic to attack not only New York City, but the heart of its identity, the twin towers.
Mussab: I felt like people needed somewhere to respond. And so I feel like when they were able to look at muslims sort of like as a scapegoat group to think of them as different. to think of them as people who weren’t a part of the American fabric. So for them it became very easy for them to say ok so muslims are people that are antithetical to what it means to be American
Amna: I wanted to share Mussab’s story because its personal. Prior to 9/11, being muslim to me meant that we celebrated Eid instead of Christmas, that we occasionally went to the mosque to pray and that, if we felt like it, we didn’t eat or drink during the day for one month each year. It was a private, innocent affair - but we were suddenly thrust into a world where it became something we had to wear and defend openly as a seal of our identity. As I got older, insinuating questions about my assumed beliefs sometimes made me feel like I was being accused of a murder that I hadn’t committed.
Since 9/11 suicide rates among muslims have sky rocketed. As of last year we were more than 2 times as likely to commit suicide in America than any other religious group.
And for a long time, I have wondered how just words or questions could so much. In my case, often more than a personal attack made against me. So when I first stumbled on a neuroscience paper that seemed to help explain it, I went down a rabbit hole of paper after paper, book after book - ultimately leading me to my favourite one.
Amna: This is Amna Hyder and you are listening to tethered minds. We are talking to the author of The Power of us, Dr. Dominic Packer. And according to him, we can have multiple identities at one time, like our religion, race, gender, occupation and so on. But he’s looked into some fascinating work that shows that it actually doesn’t take much for us to adopt new kind of arbitrary identities.
Dr. Packer: Right. Absolutely so I think this is some of the most important research done think social sciences in the last 50 years to be honest, although it's less well known than lots of other things it's really evocative and important because it illustrates something pretty fundamental about our group based identities. So of course many of the identity we hold and think are important, find important in our lives are what we call chronic identities so there are things that you might have been born with or or you might have not but you know you you require this identity at some point in that lasts for a long time, but it also turns out that identity is quite a flexible thing that in addition to having these chronic aspects of self we can acquire new ones actually really easily and sometimes almost to the drop of a hat. And at least temporarily, they make a difference in what we do in we think and so the minimal group paradigm was developed in the 1970s by researchers in England
Amna: In this experiment, these researchers they brought in a set of participants, and they showed them pictures of abstract art and then asked them hey which pictures do you like better. And then, completely randomly
Dr. Packer: You can do this by flipping a coin and saying you're on team A or you're on team B.
Amna: Each participant was told that based on their responses, they were either Kandinsky fans or Klee fans.
Dr. Packer: These are completely new groups you've never heard them before you have no stereotypes about being group the out group you know sort of reason to like your group better than another, but what they found and we found in our research many many times is that you do this and immediately people feel more positively toward their own groups in this outgroup they feel more connected, they trust those in-group members more than the outgroup members and if offered the opportunity to discriminate that is say divide up resources between these two groups, when they could be fair, oftentimes they're not oftentimes they'll choose to give more to their own group than to this outgroup again that they've never heard of five minutes ago didn't exist to them, right and what this illustrates is how flexible and dynamic identities are, that in addition to having these really chronic things we have a sort of readiness to identify with new groups as well as they come along.
Amna: And you’ve shown that once we consider ourselves part of a group, it can really affect how we perceive the world. And one of my favourite examples from your book with your co-author Jay is about how our identities can even change our perception of physical distance. Tell us about that.
Dr. Packer: Sure so when an identity is salient to us it can shape all sorts of things, what we're trying to achieve and so on but even our perceptions of the world, even things like our visual perceptions. We also talk about some studies on taste and smell in the book. But in this particular case Jay and his students have done work on perceptions of physical distance and what they generally find is that members of a group that feel threatened or competitive with an outgroup tend to think that outlook is closer to them in space than people who don't feel threatened or competitive with that out group and they've looked for example sports fans they look good fans at the Yankees baseball team and their archrivals the Red Sox and its been found that fans tended to overestimate the proximity of Boston the home with the Red Sox two New York City in the home with the Yankees or they didn't do that with other teams that they didn't see us such strong competitors likewise with American citizens who were concerned about threatened by immigration tended to overestimate the proximity of Mexico an outgroup nation do these people feel presumably threatened by in some way that people are coming to the United States and these particular participants were opposed to that. So it suggests that identities can shape in this in this case these perceptions of proximity
Amna: So Mexican fearing americans think the border is geographically closer to them, and sports fans think the cities of their rival teams are closer. BUT its not how we think about space and distance. Another study showed that our groups can also temporarily affect how well we can do math.
