Mememing Muslims: Study on how Islam, Race and Religion are Framed by Internet Memes

Mememing Muslims: Study on how Islam, Race and Religion are Framed by Internet Memes

Morgan Knobloch, Danielle Gonzalez & Heidi A Campbell

This report summarizes a research study conducted in Summer 2018 at Texas A&M University as part of a undergraduate course entitled, Religious (In)Tolerance and Diversity in Digital Media & Culture.

An ever-changing presence in today’s society, digital media, impacts people’s lives through content such as Internet memes and the discourse surrounding them. Memes have the potential to spark discussion over sensitive issues, like race and religion, through the implicit and explicit messages they convey. When the messages of memes criticize beliefs around Islam and the identity of its followers, they often conflate the ideas of religion and race. In other words, Internet memes often address how those outside a religious group tend to equate them with a single identity and racial group. This research finds this to be especially true in relation to the Muslim faith, as Internet memes about Islam often highlight how they are mistakenly framed as a racial, rather than a religious group. This study seeks to address the messages memes send when pushing these concepts together by asking the question: In what ways do Internet memes conflate race and religion when talking about Islam, and what messages does this send about how people understand the relationship between race and religion?

In this study we analyze the messages internet memes communicate when they conflate Islam and race. We note that this conflating of religion and race often appears to be born from misconceptions about of Islam as a religion and lack of understanding of the diversity of racial groups which describe themselves as Muslim. In other cases we find memes conflate these two categories because their creators equate being prejudices toward the Islamic faith, with being racist. We will seek to understand the common ways memes communicate anti-Islamic messages, and whether or not such associations can be seen as taking a racist stance.

Understanding Internet Memes
Understanding previous research about Internet memes and religion by scholars such as Börzsei and Shifman facilitates a proper understanding of the messages memes spread and allows us to make valid observations and inferences about their impact. Scholar Limor Shifman (2013) said that the humor found in internet memes can be “a unique key for the understanding of social and cultural processes.” Internet memes serve as a mode of understanding the social and cultural messages exchanged between Internet users who use memes to defend/explain their ideas or sentiments. Scholars such as Börzsei (2013) have studied the evolution of the Internet memes and recognized their unique ability to communicate messages among Internet users. “Internet memes showcase a new kind of understanding of the world, and a new kind of creative and social outlet,” (2013). Using memes to investigate the commonalities between messages that conflate race and Islam will give us a better understanding of how these issues are viewed and depicted in society.

How Religion intersects with Internet Memes
Since the rise in popularity of internet memes in digital culture today, scholars have studied how memes are used to convey messages related to religion. A study by Bellar (2013) identifies the different approaches in construction, meaning making, and circulation of religious internet memes. Memes are used as a form of Lived Religion which is a process by which people draw from religious (including digital) sources to make sense of their world. “Analyzing which cultural artifacts and ideas are used within religious-oriented memes – humorous or otherwise – reveals how various religious practitioners make sense of religion in their lives and how the public perceives faith in contemporary society,” (p.7). This pilot study seeks to understand the ways in which religion and race are perceived in contemporary society.

Framing Race in Memes
Reviewing previous studies on themes of race in memes provided a better understanding of how memes concerning racism affect society. Internet research on memes has found that people of color who experience subtle forms of prejudice in offline interactions are more likely to perceive the messages of Internet memes regarding race as more offensive than those who do not. According to Williams (2016), “Our results demonstrate the blur between offline and online realities; socialization experiences offline can influence how people construe their online world” (p. 431). People’s experiences in the offline world have the power to shape how they perceive sensitive messages on the internet.

Researchers have also discovered that the discourse surrounding memes on themes of race and gender has the potential to either move society in a positive direction or cause further division. Milner (2013) states, “With enough voices engaging and enough of a balance between irony and earnestness, the ‘logic of lulz’ could be a tool vibrantly employed” (p. 89). Though Milner did not find that memes were sparking positive conversation about social issues yet, he believes they could if consumers use them with the intention of partaking in constructive discourse.

In addition to these arguments, studies show that memes can be used in the classroom to create a space for discussing race-related issues if their content is analyzed as art. To make this argument, Yoon (2016) addresses the concept of "colorblindness," or ignoring racism within memes, which is present in memes that suggest discrimination is permissible. Yoon says, “I found that the majority of meme creators and commenters misunderstand not only the meaning of racism and racial issues, but also the detrimental impact of systematic racism” (p. 117). Though they may come across as insignificant images on the web, memes have the power to enhance or combat racism depending on how they are used by consumers.

When studying racial stereotypes in memes, it is important to consider how they will affect people. Memes can be perceived in different ways depending on the experiences of the consumer. This is a concept to keep in mind to evaluate the messages of memes. With their ability to draw attention to controversial issues through simple imagery and text, memes can help people discuss sensitive topics. Therefore, they have the potential to influence levels of tolerance regarding race and religion in society.

This pilot study seeks to identify the ways in which internet memes conflate Islam and race to better understand the messages they spread. First, a sample of 20 memes was collected from the first 100 results of a Google Image search using the terms “race and Islam memes.” These 20 images were selected because they each commented on Islam and race through either the text or image used. After identifying the final sample, the memes were analyzed to determine whether they showed the conflation of race and Islam. Then the memes were coded using three different categories, which were determined after analyzing the messages of these memes and considering whether they were positively or negatively oriented. The categories describe whether each meme conveys that the conflation of race and Islam is ignorant, the conflation of race and Islam is rooted in prejudice, or the conflation of race and Islam is anti-Islamic. Memes could be coded into more than one category.

