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Muslims Must Have the Courage to Look Within

Muslims Must Have the Courage to Look Within

A man walks along a path and stops to speak to someone. They exchange words and a conflict arises. One man hits the other, who says “ouch.” They part ways, but three days later, the man who suffered the blow still has pain. The pain itself is no longer with the initial punch, but has become a systemic issue within his body. He must now seek professional care. The doctor informs him that he has a muscle ailment that was aggravated by the blow. The pain he feels now was not actually caused by the punch. The man has a choice: address the muscle ailment or remain focused on the punch.

In the Muslim community in America, and globally, there have been many types of punches that have affected the community and created systemic harm: American slavery, the experience of immigration, vestiges of war, the realities of being a refugee, the partition between Pakistan and India, the Iraq war, the Palestinian conflict, racism, classism, ethnocentrism and other communal traumas. Adding to them are traumas that hit a little closer to home within families, such as female genital mutilation, rape, incest, divorce, neglect, domestic abuse, religious abuse, oppression and poverty.

The punch reaction

Punches can make community members fight, flee or freeze. By fleeing or fighting, they seek a safer environment, which often appears as resiliency — a healthy form of “bouncing back.” When Nabra Hassanen and the other young people with her from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, Virginia, fled the man with a baseball bat, this is what they were doing, bouncing back with an appropriate stress response.

Freezing is the third possible response. When people experience trauma either communally or individually, they may freeze in the face of additional stress or trauma. One trauma is called singular trauma. When this is joined by more traumas, it’s called complex trauma. When there are repeated traumas, we call this chronic stress or chronic trauma.

A singular trauma is treated with trauma-informed therapies, depending on the type and individual. With complex trauma, the singular trauma treatment approach doesn’t work, and another approach that includes multi pronged treatment must be applied. With chronic trauma or stress, the systemic issues must be addressed. Treating traumas within the Muslim community is problematic, as there is a stigma attached to getting any treatment at all.

When people experience trauma either communally or individually, they may freeze in the face of additional stress or trauma.

Trauma through the generations

Trauma is transmitted through external events such as war, natural disasters or violence, through relational patterns such as domestic violence over generations or through inherited genetic factors. Biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual factors are all part of the inter-generational transmission of trauma. The long-range generational effects of trauma have been widely reported, including in a 1999 study where researcher Madeleine Seifter Abrams wrote, “A majority of individuals and families requiring help for emotional problems have undergone some form of trauma from within the family or created and fostered by the social systems with which they interact.”

Research also points to evidence of the development of certain mental illness in the womb. A 2001 study from Christine Heim and Charles B Nemeroff stated:

Epidemiologic studies indicate that children exposed to early adverse experiences are at increased risk for the development of depression, anxiety disorders, or both. Persistent sensitization of central nervous system (CNS) circuits as a consequence of early life stress, which are integrally involved in the regulation of stress and emotion, may represent the underlying biological substrate of an increased vulnerability to subsequent stress as well as to the development of depression and anxiety. Further, emerging evidence from clinical studies suggests that exposure to early life stress is associated with neurobiological changes in children and adults, which may underlie the increased risk of psychopathology.

Other research has discovered a connection to trauma from disasters such as war, earthquakes and influenza while a child is in the womb, to indicate increased possibility for mental illness as these children become adults. Lastly, Murray Bowen, who developed Family Systems theory, demonstrated that relational patterns can be traced up to 10 generations through a family’s history and be further passed down. This means that without treatment, traumas do not heal, but rather continue to repeatedly traumatize others or remain active in those who were traumatized initially.

Trauma can also influence our choices relationally to choose people who would help us repeat the traumas of the previous generation. The latest research from trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk suggests that the body itself will keep score of what the mind cannot confront causing other physical ailments in addition to psychological effects of trauma, much like the punch in the beginning of this article.

Overcoming trauma

How one responds to trauma is key to overcoming its effects. Our community has seen what happens when previous traumas are allowed to define the discourse between people, particularly on social media, but also the news. This reaction is like the punch: Every time the person is barely touched, the pain intensifies. The first response to this intensified pain is to verbalize it all over social media, or to target some unsuspecting victim to dump this emotional displacement onto.

The body itself will keep score of what the mind cannot confront causing other physical ailments in addition to psychological effects of trauma.

In the past couple of years, unsuspecting victims include visible White converts in the community who are labeled with the most egregious monikers, including “racist” or “xenophobe.” Other responses have included movements to segregate the community into factions or groups. A recent HuffPost article suggests that women of color in hijab are more prone to discrimination in society due to the intersectionality of their identities. The fact is that all hijab-wearing women experience discrimination. After 9/11, Black American women particularly reported experiencing less overt discrimination because of their hijabs than others, because of the long-standing relationships built within society. Though in our current climate, there is no shelter from bias or prejudice or the action of discrimination for any Muslim woman.

What we have not seen readily, or what does not get voice or attention, are attempts to unify and see others as they are. When tragedy occurs, we first yell “help!” We give help and social justice follows later.  As a consequence, part of the healing process involves taking time to experience other human beings as they are, not the projected fantasies that are most often applied to them. We can heal a single trauma through the giving of unconditional love in a therapeutic setting over a two-year period. Complex traumas are of another kind and treatment.