Dr. Packer: It was a study that gave people a problem where one answer to the problem made their group sort of look correct about the issue which were political issues, it was gun control in one case and the groups in question were Republicans and Democrats in the United states.
Amna: These were simple calculations on some data that would either support or oppose your political parties stance on a subject, and in some problems
Dr. Packer: If you did the math correctly it would come out with an answer that
Amna: really challenged your parties political stance
Dr. Packer: and if you did the math incorrectly
Amna: it would support your group
Dr. Packer: and what they found was that if it were a political problem like that they were more likely to get the problem wrong
Amna: These are well intentioned people, who think they are being tested on their math skills, that will literally throw all mathematical logic out the window when their groups are involved.
But its not just math. It also affects how we decide what’s real and what’s not.
Dr. Packer: To test this, Jay and his lab brought in subjects from across the political spectrum and exposed them to real and fake news.
Amna: The general pattern is that people again seem to be less skeptical of information that reflects positively on their group and reflects negatively on an outgroup, especially in a competitive context like politics and so for example a Democrat who reads a headline that makes Republicans look bad tend to be one of those things yeah that's interesting probably more like spread it on social media whereas republican in contrast will sort of downplayed and say that’s not right. But something that comes along that makes Democrats look bad they might like to think Oh yeah that makes sense and perhaps share it on social media. And so that's the general pattern is that we seem again to be less skeptical of information that confirms our existing biases.
Amna: According to Dr. Packer, we dont see the whole world at any given time. We construct what we see based on what we WANT to see.
Dr. Packer: Yes so I think as an overall sort of premise when people identify with a group and it becomes important to identities much like with our personal selves we want to regard our group positively, we want to see our groups as moral, as correct, as competent, as warm as kind as ethical and if we're thinking about our own group we tend to think our groups are better at those things than other groups. What the typical pattern is is that we we think other groups are just fine, but we think our group is better than that right so they're fine we're awesome it would be a common pattern of intergroup bias what some people called in group love rather than outgroup hate.
Amna: So In-group love meaning we naturally tend to think our groups are great or better than others, and that we dont dislike other groups . But outgroup hate is a thing - I mean wars and racism are as old as mankind. So how does this outgroup hate come about?
Dr. Packer: Yeah it's such a great question so if we go back to those minimal group studies what you usually find when people are assigned to a novel group, you find this in group love, instead of outgroup hate pattern so that if asked to say divided resources money, chocolate, nice things between the two groups people will give more of that nice thing to their own group than to the outgroup. But in versions of those experiments where you instead have to divide up negative things that are harmful like for example distribute shocks** electric shocks to members of your in Group your group at least in the sort of basic version actually don't see bias. For the most part that is people don't wanna give nasty things to the out group. In that case they actually tend to be fairly fair.
Amna: So although people act in the favour of their groups to share good things, when it comes to dividing up harmful things, the group dynamics fade away.
Dr. Packer: But you can change that pattern by for example introducing competition between the groups, so the more the two groups are competing for a scarce resource for example, the more likely it is that that in Group love becomes paired with outgroup dislike in part to justify treating your group more negatively in the in the fight for this this resource, or in this competition. Right, so according to these studies its really a fight for resources that would drive any group to do harm on another. But I do see lots of, like hate against the transgender community for example, in which people are mistreated even though there is no resource being threatened.
Amna: So where do you think this hostility is coming from?
Dr. Packer: So the social psychologists can distinguish between different kinds of threats group based threats. One class of threat or what are called realistic threats, and these are sort of threats to sort of objective resources right, so you can imagine there's a scarcity of land and two groups are fighting over who should have the land. That's an actual resource thats driving competition. It could be competition over jobs, competition over water, oil right all of these would be in that realistic threat category and obviously that's driven threat history a great deal of conflictm a great deal of war. But there's another class of threats which are called symbolic threats, and these aren’t about things like water land or oil or money there are about identity. These are threats that people feel that somehow the out group is threatening our very sense of self.
