Your Brain on Fear

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Yoda, from the Star Wars movies
Yoda, from the Star Wars movies (Photo: Ron Wurzer / Getty Images)


Islamophobia” is an interesting word because it doesn’t mean hatred of Muslims, it means fear of Muslims. Fear and hatred are of course closely interlinked, with Yoda himself succinctly explaining:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Fear of Muslims in general, rather than justified fear of political Islamism, can lead to discriminatory behavior. It also shuts down the ability to see nuanced answers to complex problems. This is why is it is so important to draw the distinction between criticism of political Islam and animus against Muslims in general.

But Islamophobia as a threat in itself has also been a bogeyman. The idea that non-Muslims hate Muslims and are out to get them is consistently pushed by Islamist-linked organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and their non-Muslim supporters like the Southern Poverty Law Center. These groups and others like them encourage Muslims in the West to see all criticism of Islamist ideas, or attempts to meaningfully engage with issues of extremism, as tainted with bigotry and as a personal attack.

Fear shuts down the ability of different groups to talk practically about solutions to our problems.

So what is fear and how does it impact the debate on Islamism?


The Biological Response

When a person encounters something they regard as a threat the body responds physically by flooding the system with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Psychologist Daniel Goleman termed this an “amygdala hijack,” referring to the part of the brain which regulates this mechanism.

The purpose is to prepare the body for a fight or flight response. In addition to increased heart rate the brain shuts down neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for complex planning and monitoring social situations. In order words, when this happens you temporarily lose the ability to think rationally.

This reaction can be the reason why discussions become heated so fast and why people can flip out and retreat into binary thinking when they feel scared. It can cause heated flame wars in comments sections online and fights in the street. It can also cause people to panic when they see visual cues associated with the group they fear.

Learn how to recognize when an amygdala hijack is taking place and focus oneself through mindfulness techniques to calm down. This can prevent a disagreement or fearful moment escalating into something much more dangerous.

Fear and Ignorance

“Ignorance is the cause of fear,” wrote Seneca the Younger roughly 2,000 years ago. Since then that sentiment has been taken as a truism, but why? The answer lies in evolutionary psychology. Humans are biologically hardwired to be afraid of the unknown.

It’s why so many people are afraid of the dark. It’s not the dark they are afraid of, it’s what might be lurking out there in the dark that could harm them.

This broad-based fear of the unknown is the underlying root of xenophobia – fear of the alien in Greek.

In the debate around Islamic extremism, ignorance fuels fear in many ways. To those who do not understand the difference between Islamism, a political ideology bent on global theocracy, and Islam, a diverse religion that is still evolving, any Muslim might pose a threat as a jihadist. The solution to fear is education. Knowing what constitutes extremism will help alleviate fears of ordinary Muslims.

By contrast, Muslims may fear Western governments and those who oppose extremism. They do not know what will happen and they worry they will be unfairly targeted. A more nuanced understanding of what Westerners actually feel and want will help lower tensions.

Fear in Groups

In groups people may privately feel one way but think everyone else disagrees. However, other people in the group agree, but also keep silent, assuming they are in the minority. This dynamic is termed “pluralistic ignorance” by psychologists. While not strictly a fear response, it is related to the fear of social shaming and judgement. Examples include drinking on a college campus. In studies many students reported feeling uncomfortable with the amount of drinking on campus but felt that others were happy with the norm, despite the fact that many people felt uncomfortable.

The pluralistic ignorance effect is thought to have played a role in maintaining segregation in the Jim-Crow South and communism in the Soviet Union for much longer than those ideas actually enjoyed support.

In the context of Islamism, this effect provides a plausible seeming explanation for why comparatively few Muslim activists speak out against extremism. Those who do speak out experience threats, harassment and bullying from a very vocal hardline minority who want to impose their will on the rest of the Islamic community. Many others would rather keep quiet than risk such exposure and still others may feel that even though they would like to be more open, their communities would not accept it.

It could also explain why the mainstream media and large sections of social media persist in denying that there is an issue with Islamic extremism.

The numbers of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim who acknowledge the reality of the reality of the issue may be much larger than you think. They may simply be too afraid, for themselves, their communities and their social standing, to speak out.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.