The hidden mental health cost of Islamophobia

Islamophobia continues to be a daily part of the lives of Muslims in the country as we are lynched, objectified, unjustly incarcerated, and brutalised.
A Muslim watermelon seller's cart was destroyed by Hindutva activists in Dharwad (April 9, 2022)
A Muslim watermelon seller's cart was destroyed by Hindutva activists in Dharwad (April 9, 2022)
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For Muslims all over the world, Ramadan is a month of peace, spiritual reflection, and hope. For Muslims in India, it has been anything but that. The country has seen a steady and horrifying increase in the number of Islamophobic incidents since the beginning of the year, ranging from “Bulli Bai” — an app that auctioned prominent Indian Muslim women as “deals of the day”; open calls by a Hindu priest in UP to rape Muslim women; to violent attacks on Muslim households and mosques during Ram Navami celebrations in several states. 

Islamophobia continues to be a daily part of the lives of Muslims in the country as we are lynched, objectified, unjustly incarcerated, and brutalised. We are constant targets and experience the threat of violence at the workplace, in educational institutions, on the street, and in our places of worship. We experience violence firsthand or witness it through social media.

Religious discrimination negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, pushing communities into health crises. Unrelenting Islamophobia has left Muslim communities worldwide with deep mental trauma. This kind of trauma is historical (experienced by a specific religious group over time), intergenerational (the effects are felt across generations), and systemic (institutions and systems create and maintain the trauma). What is the impact of such systemic trauma on our bodies and minds, and how do we heal from it?

Islamophobia and the trauma response

Several studies document the impact of trauma associated with systemic oppression, marginalisation and discrimination, and correlate it with negative health outcomes for minorities, like depression, suicidality, anxiety, irritability, numbness, poor concentration, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, and negative self-image (often resulting from internalised hatred). Systemic trauma also shares similarities with PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, this term might fail to encapsulate the mental health outcomes for Muslims as the trauma we are experiencing currently is unceasing, persistent, and pervasive. 

Systemic trauma has a significant impact on our nervous system. Our body releases certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in order to fight or flee dangerous situations (commonly called the stress response). These chemicals are supposed to be released in short bursts in our bodies so that we may protect ourselves from danger. What happens when there is no reprieve from danger for long periods of time, as in the case of systemic trauma? A prolonged stress response can have negative physical and mental health outcomes including, but not limited to, hypertension, heart disease, insomnia or other sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and even substance use. 

In 2008, Jennifer Freyd, a professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, coined the term “institutional betrayal” — the institutional action or inaction that can worsen the traumatic experience. This term seems to aptly describe the experiences of the Muslim community in the country, as trusted institutions created to protect our safety and well-being (schools, colleges, courts, governments) continue to be the perpetrators of violence and discrimination. It is not just that traumatising experiences continue to happen, it is that there are no reparations or restorations in sight. This explains the hopelessness that most of us are struggling with at the moment.

Systemic or institutional trauma is historical, multi-generational, and embodied. Science has caught up with lived experiences, with recent studies suggesting that the effects of trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next. This implies that the impact of trauma is felt not just by those directly exposed to it, but also by future generations. For instance, the negative stereotypes propagated about Muslims can be internalised and passed down from one generation to another, resulting in lower self-esteem. Intergenerational trauma could also manifest as a vulnerability to certain health conditions. These findings make a powerful statement about how collective suffering might be shaping the culture and biology of the Muslim community for generations to come. 

It also offers a glimmer of hope that if trauma may be passed down generations, then so can certain intergenerational gifts like hope and resilience. 

Collective healing and possibilities

In a system hell-bent on dehumanising Muslim bodies, healing can be tricky, and comes with its own challenges. However, it is possible not just to heal from trauma but to invite opportunities for deep emotional and collective transformation. There is no one right way to do this, but here are some suggestions:

Do not minimise the impact of trauma: One of the ways in which intergenerational trauma can show up is a tendency to minimise trauma — to see oneself and one’s community as invulnerable or immune to trauma. The first part of healing from trauma is acknowledging that we are affected in certain ways by the systemic violence that continues to happen to us. We are strong and resilient but we are also human, and therefore, vulnerable. Calling it as it is helps us move forward. 

Recognising trauma responses: Resmaa Manaken, a Minneapolis-based therapist and trauma specialist, summarised deep insight into historical trauma with these three sentences: “Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.” For instance, we might drown ourselves in work (this is often disguised as a ‘strong work ethic’ in families) as a way to prove our worth to a system that deems us defective, or experience difficulty in resting due to survivors' guilt. As a community, we might experience more fear, angst, or anguish, but fail to recognize it as intergenerational trauma, as it has been decontextualized over time and generations. The second part of healing is recognising the ways in which we respond to ourselves and the world due to our trauma, so that we may break free of them.

Finding safety & support in the community: We have a psychological need for connection, security, and togetherness. These vital needs are blocked when we receive implicit and explicit messages, like “you don't belong” or “you are different and hence unacceptable”, from the systems we engage in on a daily basis. Since Islamophobia attacks a core part of one’s identity, it is a natural response to feel drawn to discard religious identifiers, or to have a complicated relationship with your faith. Consider a pertinent example: young girls observing the hijab may develop complex feelings towards it, as it is an essential practice in Islam but also a religious identifier that invites blatant discrimination or violence.

Turning towards a community that understands and supports what you are going through is crucial to healing. This could be a group of friends, colleagues, family, or other community members. The presence of a loving community where stories can be shared, heard, and witnessed can do wonders for our nervous system. There can be a gentle but powerful restoration of safety and dignity in these spaces. 

Seeking professional help: Seeking help from a mental health professional can also be one of the ways to heal from systemic trauma. However, this path is not without its hurdles for most minority groups in India. It could be argued that mainstream mental health work often fails to recognise socially relevant trauma as traumatic. 

Most mainstream trauma therapy focuses on coping. While coping is a significant and necessary tool to learn in therapy, it hardly suffices in healing from systemic trauma. Often, well-intentioned therapists might encourage their clients to switch off from social media, limit news intake, or not engage politically, without realising that these aren't events that one can ‘switch off’ from but a reality lived and experienced every day. For these reasons and more, it is not uncommon for clients from minority groups to prefer a racial, religious or ethnic identity match with their therapists

Studies have shown that open discussions about racial and ethnic violence can foster an environment of trust between the therapist and the client and result in beneficial outcomes in therapy. A therapy rooted in liberation psychology or decolonizing psychology, that focuses on resistance, would be more effective for minority groups. It holds space for anger and angst as natural responses to oppression, without pathologizing it. According to clinical psychologist and president-elect of the American Psychological Association Dr Thema Bryant, such healing practices attempt to answer questions like, “How do I fight to not internalise these negative beliefs about myself and my community?”; “How do I use my agency to make my voice heard and connect with my community?”; and, “How can I cultivate compassion and support for what I’m going through?”

On most days, it is hard to imagine what healing can look like within a system that continues to traumatise us. Having the language to express and share our pain can bring much-needed ease. We might also find respite in the wisdom of our ancestors who survived worse horrors. Like my friend Aiman believes, there is much hope to be borrowed from the writings, poems, and paintings of past and present revolutionaries. if you are struggling to find your own. I borrow mine from this excerpt from Erich Fried’s poem Repeal

And maybe being able to
speak about the sorrow
in words
in real words
words which are related
which make sense
and which one is able
to understand
and which maybe
someone else
might understand
or could understand
And being able to cry
That'd be almost
happiness again.

The writer is a counselling psychologist from Kerala.

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