Amna: These symbolic threats come about when there is a difference or atleast a percieved difference between the values and worldview of an ingroup and an outgroup. And for some people, seeing traditional population dynamics change values is a symbolic threat.
Dr. Packer: So who we are fundamentally that they're trying to either changes in ways we don't want to be changed, or they're trying to even you know eradicate us from the face of the earth, not maybe necessarily literally, but they're trying to change is so fundamentally that we wouldn't even be the same people anymore and it turns out at least there's some researchers suggest that between those two kinds of threats the symbolic threats that are actually more powerful and the more dangerous right if people really feel our identity is threatened that's when they're most likely you know wanna punish or harm in out group.
Amna: What do you think it is about symbolic threats that touches us so deeply to our core?
Dr. Packer: Because identities are fundamental to us if we don't know who we are anymore then who are we right? I think once we have an identity when it becomes central it's the sort of thing that we're motivated to protect, as humans.
Amna: Ok so I want to move on to talk about a particular type of outgroup hate. Because yes, people often express hate explicity by saying something racist or using physical violence. But sometimes its unintentional and completely outside of someones normal awareness. And thats implicit bias
Dr. Packer: Well implicit bias is a big concept or has been within social psychology and sort of spread beyond that. So they might manifest in how people say behind closed doors, or when they're under time pressure, or with their body language, but it's not the sort of things that people necessarily would say it loud. And they also tend to be quite rapid responses.
Amna: Starbucks, google, even the police have programs to train people on this. Because implicit bias has real consequences. People can be treated completely unfairly and sometimes even killed because implicit bias had somebody jump to the wrong conclusion about them.
Black men are 2.5 more likely to be killed by police than white men . And twice as likely to be unarmed when shot. Requests from airbnb guests with African sounding names were 16% less likely to get a yes than their white sounding counterparts.
In some cases implicit bias can nudge people to behave in all sorts of explicit ways. In one video posted online, a black man shared how a white woman blocked him from lawfully entering his own apartment building.
You can find hundreds of videos like this, where innocent black men are prevented from entering open properties or accused of stealing things they havent had any contact with because people jumped to some conclusion about them.
People’s implicit biases can be measured in labs by testing their rapid associations with face or names. Most people exhibit race based biases and this often translates to negative associations with black faces vs white ones.
Interestingly though, these biases can change quickly based on the political environment. One study found that post 9/11 Americans exhibited even stronger implicit biases against muslim-arab sounding names or faces than black ones which had been cemented for years. And this was also seen in France following another Al Queda attack. | Amna: But, Dr. Packer has found that there are some ways that you can also rapidly reduce levels of implicit bias.
In one study, they did the minimal group paradigm, where they once again constructed groups over some arbitrary meaningless criteria.
Dr. Packer: And what we find is that for example when we put people we give people these novel identities we put. We do the minimal group kind of studies where we put people on a new team they've never belonged to before interestingly what seems to happen is it can sort of replace the normal patterns of implicit bias that we observe, which are often in the studies we've done our racial biases. It sort of replaces it with a new team based bias, so that people rapidly become positive implicitly toward their new team and less positive toward that the out group team.
Amna: What this means is that subconscious biases that have been cemented for years can potentially be undone by creating some shared group identity between you and people you might be biased against. Its pretty amazing. In fact, this was tested live when public perceptions about muslim and black people changed in France following their 2018 Fifa world victory with 60% of team members being of african descent and another 30% Muslim.But you can’t always create common identities, so Dr. Packer shared an another unintuitive way to get the same outcome. And its this idea of making a group that you are in conflict with, feel better about themselves.
Dr. Packer: Right yeah so there's there's quite a bit of work that's been done in different sorts of domains on what is called self-affirmation. So self-affirmation is getting people prior to receiving some information that might threaten them in some way, to reflect on their own positive qualities, so to think about why they are people of value. And it could be group based, but it could also just be individual level you know why am I a good person? Why what do I do in my life that I'm happy about proud about and so on having done that exercise people then seem to be less threatened by and more receptive to other information that would threaten them.
