Does anybody really think?, pt. 2 (Does any body really feel?)

The first part of this blog detailed what I saw as flaws in the methodology and the presentation of the statistics that was the basis of the documentary ‘What British Muslims Really Think.’ In this second part I want to look at what I see as a primary flaw in virtually all discourse regarding the Middle East, and the Muslim diaspora more generally.

What follows is a segment taken from Bruce E. Wexler’s book, ‘Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change.’ I present a 1000-word case study describing what it feels like to be an immigrant. From this, I have removed any clue as to race, creed, religion, country of origin, country of destination, and even the period of history to which it relates, in an effort to have you, the reader, insert your own experiences, or those of people that you know and care for, to see if it’s possible to walk a mile in this person’s shoes. I will then relate this content back to the first installment of this blog.

[Name] was 13 years old when [they], [their] parents, and [their] 9-year-old sister left [old country] to emigrate to [new country]. Growing up as part of a [culture] family in [old city] after [traumatic event], [they were] in many ways on the margin of [old country] society and the object of more than a few exclusionary and critical comments by [their] peers. Yet this was [their] only world, external and internal, until [they] and [their] family [travelled to new country]. As [they] explained, “the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love… It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured. No geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscape that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations”. [Name] recalls that, walking around [large city] shortly before leaving, “I burst into tears as I pass a nondescript patch of garden, which, it turns out, holds a bit of myself.” Standing on the [transport to new country], “I feel that my life is ending”. “When the [traditional band] near the [transport to new country] strikes up the [local musical style] of the [national anthem], I am pierced by a youthful sorrow so powerful that I suddenly stop crying and try to hold still against pain. I desperately want time to stop, to hold the [transport] still with the force of my will.” How clearly [they describe] the formative effects of the environment into which [they] happened to be born, the connection between [their] internal and external worlds, and the impossibility – in [their] situation – of keeping the internal world together with the external world by which it was shaped and to which it was matched.

On [their] third night in [new city] [they had] “a nightmare in which I’m drowning in the ocean while my mother and father swim farther and farther away from me. I know, in this dream, what it is to be cast adrift in incomprehensible space; I know what it is to lose one’s mooring. I wake up in the middle of a prolonged scream. The fear is stronger than anything I’ve ever known.” A short while after [they wonder], “what has happened to me in this new world? I don’t know. I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me. I’m not filled with language anymore, and I only have a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist.” Aware when [they] was leaving her [old country] that part of [himself/herself] was being left behind because [they were] losing the external match to [their] internal self, in the [new country] [they feel] loss, discomfort, terror, and confusion when [they are] surrounded by an environment that does not match the inner world [they had] brought with [them].

While those mourning a deceased spouse may feel that part of oneself has died, this transplanted immigrant felt as empty as if [they] no longer existed. When encouraged by those around [them] to try and forget what [they] left behind, [they wonder] “Can I really extract what I’ve been from myself so easily?” When [they attempt] to take in [their] new environment, the requisite internal structures are lacking or the old structures are obstructing. … “The city’s unfocused sprawl, its inchoate spread of one-family houses, doesn’t fall into any grid of mental imagery, and therefore it is a strain to see what is before me. Even on this days when the sun comes out in full blaze and the air has the special transparency of [new country], [it] is a dim world to my eyes, and I walk around it in the static of visual confusion.” When [they look] at others who are farther along than [them] in the adjustment to a new world, [they worry] that even for them “insofar as meaning is interhuman and comes from the thickness of human connections and how richly you are known, these successful immigrants have lost some of their meaning.”

The change in language associated with many immigrations further disrupts the links between the self and others, and between internal neuro-psychological processes and external social processes. Two days after their arrival [Name] and [their] sister are taken to school and given new names […]. After the teacher introduced them to the class, mispronouncing their last name in a way they had never heard before, “we make our way to a bench at the back of the room; nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us. …Our [old country] names didn’t refer to us; they were us as surely as our eyes or hands. Those new appellations, which we ourselves can’t yet pronounce, are not us … Make us strangers to ourselves.” Their original names were, of course, assigned to them by others. But the assignment of new names after years of hearing the original names in association with themselves, and the internalisation of those names in important neural structures, is no small matter. [Name] quickly learns [new language] but “the words … don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. …This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance, but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is a loss of a living connection.

I think this piece eloquently sums up what one might feel in just a normal, or as we seem to be saying these days “economic”, migration, and gives a good base from which to extrapolate what might be the case in a refugee or forced migration (because from a young person’s perspective, any migration is forced).

The case study contains a number of direct quotes from an adult reflecting on their adolescent experience of immigration. Now consider that 33% of the Muslim population was aged 15 years or under in 2011, compared to 19% of the population as a whole. This is likely to have held steady in the intervening four years. Only 4% of the Muslim population is over 65 years, compared to 16% of the overall population.


The survey that was the basis of this documentary was meant to be a “representative sample.” It’s very hard to get consent to interview children under 16 due to ethical concerns. If such interviews were undertaken (and there is no indication that they were), given that we’ve established that Muslims tend to more conservative views, what is the likelihood that a youth would, with their parents present (because that’s how such an interview would have to take place), go against their parents’ views? But, as I said, there is no reason to believe that such interviews took place. What this means is that the 4% of the Muslim population that is 65+ have had the prevalence of their view statistically doubled because of the way the survey was carried out. It is a truism of aging that one’s views become more conservative as one gets older. Note the difficulty, in the case study, that the author had in translating the language and landscape of childhood into the present realities of a new country. That’s an adolescent, whose brain is still highly plastic (able to change more readily in response to external stimuli), noting these difficulties. The problems would be much more severe, and require numerous coping mechanisms, in older adults. This is culture shock, writ large.

