Category Archives: Islamaphobia

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Being There

There’s been a lot of righteous indignation that people are so heartbroken over the Paris terrorist attacks—so upset that they’ve taken action, by changing their Facebook profile photos! But no one changed their Facebook photo when terrorist attacks took place in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Nigeria.

Is this Islamaphobia? Well sure it is, with some people, but not for most.

I think it has a lot more to do with familiarity, in two ways.

First, in 2014 there were 16 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. 16! So far in 2015 there have “only” been seven. I looked it up on that great scholarly source, Wikipedia, because I had been thinking, “Bombings happen all the time in Lebanon” and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imagining that. I wasn’t.

In 2014 there were three terror attacks in France, all carried out by lone extremists, and one person died. So the attacks that came in January were the launch of a new era.

I’m not saying, “So what?” about terror attacks in Lebanon. I’m just saying that the frequency of them numbs us to the point where we might roll our eyes and shake our heads and maybe think for 10 seconds, “Those poor people. What a terrible way to live.” But we don’t change our Facebook photos.

Then there’s the other aspect of familiarity: Many westerners (North Americans, Europeans, Aussies, and Kiwis) have been to Paris. We may have studied French in high school or college. We’ve certainly seen Paris, and France, in films and TV shows and heard it referenced in music. How many westerners have been to Beirut? Studied Arabic? Can you name one movie set in Lebanon?

When I googled “films set in Lebanon” I found 16. I’d only heard of one—the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. When I googled “films set in France” there were so many I couldn’t count them. There were 16 alone that started with the letter “L,” including the good old oldie Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.

So my point is, empathy is about being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation. Even if we’ve never been to Paris, we have seen it so many hundreds of times that we feel it’s familiar, and it’s easier to imagine ourselves in that MacDonald’s where one of the terrorists blew himself up.

I went to the Middle East for work earlier this year. I was fortunate to be able to take some extra time to visit Petra, a 2,000-year-old city built by a people called the Nabateans who have since vanished from history. I hiked, bullshitted with the Bedouin guides, and savored the astonishing beauty of the place and the silence—so rare in our world.


A few months later, ISIS starting destroying ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, most notably Palmyra. Palmyra was built thousands of years before Petra and had similarly stunning structures.

A year ago, I might have rolled my eyes and shaken my head and thought, “That’s terrible,” then gone on my way. But now I felt sick to my stomach and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

So having been to a very similar place, I got it. I got it on a visceral level what a loss to our world the destruction of Palmyra was and I started worrying that ISIS might get to Petra eventually.  Stone buildings aren’t people, but you know what I mean.

Travel creates empathy. Not always, but often. Ironically, the attacks in Paris will probably cause people to stay home or travel only to the safe, sanitized foreign destinations like all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and Ibiza.