Dr. Packer: Oh yeah I'm pretty good overall and therefore I'm able to engage with this information that sugg ests changes necessary.
Amna: You’d think that if you make someone feel proud of having a certain identity, they would really go to bat for it. But that self-affirmation makes them less threatened and instead of immediately shutting it down, they are like, hey, lets really think about this. It turns out that while its really hard to change an identity, its pretty easy to change an opinion. And Dr. Packer said, once their identities are secure, people can engage more easily with information that suggests change is necessary. But theres a whole other issue, most of us think that if we are confronted with racism, we would stand up against it. Or at the very least, that if we saw someone else stand against it, we would celebrate them. But it turns out that even when we know change is necessary, its surprisingly hard to go against the grain.
Dr. Packer: Right, at least in the moment. So there's this cool research on moral rebels and then there's related errors of research which finds similar things originally this was done by a guy called Benoit Monet. And the moral rebels in his studies are people who for example are given a task to do that might have racist connotations, and they refused to do it.
Amna: Moral rebels are the types of people who stand up for what they think is right. Who will say no when they are asked to do something that they think is immoral
Dr. Packer: And then the participants in the study observed this behavior
Amna: They watch a video of a moral rebel refusing to do a task with racist connotations.
Dr. Packer: and are asked to judge the person who's engaged in it who seems to have done the principle thing, the right thing, and their response to that person very much depends on what they've done themselves.
Amna: See some of the participants were asked to do that same racist task before they watched the video of someone else refusing to do it.
Dr. Packer: So if they haven't had the chance to make this decision, they tended to judge the rebel positively. So yeah he totally did the right thing. If on the other hand they had previously been given this task to do that has these racist connotations and they done it. Perhaps 'cause they didn't think about it right they didn't realize what the task entailed, and then they see somebody who didn't do it who actually stood up and said no I won't then they tend to disparage and dislike the rebel right and at least in part is because it makes us the people who did it look bad right. Like oh who are they think they're better than us? And so this can be at least one of the reasons why dissenters and moral rebels don't always receive a positive response. So I think these days for example if you do a public opinion poll and ask people Americans feelings about St. Martin Luther King junior civil rights leader right but you'll find a 90 plus percent positivity rating that is the vast majority of people say Oh yeah he was great he's awesome super important American. But if you go back to the 1960s, he was widely regarded by the vast majority of Americans, as a threat, as dangerous as negative, and very few people, or much smaller percentage of people regarded him as positively. In that moment he was a moral threat to a lot of people. Of course now in the past when we look back in the past it's no longer scratch thing actually there's more to it than that but part of the picture So people who are pushing for change in particular change that would suggest that what we are currently doing isn't right, can be experienced as threatening because it seems to challenge or question our own morality.
Amna: Our groups affect how we perceive distance, decide whats fact vs fiction, even how we calculate numbers. But it also affects how we act even when we know something that its wrong.
After the break we will be talking to Asma Uddin, who has applied the pscyhology of group dynamics her own work. She is a religious liberties lawyer who has written 2 great books on how to heal from an increasing identity divide in America.
We will be back with her shortly.
Part 2: Asma Uddin
Amna: You are back with Tethered Minds by Amna Hyder, and we are talking to Asma Uddin who is deeply familiar with how the psychology of our identities are threatening one of the core principles of the free world - the freedom of religion. We will be starting off right where we ended with Mussab - 9/11. And with one story in particular. In 2010 when recreating buildings affected by the 9/11 attacks, a group of developers envisioned a space for multi-faith dialogue called the Cordoba house. But the project took a controversial turn when it faced nationwide protests and ultimately became known as the ground zero mosque.
Asma Uddin: so kind of like what's now known as the Ground Zero mosque. It was dubbed the ground zero mosque, it was never called that by the people who wanted to start it.
Amna: Lots of people saw this building as a threat to the post 9/11 identity they had developed, one that was in opposition to what they thought of as Islam . Michael bloomberg, the mayor of NYC at the time responded to this opposition through his infamous speech on religious liberty.
