Opinion: A Jewish psychiatrist’s perspective on Islamophobia | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: A Jewish psychiatrist’s perspective on Islamophobia


Why should Jews and Jewish psychiatrists be so concerned with Islamophobia? Is it a relative of Anti-Semitism? Though Anti-Semitism has come to mean discrimination toward Jews, the Oxford Dictionary defines Semite as “including in particular Jews and Arabs.”

Is it a mental problem of some sort that needs to be addressed by society and psychiatry? Would a Jewish psychiatrist who had specialized in cross-cultural psychiatry have a useful perspective from the intersection of Judaism, Islam and psychology?


Dr. H. Steven Moffic

These are some of the challenging questions that ran through my mind after I was asked by a Muslim psychiatrist to present on Islamophobia for an upcoming conference. Yet, the recent presidential travel ban on seven Muslim-dominated countries (later held back by the courts) seemed to indicate that those questions should begin to be answered right away, especially since it seems like there is a parallel increase in Anti-Semitism.

What is Islamophobia?

To start with, a definition of Islamophobia is required. The term literally means an excessive fear of the Islam religion. It is not an anti like Anti-Semitism.

As to the phobia part of the word, phobia is also a psychiatric diagnostic term. Given that “specific phobias” are a diagnostic category, would Islamophobia be a diagnosable disorder? By itself, an anti-Semite, or racist, does not qualify for a diagnosis.

Islamophobia actually meets all the criteria but one essential one, which is that “the person recognizes the fear is out of proportion.” It seems to me that the people who fear Islam feel that it is reasonable.

As far as I know, there have been no surveys to indicate whether certain groups of people, like Jewish people, have more or less Islamophobia. The particular association for the Jewish people may be how Islamophobia in the United States gets connected psychologically to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would that make us more fearful, or can we empathize and connect with our both being scapegoated, as well as our Jewish value to help the stranger in our midst?

Social Factors

So, no, Islamophobia would rarely, if ever, be a valid psychiatric diagnosis. But is it a reflection of some sort of social psychopathology, just like anti-Semitism might be considered a reflection of social psychopathology?

Although the term Islamophobia is approximately a century old, it only came into prominent media usage after the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States, an attack linked to people who were Muslim, although these perpetrators did not come from any of the countries in the travel ban. So the term appears to refer to the ensuing social fears in our country after that terrorist trauma. In contrast, the term anti-Semitism has been commonly used for a much longer time.

The key word in the definition of Islamophobia is excessive. Millions of Muslims have been living peacefully in the United States before and after 9/11. The risk of terrorist attacks from Muslims living in those countries seems infinitesimal.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth to Islamophobia. Some terrorist episodes around the world have been unusually traumatic and frightening, such as the beheadings of Americans. The nature of trauma makes people who are traumatized more sensitive to any trigger that reminds them of the original trauma. If Jews add on an association to terrorist attacks in Israel, the fears of Islam can escalate. In our own Jewish media, have we covered this issue in a fair and thoughtful way?

Freud, who was Jewish, actually didn’t investigate Islam. However, from a Freudian theoretical perspective, certain concepts may fit Islamophobia and other social phobias and isms. One is projection, when people unconsciously project psychological aspects of ourselves which we would rather disown onto others. In terms of Islamophobia, it may be our own aggressive impulses toward those who are different in a religious sense.

Other social phobias and isms include homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism and ageism. Then there is the anti of Anti-Semitism. These projective processes dovetail onto our brains being hard-wired to feel safer in our own “tribe” and still fearful of others.

Clinical Considerations

Although we psychiatrists are unlikely to treat any individual patients for Islamophobia, it definitely takes its psychological toll. The psychological repercussions of encountering more micro and macro aggressions increase anxiety, reduce self-esteem and even result in post-traumatic symptoms.

Now that the internet can often indicate whether a psychiatrist is Jewish or not, will patients who are Muslim not even come for help as often, especially if you are Jewish? Jewish Family Services has always been open to treating Muslim patients. Muslim psychiatrists are in short supply.

Religious Traditions

Jews and Muslims seem to have had an ambivalent relationship at best throughout history. We do share being one of the monotheistic religions traced to Abraham, going from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. The story of Ismael in the Torah, born to Abraham and his handmaiden Hagar, may be paradigmatic. When Sarah was finally able to conceive her own child, Isaac, she insisted on the banishment of Ishmael. Ishmael is said by some to be the progenitor of the Arab people. Is this like a long-lasting unresolved family conflict involving step-siblings?

Psychiatry and You

It would seem like the Jewish people and Jewish psychiatrists could have a special role in addressing Islamophobia. Our Jewish values and history should enhance empathy and concern.

Psychiatry can add on some deeper understanding as well as “therapeutic” techniques. There is some evidence that the same clinical interventions for patient phobias can apply to social phobias. Just like “positive exposure” to those who were homosexual has lessened homophobia, more “positive exposure” to Muslims should help citizens and psychiatrists alike. So can interfaith gatherings that accentuate what we have in common. For the Jewish people, that means reaching out and fostering such interactions.

In family therapy for conflict and trauma, forgiveness helps resolution. Can people of different faiths and from different countries use mutual forgiveness to help them get over historical traumas? Let’s find out.

Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.