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What is Islamophobia? Disentangling Citizens’ Feelings Toward Ethnicity, Religion and Religiosity Using a Survey Experiment

  • Marc Helbling and Richard Traunmüller


What citizens think about Muslim immigrants has important implications for some of the most pressing challenges facing Western democracies. To advance contemporary understanding of what ‘Islamophobia’ really is – for example, whether it is a dislike based on immigrants’ ethnic background, religious identity or specific religious behaviors – this study fielded a representative online survey experiment in the UK in summer 2015. The results suggest that Muslim immigrants are not per se viewed more negatively than Christian immigrants. Instead, the study finds evidence that citizens’ uneasiness with Muslim immigration is first and foremost the result of a rejection of fundamentalist forms of religiosity. This suggests that common explanations, which are based on simple dichotomies between liberal supporters and conservative critics of immigration, need to be re-evaluated. While the politically left and culturally liberal have more positive attitudes toward immigrants than right-leaning individuals and conservatives, they are also far more critical of religious groups. The study concludes that a large part of the current political controversy over Muslim immigration is related to this double opposition: it is less about immigrants versus natives or even Muslim versus Christians than about political liberalism versus religious fundamentalism.

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University of Bamberg, Department of Political Science and WZB Berlin Social Science Center (email:; Goethe University Frankfurt, Institute of Political Science and University of Mannheim (email: The authors would like to thank Robert Ford, Marcel Coenders, Anouk Kootstra and Menno van Setten for giving them the opportunity to include their experiment in their panel survey. Previous versions of this article were presented at workshops at Yale University, the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, the universities of Amsterdam, Mannheim, Neuchatel, Konstanz, Sankt Gallen and Vienna as well as at the 2017 American Political Science Association meeting and the 2017 International Conference of Europeanists. The authors would like to thank Claire Adida, Mabel Berezin, Cecilia Mo, Tom van der Meer and Anselm Rink as well as five anonymous reviewers and editor Robert Johns for valuable comments and suggestions. Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:, and online appendices at: 10.1017/S0007123418000054.



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What is Islamophobia? Disentangling Citizens’ Feelings Toward Ethnicity, Religion and Religiosity Using a Survey Experiment

  • Marc Helbling and Richard Traunmüller


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