What we are witnessing in our current climate is a complete pass over the help stage and a move toward social justice. When one seeks to heal their traumas via social media or through public acknowledgement of their pain, it’s like a pinball machine where one is bounced around and then swallowed in a hole, or like the Roman Coliseum, where one is made food for the lions. It is a road that leads to destruction of the self and others, and bespeaks a weak ego. Our community appears broken when we witness these behaviors, and we are not effectively able to reach the people who perpetuate this on social media. Consequently, they have some following as a spectacle and as surrogates for those who are also in pain from trauma and have no voice. We need more therapists and mental health workers to address these apparent issues, and fewer social media stars.

Trauma symptoms

Over time and generations, trauma survivors start to have symptoms instead of memories. In the individual, they appear as depression, irritability, loss of interest, numbness, decreased concentration, insomnia, emotional instability, hopelessness, shame and worthlessness, no memories, nightmares and flashbacks, mistrust and hypervigilance, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic headaches, somatic pain, substance use and abuse, eating disorders, feelings of not being in the body or being “unreal,” self-destructive behaviors, and a loss of a sense of “who I am.” As a result, people who have been traumatized often regress into the most basic forms of existence that appear as early as infancy, or they may be “frozen” in the stage of development when the trauma occurred, resulting in arrested development. This lack of a sense of identity is playing out before us on social media forums, and the reformation of this identity is being informed by who “likes” the traumatized person and which of the person’s actions receives virtual applause. Sometimes this means reacting to an event, such as a tragic death, with political campaigning and issues-oriented rhetoric.

[A] false validation that occurs through “likes” and numbers of followers … puts more distance between the injured and recognition of their pain by those who are responsible, and simultaneously creates more distance and segregation between people who are different.

Such regression to an earlier stage of development may provide a sense of stability. But it often creates a mindset of black-and-white thinking, whereby everything is good or bad. This simple reduction is really a survival tactic. This can also be recognized as everything existing in terms of all halal or haram. It does not allow for people to integrate or deal with complexity either in themselves or others. It does not allow for people to disagree and yet continue to love others or communicate a message reflecting this value. In fact, because this is a mode of survival, it disallows people to “see” one another. Rather, they project their fantasies or fears onto others, and there is no genuine regard for the other person.

The historical traumas visited on the Muslim community in modern times have created complex traumas and a great deal of emotional upheaval. We witness this unaddressed emotional upheaval on social media. In a community where seeking help has been stigmatized, communally and individually, but where public displays of grand emotion have not, we end up exclusively on the pain of the punch, which may mask the underlying trauma. And this trauma may be caused or aggravated by the daily display of images of dead bodies and the outpouring of heart-wrenching emotion. This cycle of trauma is continuous with no end in sight.

Moreover, this is why when tragedy happens, people are no longer able to give solemn regard. Rather, the only way those who have been injured feel they can heal is through this false validation that occurs through “likes” and numbers of followers. Ironically, this puts more distance between the injured and recognition of their pain by those who are responsible, and simultaneously creates more distance and segregation between people who are different. Furthermore, when a community or individual finds themselves in this state of affairs, the idea of tawwakul (reliance on God) may seem foreign to them because they have lost trust of people and perhaps even God. This leaves the community in a truly vulnerable state, and pain and traumas go unaddressed.

*Image: A vigil for Nabra Hassanen. Flickr/Brett Weinstein

About The Author

Heather Laird

Heather Laird

About Heather Laird

Ms. Laird is the Director of the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at the University of Southern California. She is also Managing Director of HRL Consulting, LLC., a consulting firm dedicated to issues and concerns around mental health care. She is the host of Muslims and Mental Health a show on YouTube. She is graduating this summer with a PsyD MFT and, holds a Master’s in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy and a a MPA and Nonprofit Management Certificate. She was a 2015-2016 AAMFT Doctoral Fellow of the Minority Fellowship Program and a 2016-2017 Albert Schweitzer Fellow. She has been awarded the Global Psychology Award for two consecutive years 2015 and 2016 for her research. She was also awarded a community partnerships award (2016) for her work with the LA county and Orange county DMH. She presents regularly at Academic conferences such as IFTA and AAMFT. Her primary population of patients has included many underserved minorities such as Arabs, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, South Asians and LGBT clients. Her career includes research, teaching and clinical practice. Ms. Laird was born in the Midwest and currently resides in Southern California. She has served on many boards including recently joining the board of the American Muslim Fund. She previously served on The Chicago School of Professional Psychology Diversity Advisory Board (2016-2017) and the Distinguished Teaching Award Committee (2014). She also served on the AAMFT-CA Outreach Committee in 2014. She was a steering committee member to the first World Congress on Muslim Philanthropy in Istanbul. She is a member of AAMFT, CAMFT American Muslim Health Professionals and the International Family Therapy Association. Sr. Heather conducts research, teaches and has a clinical practice.

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Muslims Must Have the Courage to Look Within
July 7th, 2017


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