Mayor Bloomberg: “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another”
Amna: But his words didnt resonate with everyone, and according to Asma
Asma Uddin: and that sort of rage that was generated on a national level against this this building which again was never intended to be a mosque called the ground the Ground Zero mosque sort of ended up spreading out from Manhattan to the rest of the United states and eventually led to a tremendous amount of opposition to pretty much every mosque construction or expansion project that was being undertaken in the years that followed. But the first last to be so affected was that Islamic center Murfreesboro.
Amna: A growing muslim population as more immigrants entered America, meant that there was an increasing need for muslim areas of worship.
Asma Uddin: my own father would sort of went through those steps that so many Muslim communities go through, which is like you know you kind of start off in someone's house, and then you move on to like a store like something you know like maybe a space, and a strip mall and then you kind of go from there to like a bigger building, and then finally the hope is that you get to build your own mosque. And so this was a stage at which ICM was at right and gone through all these other stages there and they had just been it would just wasn't working or just too many people in the congregation and so you know they did what they're supposed to do they apply for permit. The permit was issued and it was published in the local paper that this permit had been issued and that was the beginning of this controversy
Amna: It started with trashing and vandalizing the mosques property, and then to more serious legal action to have it shut down
Asma Uddin: and then all of this kind of culminated in a lawsuit where it was claimed in court that this Muslim community should not be able to build this house this this building and it shouldn't be shouldn't get the protections of religious land use laws because Islam is not a religion and it's actually instead a political ideology and it's really dangerous and that's actually the claim that I, 1) named my book after, right, when Islam is not a religion but also sort of explore the many many manifestations of
Amna: This case troubles Asma not only because she is an american muslim, but, as a religious liberties lawyer, she sees how the claim used against ICM could be used against followers of any other religions too.
Asma Uddin: And so one of the things I explore in the book is, how exactly are you drawing that line between a political ideology and a religion. Especially because there is a thing called political theology that lots of religions have, including Christianity.
Amna: We talked to Dr. packer about how symbolic threats to take away your identity can be the worst kind of threat, well threatening to take away your entire groups claim to be deemed a religion seems to hit the mark.
Mayor Bloomberg: "Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish”
Amna: And according to mayor bloomberg, this freedom was one that had been hard won over hundreds of years.
Mayor Bloomberg: “In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue – and they were turned down.”
Amna: In the late 1650s, the set of protestant christians known as quakers created a formal petition to defend their rights to freely practice their religion along with others.
Mayor Bloomberg: “It was perhaps the first formal, political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies – and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.”
Amna: This fight persisted even in the 1700s
Mayor Bloomberg: "even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion – and priests could be arrested.”
Amna: For Asma, this conflict is rooted in an identity war. And so like Dr. Packer, she has spent years trying to understand how we can use identity science to heal the divides that threaten all of us. And one pattern she notes is that people have a strong tendency to cling onto their wounds. This has a word for it, woundology.
Asma Uddin: People often kind of have a hard time moving past their wounds because there's something in in being wounded that kind of helps create community for them community and sort of like just you know sort of like justifies and like solidifies their worldview. And so moving past that like really takes a lot of courage right 'cause you're kind of like moving past a group of people a group of like justifications explanations.
Amna: We see this all the time. We share the stories that hurt us, the ones that anger us, and while that can help bring light to some genuine issues, Asma takes this a step further. She notes that not only do we hang on to our wounds, but that we tend to think our wounds are greater than those of others.
Asma Uddin: Competing victimhood is really like you can have hard time looking at understanding the experiences of other people who are victimized because you're too you're you're sort of thinking of your own victimhood and you think that somehow acknowledging their victim what is going to diminish your own claims to victimhood
Amna: This other term, Competing victimhoods, is such an important framework. We’ve all heard of the tenacious conflict between israel and gaza. But whats been shown in studies is that simply teaching palestinians about the holocaust, or israelis about specific atrocities in Palestine, had a huge impact in how they felt about and treated each other.
And according to Asma, letting go of feelings of competing victimhoods by approaching with empathy is often critical.
