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What's wrong with 'Islamophobia'

By Nick Haslam - posted Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Don’t like gays? Hate foreigners? Loathe Muslims? You may be suffering from a mental disorder. People who express these attitudes often find themselves diagnosed with homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Just as arachnophobes tremble at the sight of spiders and agoraphobes avoid open spaces, sufferers of these conditions irrationally fear members of sexual, ethnic and religious minorities and keep a suspicious distance from them.

The language of fear and phobia permeates public discourse on social attitudes. Opposition to gay marriage is ascribed to homophobia, hostility towards African refugees to xenophobia and criticism of Muslims to Islamophobia. None of these phobias are recognised by psychiatrists. Should they be? Here are five good reasons, backed by psychological research, they should not.

Phobias and prejudices afflict different kinds of people

If homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia are indeed phobias, they are highly unusual examples. Phobias are irrational and excessive fears that afflict some people at higher rates than others. They are more common among women than men and occur most frequently among people whose personality is high in neuroticism, one of the five main personality factors. Such people tend to be emotionally volatile, tense, anxious and vulnerable. Prejudice towards gays, foreigners and Muslims is a different story.


Anti-gay attitudes are invariably higher among men than women. Men also express more negative views of immigrants and asylum-seekers and greater hostility to Muslims. People with prejudiced attitudes do not tend to have neurotic personalities but are low on two quite different personality factors: agreeableness and openness.

Prejudice flourishes among people who are cold, callous, inflexible, closed-minded and conventional, not among those who are anxious and fear-prone.

Prejudices also vary dramatically between social groups in a way that true phobias do not. They are more common in rural than urban areas, in outer than inner suburbs and among less rather than more educated people. Unlike phobias, they vary by political orientation, religious affiliation and national origin. They are, in short, closely tied to particular social locations. Prejudices are collectively shared and organised phenomena, not individual pathologies.

Fear is not the dominant emotion in prejudice

Even if we accept that reactionary attitudes are not strictly phobias, it may still be argued that fear is at their root. However, the emotional signature of prejudice is much more frequently anger, contempt or disgust. These emotions differ from fear in a variety of ways, most obviously in that they provoke confrontation and attack rather than avoidance. Perhaps less obviously, they all have a moral component; we experience these emotions when we judge people to have violated rules of fairness, rightness or purity.

Fear reflects a perception of danger, not transgression. Prejudice towards gays, immigrants, asylum-seekers and Muslims is coloured by complex moral emotions, not simple fears. Of course, fear and perceptions of threat may play a part in prejudice. Fear of terrorism contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment, and people who are averse to gays and immigrants are often anxious towards them. Even here, however, the anxiety is not phobic. Prejudiced people often do not fear members of other groups so much as experience awkwardness at the prospect of interacting with them. The disliked group is not seen as intrinsically dangerous but poses a challenge to easeful interaction. To see prejudice as fear is to flatten its emotional landscape and to overlook the multitude of ways in which humans can be averse to one another.

Prejudice has more to do with beliefs and values than emotions

THE emotions that accompany prejudice are complex moral sentiments and complex moral evaluations produce them. People tend to see the targets of their prejudice as posing a symbolic threat to cherished values. Antagonism to asylum-seekers, for example, is strongly linked to the perception that they are illegitimate, illegal, opportunistic and "un-Australian". Antipathy to gays is linked to perceived violations of religious values and sexual norms.


Indeed, people's values and beliefs are among the strongest predictors of their levels of prejudice. For example, prejudice is associated with a belief in traditional authority, an ideological preference for social hierarchy, acommitment to blood-and-soil nationalism and a conviction that the disliked group is different in its essential nature or world view. In short, prejudice is wrapped up in socialised thinking at least as much as in raw feeling.

Attributing other people's attitudes to fear is condescending

When we ascribe an attitude that we disagree with to its holder's fear, we imply that we are braver than they are. Doing so confuses being unenlightened with being cowardly and it flatters our fortitude. Attributing attitudes to primal fears also exemplifies the well-established psychological phenomenon that people tend to reserve complex emotions for members of their own group. Members of other groups are granted only the simpler emotions that humans share with lower animals. By implication, they are seen as more primitive or childlike than we.

For these reasons, seeing other people's attitudes as phobias is counterproductive. People accused of homophobia, Islamophobia and so on can readily deny the accusation, first because they experience their aversion as rooted in moral principle rather than fear; and, second, because they bristle at the accuser's condescension. In this position it is no surprise that people feel belittled or derided as attitudinal barbarians. The backlash that results among people who hold prejudiced attitudes, anger at the perceived arrogance and vanity of the so-called elites, helps to account for the durability of those attitudes.

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First published in The Australian on December 17, 2008.

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About the Author

Nick Haslam is professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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