Psychology

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    Islam as a Projection Screen for Our Attitudes and Feelings
    The Psychological Background to Islamophobia

    The time has come to consider the emotive debates about Islam in the West from a psychological angle. It is quite possible that Islam is providing a projection screen for opinions and feelings that have little to do with Islam itself. Moreover, critics of Islam are often accused of being ‘Islamophobic’, in other words of having an irrational fear of Islam. This article considers where reservations about Islam are well-founded, where there is an element of irrational fear of Islam, and in what ways Islam is used as both projection surface and lightning rod.


    While politicians (in Germany at least) try to play down the subject of Islam, because all parties are equally divided over the question, the media – as illustrated by the case of Thilo Sarrazin – have put the issue right at the top of the agenda, creating the impression that anyone with the slightest interest in the weal and woes of the German nation – nay, even of the European continent and the entire Western world – should adopt a stance on Islam. It is very hard to decide whether the emotionalisation of the subject really does reflect the needs of the population, or whether it is the media that have ignited this need. The fact is, however, that most Germans have relatively little contact with Muslims, with the exception, perhaps, of the occasional purchase at the proverbial Turkish greengrocer’s, or a holiday on the beaches of the predominantly Islamic southern shores of the Mediterranean: in other words, experiences that will very rarely result in a blanket negative opinion of Islam. Because of this rudimentary contact with Islam and with Muslims, it seems reasonable to assume that there is much of the imagined, a great deal of projection in people’s assessments.

    Yet Islam is indisputably in the top three of the most pressing issues at international level, alongside climate change and the financial crisis. This triad of problems is not coincidental; rather, it is the almost classical trinity of nature, economy, and culture. In all three areas, processes of change are viewed as potentially apocalyptic, as life-threatening. We are told that urgent action is needed in all three areas. Nevertheless, we know that in most areas nothing, or at least very little, is actually being done. Only the fight against Islam seems to be making promising progress, and is in any case being conducted – at least in Iraq and Afghanistan – with such vehemence and yet without any discernible improvement in the political situation that one can assume it is more about demonstrating an ability to act than about actually solving problems.

    Objective problems concerning Islam

    The situation seems all the more frustrating because the reasons for a feeling of unease about Islam are certainly not only psychological but also objective, and can quite easily be listed: the threat posed by terrorism, migration that is difficult to control, the political instability in some Islamic countries, our dependence on oil from the Middle East, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which of course the West helped to cause. But the problems are not restricted to the political, they are of a cultural nature too: the virtually indisputable theological decline of Islam, which a handful of outstanding reformist thinkers are not managing to stop, and the identity crisis being experienced by many Muslims, which often leads to a dogmatic hardening if not to religious fanaticism.

    The myths peddled by critics of Islam

    All of these problems exist. They are, however, all extremely different in nature, are not necessarily related, and cannot simply be put down to Islam as such. Rather than religion being responsible for the crisis, it is much more probable that the political and economic situation in the Islamic world is responsible for the decline – including the decline of religious life. And there we have the most striking difference between the so-called critics of Islam and their opponents: for the critics of Islam, all problems relating to Islam and Muslims can be traced back to the religion founded by Mohammed on the Arabian Peninsula between the years 610 and 632 and the poor foundation on which this religion is built.

    However, it is safe to assume that this opinion is born of the naïve belief that there is such a thing as one uniform Islam. No one needs to have read Islamic Studies at university to understand this point. The fact is that, as a religion, Islam is no less varied than Christianity: an American evangelical has as little in common with the average German Catholic as a Saudi Arabian Wahhabi has to do with a Moroccan Sufi Muslim or the beliefs of a Shia Muslim. Even within the boundaries of a single country, these differences are often insurmountable. Take Turkey, for example, with its Kemalists, Alevis, Kurds, Sunnis... They are all Muslims, but their worldviews are so drastically different that the threat of conflict is ever-present.

    Anyone who seeks to deny that such differences exist among Muslims is ascribing magical powers to Islam: it would be the only world religion to have remained entirely unchanged, not only over a massive geographical area and despite contact with a wide range of other faiths, but also over a period spanning 1,400 years. The self-identity of Islam, of which both critics of Islam and Islamic fundamentalists speak, is, quite simply, a myth. The latter, in turn, believe that there is only one true Islam, which only has to be rediscovered and propagated in order to eliminate all evil from the Islamic world. Thinking such as this reduces the complex reality of the Islamic world to a simple formula, and enables people to project all possible problems – regardless of their root cause – onto Islam and to trace them back to it. Naturally, this is what makes such thinking so attractive, and ostensibly so convincing.

