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Open access

Gert Pickel and Cemal Öztürk

Abstract

Even though Muslim communities are virtually absent in most Eastern European societies new research shows that Islamophobia is more widespread in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. The existence of ‘Islamophobia without Muslims’ is surprising prima facie, but in fact this empirical pattern reflects the assumption of the contact hypothesis. In a nutshell, the contact hypothesis argues that an individual’s contact with members of an ‘outgroup’ is conducive to refute existing prejudice and stereotypes. We test the explanatory power of the contact hypothesis on both the individual and the societal level. Empirically, we draw our data from the European Social Survey (2014), which allows us to conduct a systematic comparison of Eastern and Western European societies and to account for other well-established social psychological theories of prejudice and stereotyping (e. g. Social Identity Theory, Integrated Threat Theory). Our empirical results show that people with less or no contact are more prone to Islamophobic attitudes. This pattern is characteristic for Eastern European countries as the sheer absence of Muslim communities in these societies turns out to be a relevant explanation for anti-Muslim prejudice. Eastern European citizens tend to have para-social-contacts with Muslims. In general, they rely on media and statements of (populist) politicians, to build their opinions about Muslims. Negative news coverage fueled by terrorist attacks shapes the prevailing image of all Muslims, media consumption therefore intensifies already existing anti-Muslim sentiments. As a result, Eastern European countries have been comparatively unpopular choices for migrants to settle.