Asma Uddin: with empathy it's about looking past this need to sort of like engage in a competition um and to kind of finally sort of like understand others not you know what they're saying and what they're experiencing not something that you would immediately need to rebut but where where when the person speaking in front of you like you understand them as a person as opposed to an argument that needs to be countered
Amna: This is a message that has been echoed in every religion | | | a scholar once asked the dalai lama “when I feel contempt what should I do” “Show warmheartedness”, “what if I dont feel warmheartedness”, “fake it”. Asma sees echoes of this statement in pretty much every religion. (Arthur brooks | love your enemies; 1:03-1:05). “Repel evil with good and your enemy will become like an intimate friend”. Quran: “Love your enemies” Matthew 5:44. ”Forgiveness is practiced before its felt, not felt before practiced.” – pastor. But I couldn’t help but think about genocide or slaves. So I asked Asma, couldn’t placing a burden of empathy on genuinely oppressed groups, drown their voices even more?
Asma Uddin: you know really I mean that was kind of the type of you know exactly the feedback and like the gut reaction I think some people are having was that well what about oppression and privilege and like um and I try to make those distinctions there's various points at which I tried to create like distinctions among the type of people that I'm talking about so you know when I talk about people who are like engaged in violence or advocating for violence I think that there are certain lines you have to draw. I'm more so talking about people really are just coming purely from a place of like fear and like you know misinformation and so on at least in the Muslim context right so so similarly talk about like black minorities like I think you know if you're talking to like somebody who's like you know advocating like policies that are deeply sort of oppressive or they did themselves engage in something that was like physically or violative of like black bodies and black race and I think that's like a different set of people compared to people who really kind of just only in a space of like fear and I think you know there's complexities there in our current narrative where a lot of people who might themselves have never engaged in or condoned you know slavery or any sort of like explicitly of discriminatory practice like are sort of like you know still being accused or being part you know we've got carrying this type of like you know racist attitude I think there's complexities there
Amna: Ultimately also my focus is on efficacy so it's like you know really trying to see change like obviously sort of like defensive and offensive thing that's happening where we don't either don't wanna talk to people or we just feel like the only way you talk to them is to cut them down it's not working it hasn't worked
Asma Uddin: Yeah again just kind of looking at the studies and the types of things that help to put people in a different mindset as you know it's ultimately it's about like we don't how do you get them out of that place where they feel like they just have to um compete with you or where they're acting on the basis of like feeling under threat um and I think you know the root of all this is this idea that we are all humans and so how can we just start seeing the other person is like a human that's kind of functioning on the basis of human psychology and then use that towards like actual change which is you know not a message that is particularly popular because I think a lot of people do think the best way to do is just to like obliterate the opponent. Because until you lower perceptions of threat people are always going to keep not only putting up barriers but also lashing out at you and so it's really kind of just from from perspective like what's effective right.
Amna: Lowering perceptions of threat doesnt mean that you just approach with empathy instead of accusation, but Dr. Packer showed us that you can do that explicitly through self affirmation.
Asma Uddin: I think this self affirmation is really the first step in a longer process of helping them be more open to experiences and views that they were previously resistant to again because they were kind of reacting on the basis of threat. And so I there's a study that I that I cite in there that had to do with people and like 9/11 and kind of like there you know like whether or not they're willing to acknowledge that might be complexity and you as foreign policy in terms of the types of like responses it was getting and it was like self affirmation helped them get past the point where it was like pure defensiveness to like understanding that maybe there things were a little bit more complex than they had assumed you know count trump plays like defensive patriotism and sort of like you know we have to defend our country under you know all circumstances versus understanding yeah the country is good or we you know we are good. This isn't about questioning our fundamental goodness which again I think if you kind of think about that in the context of modern debates around like critical race theory and so on I think you kind of see that right like you see all this opposition kind of coming from this place of like why are you saying that we're fundamentally racist or fundamentally bad people and then thats where all the resistances coming from them um you know I wonder if like there wouldn't be more or selectivity if there was just more acknowledgement that perhaps these people living in 2022 are not like you know necessarily carrying the types of you know you don't so rt of deep deep sort of prejudices that are that were concerned you know I mean or it is like in terms of like systemic racism like what does that mean and like how do we assign goodness and badness on the basis of that and unless somebody who studies critical race theory or has like deep roots in that I wanna speak too much to that but I do just sort of like very superficially see that so much of the opposition it's coming from this place of feeling threatened.