    The need to take a much closer look

    Unfortunately, such generalisations are not helpful. The approach required to deal with Islamic terrorism is entirely different to that of dealing with evolving ghettos in districts with large migrant populations, and the lack of integration that goes with it. However, neither of these problematic issues have their roots in the Islamic religion as such. If they did, all Muslims would be potential terrorists and incapable of integration, which is patently not the case. The fact is that Islamic terrorism – just like any other terrorism – is a primarily political problem, while a lack of willingness to integrate is a social problem. The counterexamples illustrate this point clearly: an Iranian doctor or a left-wing Turkish intellectual will integrate easily, although they are no less Muslim than the ghetto kids in Berlin-Neukölln whose parents hail from Palestinian refugee camps or farming villages in Anatolia. The same can be said of terrorism. The terrorists of 9/11 were outwardly better integrated than most Muslims living in the problem areas of our cities: they went to university, they spoke both German and English, were educated, and came from good homes. They had nothing in common with Lebanese drug dealers. Moreover, the fact that Islamic terrorism happens mainly in the Islamic world itself – currently above all in Iraq and Pakistan, in the 1990s mainly in Algeria – and that the vast majority of victims are Muslim points to the fact that Islamic terrorism is about political disputes within Islam and not about the hostility of an allegedly united Islam against all infidels, as is often suggested.

    The mirror effect

    Given this abundance of problems, which are at least superficially associated with Islam, it comes as no surprise that Islam provides an easy surface onto which to project attitudes and feelings. However, it is more likely that we will find the real motives for such projections in ourselves than in Islam. This is not surprising. Even if the public debate ostensibly focuses on a foreign culture, the intensity of the debates can only be understood if we realise that they are first and foremost about ourselves and the way we see ourselves.

    To this end, we need a mirror. Without such a mirror, we cannot see ourselves as a whole (in the cultural sense), just as we cannot see our entire bodies without a full-length mirror. There have always been mirrors that allow us to find ourselves culturally. In the case of Germany, these mirrors have, down through history, come in the form of Germany’s arch-enemies, France and England, but also the Jews and the Communists. Naturally, all of these mirrors also reflect part of our own culture. This is problematic. If, for example, we seek to define ourselves by distinguishing ourselves from Judaism, we have to block out the fact that Judaism has always been a part of ‘us’ in the form of the Old Testament and the Jewish contributions to German culture. Islam, on the other hand, is seen as something completely different or is portrayed – at least by critics of Islam – as being completely different, as being diametrically opposed to the West. However, by distinguishing ourselves from this negative image of Islam that has been constructed in this way, our own culture appears in an opposite, positive light, an image with which it is all the more easy for us to identify because our otherwise obvious problems are temporarily blotted out from this mirror image.

    The controversial theories of Thilo Sarrazin

    Using the well-known example of Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab [Germany Is Doing Away with Itself[, it is easy to illustrate how projection works and how one set of problems relating to our own self-conception is suddenly transferred to a different subject, namely Islam. Many of the theories Sarrazin advances in his book have nothing to do with Islam. One of the central claims in the book is that in a socially permeable society like German society, which offers many opportunities for advancement to the intelligent and the diligent, the underclass gradually and inevitably becomes made up of those who are more stupid and not willing to work as hard. According to Sarrazin, intelligence is inheritable. This, he claims, coupled with the fact that the lower classes have more children because the social transfer rewards people for having lots of children, means that it is logical that, as time passes, the intelligence, competitiveness, and diligence of the population decreases.

    Strangely enough, very little airtime and column inches were devoted to this core theory in Sarrazin’s book. Instead, the focus was directed more at Islam. And so the public debate created the impression that the way we deal with Muslims, i.e. five per cent of the population, determines whether Germany is now ‘doing away with itself’ or not, whereby even Sarrazin himself admits that the established problems (lack of integration, high birth rate, and dependence on social security systems – but not lower intelligence!) only apply to a small part of this five per cent.