To illustrate even more forcefully what culture shock can do. Immigration is a recognised risk factor in the diagnosis of schizophrenia (McGrath, Saha, Welham, El Saadi, MacCauley & Chant, 2004[1]), and especially in all ethnic minority groups (Fearon, et al., 2006[2]). People living in developing nations are more at risk, as are people living in urban areas. Curiously, though, the risk of schizophrenia increases for the children of immigrants. New immigrants are 2.7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia than the native English population, but the next generation are 4.5 times more likely (Cantor-Graae & Selten, 2005[3]). So it may be that environmental factors in the country of origin, or changes in environmental factors between countries, are influential; but that only explains prevalence in new immigrants, not the second generation. So the question then becomes, is this due to integration, or lack thereof? Cantor-Graae and Selten (2005, p. 101) have suggested what they call “social defeat” is a causative factor in subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia:

Since both migrants and city residents are exposed to high levels of social competition, the long-term experience of social defeat, defined as a subordinate position or as ‘outsider status’, is a viable candidate. This is compatible with the recent meta-analysis of studies on migrants, which showed greater effect sizes for migrants from developing countries than for those from developed countries, and greater effect sizes for the second generation than for the first. A bigger increase in the second generation is expected, because outsider status would be even more humiliating for individuals who feel entitled to the status conferred by their birthright. Since discrimination would certainly contribute to the migrant’s experience of defeat, it is noteworthy that a prospective study in The Netherlands found that perceived discrimination was a risk factor for the development of psychotic symptoms (Janssen et al, 2003[4]). The risks for immigrant groups known for their strong family networks, for example Asian immigrants to the UK and Turkish immigrants to The Netherlands, are not nearly as high as those for Caribbean immigrants to the UK or Moroccan immigrants to The Netherlands. Moreover, the incidence in minority ethnic groups is smaller when they comprise a greater proportion of the local population (Boydell et al, 2001[5]). A plausible interpretation of these findings is that social support protects against the development of schizophrenia and this accords well with the social defeat hypothesis.

So here we see that discrimination is a causal factor on the one hand, but relying on strong family networks, and having a large number of people of similar cultural origin are protective factors.

In the case study quoted at the start of this blog, it mentions that the author is somewhat of an outsider in their home country. Could they be describing the experiences of a Sunni youth from Iran, where 90-95% of the population is Shi’a? Or maybe a Shi’a youth from Jordan, positioned as it is between Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, where the population is 95% Sunni, and 3-4% Christian?

The “rigorous survey” that was the basis for ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ didn’t actually make a distinction between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Amongst British Muslims, 85% are Sunni, and 14.8% Shi’a. This approximately reflects worldwide demographics that suggest Sunni are between 75 and 90% of the world’s Muslims, and that 10 to 20% are Shi’a. I’m sure such a failure would not occur in distinguishing Catholics from Protestants, and the different attitudes they hold. Why, if we know that a population’s religious identity is important to them, when we’re trying to advocate active integration, would we then turn around and ignore that identity? It is at least conceivable that the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, as illustrated by the two examples I just gave, could be a part of the reason for emigrating in the first place.

As much as we might try and empathise with someone when they are going through something traumatic, and migration is traumatic, it’s hard to do so when we’ve not ever migrated ourselves. It is even more difficult when the person with whom we are trying to empathise seems radically different to us, and thus the basis for even empathizing – which most of us like to think we’re pretty good at, I’m sure – is just that bit harder. It is an unfortunate truism of the way our brains work that we notice difference first, and have to be reminded of similarity. Those of us who rely more on gut reaction, will therefore, in general, tend to be less empathic towards noticeably different strangers than those who stop and think about the commonalities we nevertheless share as humans.

Let me re-quote what I think is one of the most affecting lines from the case study above – notice the beautiful use of language when, at the same time they are mourning the loss of language. This, in a way, is the power and the shortcoming of words:

“the words … don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. …This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance, but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is a loss of a living connection.”

Do you care to guess the specifics of the individual in that case study, the author of those words? In an attempt to illustrate just how universal such things are, I’ve not quoted a Muslim.


[Scroll down…]



[…Have a guess…]




[…Oh, go on…]





The subject of that piece, the quotes contained therein written by her as an adult woman, speak of the experiences of a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl moving from Krakow, Poland, to Vancouver, Canada, in 1959.

[Reactions in the comments section, please.]

[1] McGrath, J., Saha, S., Welham, J., El Saadi, O., MacCauley, C., & Chant, D. (2004). A systematic review of the incidence of schizophrenia: the distribution of rates and the influence of sex, urbanicity, migrant status and methodology. BMC medicine, 2(1), 1.

[2] Fearon, P., Kirkbride, J. B., Morgan, C., Dazzan, P., Morgan, K., Lloyd, T., … & Mallett, R. (2006). Incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses in ethnic minority groups: results from the MRC AESOP Study. Psychological medicine, 36(11), 1541-1550.

[3] Cantor-Graae, E. & Selten, J. P. (2005) Schizophrenia and migration: a meta-analysis and review. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 12-  24.

[4] Janssen, I., Hanssen, M., Bak, M., et al (2003) Discrimination and delusional ideation. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 71^76.

[5] Boydell, J., van Os, J., McKenzie, K., et al (2001) Incidence of schizophrenia in ethnic minorities in London: ecological study into interactions with the environment. BMJ, 323, 114.


About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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