Amna: So I want to talk about something else, you talk about how even though we can have multiple identities like our religion, race, sexual orientation and so on, often these identites become clumped together into one giant mega identity. What are the consequences of that?
Asma Uddin: yeah I mean the Mega identities I used that concept to explain you know how how so much of this is about political tribalism in this day and age when everything is about political tribalism and I sort of explained that like you know you could be a Democrat or republican this isn't just about our liberal conservative and it's not just it's no longer just about your positions on particular policy issues but it really kind of reverberates out to like all kinds of things including what you drive and what you eat or what you wear and also now impacts like religion. so that Islam has become very closely identified as sort of like a marker of democratic identity right like whether you're willing to protect Muslims rights or see Muslims as humans like those are people who are likely to be Democrats and so they're and they're gonna hold on to that in part because not just because they're good people but also because it like signifies them some somebody who's not like a conservative or somebody who's not like a trump supporter and I have various data that I present around that as well. Similarly like if you're a conservative like one of the things that's gonna mark you as a true conservative is gonna be someone who's kind at least suspicious of Muslims.
Amna: We see things from the lens of our identities, and when our identities cluster together, it creates a HUGE divide between one group of people and another. Asma shared that being a democrat in America doesnt just include political stances, but it means you might be shopping at whole foods, drinking lattes and driving hybrid cars. Whereas as a republican you might be driving a land-rover and shopping at cracker barrel. When you are so far removed from a group, there are all sorts of implicit and explicit biases you might hold against each other.
Amna: Luckily creating common identities can reduce those biases. And Asma tries to do this across great partisan divides by creating shared goals. And her fight is with one goal in particular.
Asma Uddin: Religious liberty is a thing that people on the right are championing. You can't miss it. The contradiction that I kind of pointed on the first book is like well that is the thing that you're trying to protect I mean just purely from a legal perspective then you actually do need to protect it from Muslims
Amna: As a lawyer Asma understands that its complicated to fight for the religious liberty of just one group while excluding the others.
Asma Uddin: it's really just shooting yourself in the foot because you're gonna end up creating types of norms and legal exceptions that ultimately just gonna be applied to you and that are ultimately going to erode your religious liberty
Amna: Youve been working on this goal for a while and have made some great strides, but tell whats your biggest challenge today as you fight for this goal of religious freedom that many groups share?
Asma Uddin: my biggest challenge today is I think just like getting people to understand that it's not a 0 sum game and this isn't just about like I said I mean about obliterating or opponent but there might be some other way and that even if you can achieve short term goals by being more aggressive and uncompromising ultimately you know you're what's at risk and what we already see being deteriorated is sort of like civility in our ability to live together be cohesive country cohesive society and community um so just to play the long game and not too to always go for the short term wins
Amna: Studies have shown we can experience real physical pain from social pain. But some of our greatest delights come from collective joy. As Dr. Packer showed us, for the better or worse, group identities are a core part of our human psychology.
Dr. Packer: Human beings are physically and individually are pretty vulnerable species right? We don't have stingers like bees, we're not poisonous to most other species, we don't have scales that protect us we don't have sharp spines right, we survived as a species by coordinating collaborating by working together with others, by cooperating. And there's multiple ways multiple mechanisms we seem to have psychologically to help us do that but group identities are a big part of it we feel like we share an identity with people we start to cooperate with them we start to trust them or start to protect ourselves within that group. And this is obviously a sort of functional and adaptive kind of thing and it's not just as I said that we do this with groups we already belong to, but we have a readiness to do with new groups when a new opportunity to affiliate with others comes along we seem to be quick to jump on it to give it a try, see if we can collaborate with these new people as well.
Amna: We will always find groups we belong to and those we don’t, even if its just based on whether or not we are randomly told we are Kandinsky art fans or Klee fans. These identities shape the way we see the world, but we can learn to listen, we can learn to empathize and we can learn to forgive.
And these days that feels more important than ever.
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