    A case of repression

    Those who hadn’t read the book were left thinking that it was a contribution to the debate about Islam, even though it was in fact questioning the existing welfare state model. It is an ideal-typical case of repression, which notably affects both those who defend and those who oppose Sarrazin: after all, his critics attack him primarily for his attitude to Islam, not for his broader theories on the welfare state. These theories are explosive enough to bring our self-conception and indeed our entire way of life crashing down around our ears. If the book is reduced to the discussion about Islam, its impact is (in accordance with the rules of the Law of the Mirror outlined above) exactly the opposite: by distinguishing ourselves from Islam and the Muslim immigrants, we confirm our image of ourselves. The dangers rooted in our own self-image, on the other hand, are reduced to problems with Islam and with Muslims. The real hot potato in Sarrazin’s book, namely his radical call to abolish welfare benefits and Hartz IV unemployment benefit for the long-term unemployed, is not addressed.

    In this respect, the situation is similar to that of climate change and the financial crisis. Because neither seem to be solvable in the short term, the debate shifts instead to an ostensibly more tangible, more easily solvable problem, namely the way we deal with Islam and Muslims. The fears and frustrations, which are fed by a number of sources, then culminate in a typical knee-jerk, scapegoat reaction to a minority in society. Some observers, such as the anti-Semitism researcher Wolfgang Benz speak in this context of a ‘new racism’. This is a very real danger. There is, however, an even greater danger.

    The dangers of projection

    Even if – or indeed most particularly if – one does not like Islam and the Muslims for whatever reason, one should take care not to project onto a culture or a group of people problems that should be tackled from a completely different angle altogether. Instead of questioning and correcting our vision of the world and our self-image, as would seem to be appropriate in the current situation regarding the economy and the environment, an attempt is being made to confirm our mentality one more time by comparing it to an apparently much worse mentality, namely Islam. But however well the enlightened West might be performing in comparison with the economically and culturally depressed Islamic world, this does not help us to solve our problems.

    There is another thing about the excessive focus on Islam that is striking, namely that the tangible – i.e. economic and environmental policy – questions are being pushed aside with the help of a ‘soft’ (i.e. cultural) issue. There are two probable reasons for this. Firstly, it is easier to talk about culture: you don’t have to know anything about Islam to have an opinion on it; it is enough to consider yourself different, which generally means that you consider yourself better. When it comes to environmental and economic issues, on the other hand, it is clear that every individual is part of the system, a cog in the wheel (whether he or she wants to be or not), and that without specific expertise, he or she is not really in a position to say anything about it.

    Secondly, at the same time, the shift towards the cultural theme is an indication of the return of what has been repressed, namely the sense that unless we make a cultural change, i.e. a change in our values and vision of the world, it will not be possible to psychologically overcome the economic and environmental problems in a reasonable manner, let alone get a grip on them and find appropriate solutions for them. In short, we shift the focus of the debate from the hard to the soft issues, not least because we intuitively know that this is the only thing we can truly change: ourselves.

    A change of mentality is what is needed

    In view of this fact, the heated debates about Islam seem to be a kind of rear-guard action or proxy war, whose job in our psychological make-up it is to repress the bitter realisation that no environment and no state can be saved by a frenzy of consumption and the maximisation of profits. This realisation is, incidentally, presented very bluntly in Thilo Sarrazin’s book: the more successful someone is in the traditional sense of career and profit maximisation, the less likely it is, Sarrazin correctly surmises, that he or she will be motivated to have children. However, in order to stop this development in its tracks, Sarrazin does not seek a cultural change and a change in prevailing mentalities. Instead, he seeks to solve the problem using the very tool of profit maximisation, by proposing that every mother under the age of thirty with a university degree be given €50,000, so that having children would be ‘worthwhile’ not only for those living on welfare benefits.

    It would make much more sense – and would be much less costly – to seek a cultural change in values that would steer our self-image out of the one-way, dead-end street in which it finds itself, and that would help us to deal with our dwindling resources and be happy nonetheless, not only in a material sense but also in a cultural and psychological sense. But naturally it is much easier to confirm one’s self-image one last time in a dispute about a crisis-ridden Islam. The truth is, however, that there are lessons to be learned from Islam and from Muslims: namely, precisely the values that we lack right now but which are often kept alive and fostered in the Islamic world. Not least among these is a positive attitude towards children – as even the most fervent critics of Islam will admit is the case!
    Stefan Weidner is a writer, Arabic–German translator, and editor-in-chief of Art & Thought / Fikrun wa Fann.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014

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