The Cycle of Terror: On Islamophobia, Mental Illness and Terrorism

According to Think Progress, studies show that Islamophobia is giving Muslims mental disorders. The article says:

“Researchers are just beginning to explore the kind of toll that Islamophobia can take on the mental and physical health of Muslim-Americans — and it’s unsurprisingly harsh…Perceived Islamophobia has a distinct effect on Muslim minorities’ health and identification.”

So, if Islamophobia causes mental illness, and mentally vulnerable people are more likely to be recruited by terrorists… then we are stuck in a vicious, endless cycle of terror.
Another study that examined the experiences of religious microaggressions by Muslim Americans, published in the Islamophobia Studies Journal, found that being the victim of covert discrimination, on a consistent basis, can have an additive affect on one’s mental health and ability to function in daily life:

“Previous research has found that Muslim individuals who perceived religious discrimination had an increased likeliness of suspicion, vigilance, and mistrust and even mental and physical health problems… Negative images of Muslims in the media may have detrimental impacts on the self-esteem, mental health, and identities of Muslim people.”

But the consequences of Islamophobia can be double-edged. On the one hand, the rapidly increasing anti-Muslim sentiments are exacerbating mental health challenges for Muslims. On the other hand, mental health issues are driving some to be easy prey for terrorist organizations such as ISIL.
Teen Vogue published an article titled How Terrorism and Islamophobia Take a Mental Toll on Muslims stating that terrorists seek out mentally ill and economically poor Muslims because they can easily recruit them:

“More Muslims — who already feel marginalized — are suffering through an identity crisis and mental health disorders that make them more susceptible for recruitment by terrorist organizations.”

Aljazeera Upfront conducted an interview with the President and Co-Founder of America’s first accredited Muslim College, Zaytuna’s Hamza Yusuf, discussing the reasons for ISIL’s attacks. The show’s host, Mehdi Hasan, questioned the motives of terrorists: “Is it an issue of mental health or insanity?”
To that, Hamza Yusuf responded saying that some of it is definitely mental health issues. But he also highlighted the double standard of labeling Muslims as terrorists, while westerners who commit terrorist crimes are always immediately referred to as mentally ill:

“We had a man who flew an airplane into an IRS building after writing a political screed, yet he wasn’t called a terrorist, he was called mentally ill. There are many examples of people doing these kinds of things and they’re always classified as mentally ill. And yet when Muslims do insane things – and many of these things are quiet insane – they’re categorized as terrorists. We have a double standard.”

Lisa St. George, the Director of Recovery Practices at Recovery Innovations, said, in an interview MuslimGirl, that the challenge with mental health, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim communities, is that people apply a stigmatizing attitude to it despite how common mental health problems are. Citing multiple studies, she noted that 1 in 4 or 5 people will have a significant mental health challenge at one point in their life. She went on to say,

“I think one of the biggest challenges is the lack of understanding of [mental illness] and the stigmatizing attitude. This is not something unique in the Muslim community, it’s prevalent throughout the world. We have to treat those with mental illnesses the way we treat someone with a heart disease or cancer; we have to care for people who have mental health challenges.”

When asked about what mental health actually means, George said that it is the point in one’s life when things have gone off track because of emotional and psychological distress.
“It’s when you feel overwhelmed with worry, feeling incredibly sad, being unable to sleep for days on end, having events where you spend way too much money, hearing things or seeing things that other people don’t see,” said George.
So how do we stop the mad cycle of terror? By providing lots of healing spaces, says George, which is a practice deeply rooted in Islamic history and tradition.

“Long ago we had treated people with compassion and kindness who had mental illness challenges and we had the cure long before it seemed possible. We have forgotten that aspect of our faith to be kind and caring to people. The whole idea of healing spaces is consistent with our faith.”