In this study, we collected a sample of twenty memes and analyzed them according to codes that would identify themes relating to both race and religion. After reading through the memes to determine if themes of race and religion were present, we considered whether they implied that the conflation of race and religion was ignorant, displayed prejudice, or suggested that being anti-Islamic is permissible.

(1) Conflating race and religion in internet memes expresses ignorance

Eighteen of the twenty memes in our sample implied that equating religion with race is based on ignorance of the individual and problematic assumptions.

For example, this meme uses the Mean Girls “clueless blonde” to address people who assume that all followers of Islam are non-white. It reads “So if you’re Muslim, then why are you white?” The image implies that this comment is meant to be perceived as an ignorant assumption because this movie character routinely asks questions with obvious, straightforward answers. Race and religion were equated because of an ignorant assumption and misunderstanding what the actual definition of race is.

Another meme shows “It is not racist to criticize a religion (so nice try)” and shows four different pictures of Islamic men who each come from a different race. This illustrates that Islam is not composed of a single race. In doing so, it argues that equating race and religion is an assumption that arises from misunderstanding what actually constitutes race and religion. Therefore, this meme also supports the claim that ignorance leads a person to conflate race and religion.

(2) Equating race and religion Internet memes is based on prejudices

Eighteen memes from our sample of twenty also displayed themes of prejudice by conflating race and Islam. Such memes showed that meme creators display conscious and unconscious prejudices toward Muslims.

This takes the “One does not simply” stock character to argue that explaining the difference between race and religion is not as simple as it should be. It states, “One does not simply explain to someone that disliking Muslims isn’t racist because Islam is a religion and ideology, not a race.” This meme suggests that while disliking Muslims is prejudice, it is not the same as racism. This displays a conscious prejudice because the meme accepts disliking Muslims based on their religion and not race.

Unconscious stereotyping and not recognizing it

Another strong assumption highlighted is that unconscious stereotyping toward Islam still represents prejudice. Using the villain from the Austin Powers film series, this meme conflates racism and religion in saying “People make uninformed, stereotypical assumptions about Islam . . . then claim [they’re] not racist or Islamophobic.” This meme addresses the tendency to defend oneself as denouncing racism and stereotyping while actually unconsciously harboring religion-based prejudice.

(3) Internet memes about Islam and race show that while being racist is not permissible, being anti-Islamic is

Finally, thirteen out of twenty memes from our sample displayed messages that were anti-Islamic by absolving criticism/discrimination against Islam as racism.

This re-mixed version of a Donald Trump meme uses additional commentary to display anti-Islamic sentiments. While the original memes points out that the Muslim ban is racist, the commentary below counters that it cannot be because Islam is not a race, seemingly dismissing the prejudice expressed here. Since Islam is a religion and disliking it does not count as racism, this meme suggests that religious prejudice is permissible.

Using the Condescending Wonka stock image, this meme displays anti-Islamic sentiments by claiming that the conflation of racism and religion “is a trick.” This meme addresses equating race and Islam as a form of prejudice, but defends anti-Islamic sentiments in saying that others are not criticized for their prejudice against other religions.

Analysis and Summary
This study has sought to explore some of the ways Internet memes conflate race and religion especially when visualizing and talking about Islam. We found that within our sample, Internet memes either affirmed or critiqued stereotypes related to race and Islam. Shifman suggests that the humorous effect of memes can sometimes come from the comic clash between two narratives: “a false one that adheres to stereotypic conventions and the true one in which the stereotypes prove false,” (p. 243). Sometimes memes affirm stereotypes rather than critique them. Similar to what Bellar et. al. (2013) claims, memes about race and religion require the reader to understand diverse contexts to decode the complete message they seek to communicate. This includes not only understanding the image used in the meme, but also having a working knowledge of popular assumptions concerning race and Islam. Without taking context into account, memes can easily be misinterpreted because they often rely on irony or sarcasm to make their point. Memes typically employ rhetoric used in stereotypes to address issues of race and religion, so the ability to recognize these phrases and what they mean is essential to completely understand a meme. In his article, Milner argues that digital culture often reinforces oppressive ideologies. “[posters] operate in an environment where racial stereotypes were an understood and largely unchallenged assumption,” (p. 39). Our findings echoed this assumption, showing that memes tend to convey stereotypical messages.

Memes convey compact messages that reflect larger conversations about race and religion. Yoon (2016) argues that they “have the potential to open a new door” (p. 117) by relating seemingly lofty concepts to pop culture and thus, making them more easily understandable to the average person. In addition to discussing the obvious content of the meme, Yoon suggests analyzing the power relations, emotional reactions, and ways in which the messages of the memes are portrayed to study their deeper meanings.

When studying memes, one should ask questions like: What do the objects portrayed represent? What kind of initial reaction does this meme create? What does the text convey? How does the text connect to the imagery? What biases and assumptions does this meme seem to communicate? If the consumer learns to ask these sort of questions when considering internet memes and develop their skills in understanding the criticisms expressed in digital culture, they could create civic discourse that calls prejudice into question and moves society toward increased tolerance for people’s differences. As creations of today’s culture, memes address important social issues, and if critically considered, they could help create a more tolerant society.


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