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Dr Tarek Younis
Clinical, Race, ethnicity and culture

‘To consider accessibility, we must also take the politics of Islamophobia outside of mental health settings more seriously’

Fauzia Khan meets Clinical Psychologist Dr Tarek Younis.

24 April 2023

Dr Tarek Younis recently authored a book, The Muslim, State and Mind: Psychology in Times of Islamophobia. I met him to discuss his journey into psychology and his experience of navigating the discipline as a racialised Muslim man. He also discusses Islamophobia and his work on securitisation, counterterrorism and racism in mental health settings as well as challenging the PREVENT strategy.

Can you tell me about yourself and what brought you into psychology and academia?

I have a long history of engaging in community work. My mother was committed to the spirit of community. I grew up in Canada and Germany, and although I was not raised around extended family, she always made sure we were surrounded by like-minded people. Working with Muslim youth for many years, running youth groups as an adolescent and into early adulthood, I recognised personal issues in the Muslim community that weren't being addressed, which prompted me to take psychology more seriously.

My entry point into clinical psychology was through cultural psychology and transcultural psychiatry, particularly focusing on refugees and migrants. I was interested in understanding the various ways people around the world experience distress, as well as how we make sense of healing. Given my background in community work, I was particularly interested in marginalised communities. This influenced my doctoral thesis on Islamophobia. At the time of writing, there was a lack of good research on Islamophobia within psychology, so I looked to other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology to help me make sense of it. My research focused on Islamophobia in Quebec, Canada, Germany, and Denmark, exploring differences and similarities, and how politics impacts identity development.

I am also interested in the politics of the psychology disciplines. I believe that the political climate plays a critical role in our theoretical understandings, interventions, and practices, and that the structural dimensions of these issues are often underplayed. This is what brought me to the UK. In Canada, where I worked as a clinical psychologist, I never did research on public mental health institutions and practices. Here in the UK, I have worked privately and conducted extensive research on the NHS.

As a Muslim man what has your experience of navigating psychology been like?

This question can be separated into two parts: navigating psychology in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and the challenges I faced as a Muslim man and psychologist during my doctoral training, which began in 2009. I recall many mosques and Imams approached me during that time, expressing a need for Muslim men to have a background in psychology. This was something I had considered but did not take as seriously. When I initially entered the field, my focus was broader, seeking to understand how to support truly multi-ethnic communities. In time, I realised there was indeed a particular want for Muslim men in psychology, and that being one granted me a certain level of respectability or privilege in public. Psychology grants a level of legibility, which is perhaps understated for racialised minorities.

When I tell people I'm a psychologist, there is always a sense of surprise like, 'oh, I didn't expect someone like you to be a psychologist'. If they're Muslim, this opens the door to discuss issues within the Muslim community. But if they're not Muslim, there is a fascinating 'opening' which occurs. There is a sudden ease to discuss anything and everything with me, including problems with Islam and Muslims, which would not have occurred if I didn't say I'm a psychologist. I therefore withhold telling people I'm a psychologist until they ask my profession, to gauge if it changes the dynamic of the conversation.

Certainly, this response may be attributed to the role of 'listeners' clinical psychologists occupy in wider society, but for myself as a Muslim man, it seems to also somehow formulate itself as a bridge of social and community cohesion. There's this notion that a psychologist is a person who understands and has integrated secular-liberal values, which has significance for racialised Muslims positioned on the boundaries of liberal society, presumably in constant need of integration strategies. The psychologist is the ideal 'good Muslim', so to speak, in a political climate which differentiates between good and Muslim citizenry. If we're simply racialised as a Muslim or Arab man, without any further information, I think people might begin with the question if I'm 'psychologically minded', as they say.

On the side, I've noticed in my clinical work how 'psychological-mindedness' is a term laced with racist and classist connotations. During my training, I experienced several challenges. The discipline of psychology has a history of legitimising statecraft and state policies through Orientalism and Imperialism, which is still present today. It was not uncommon, when discussing Muslims in clinical settings, to be exposed to racist discourses surrounding Islam's association with illiberalism, irrationality, and fanaticism, packaged within the box of psychology. Another challenge is the Eurocentrism of psychology, in which Western configurations of psychology are assumed to be universal and apply to everyone. This Eurocentric construction of man, distress, suffering, and mental health is taught without much critique or reflexivity in many psychology departments. However, I had relief in attending transcultural psychiatry meetings and seminars at McGill University in Montreal, which led to my connection with transcultural psychiatrists and ultimately brought me to the UK. Through these experiences, my criticality developed, and I realised the importance of thinking beyond Eurocentric psychology.

Working within these settings within the Western world as a Muslim man, and having all these experiences… what was that like for you?

Overall, my clinical settings always felt lacking, though they were fine experiences overall. I always felt our work (as in psychotherapy) was political, but I had no community within psychology to help me make sense of this outside of one or two enlightened clinical supervisors. This lack of support led me to seek out other communities and disciplines. This highlights the importance of being interdisciplinary and acknowledging that sociopolitical issues cannot be fully understood from a single discipline's perspective. I often found relief by attending critical discussions in other places, where others discussed the history and politics of the psy-disciplines, how racism operates and what it means to be racialised as a Muslim in the Global North today.

It is important to recognise that psychology, as a field and within its institutions, is predominantly a white, middle-class discipline. While I did experience Islamophobia working publicly, I was more affected when I witnessed how it affected clients. For instance, I saw how Muslim clients were often racialised in problematic ways: a Muslim woman with a niqab being framed as oppressed (the experience of 'double consciousness'), or a Muslim man's anger being interpreted as threatening or fanatical. These logics are often rooted in racist assumptions and often undermine the agency and autonomy of Muslim patients. Let us not forget the psy-disciplines held a unique role in the surveillance and management of 'Muslim minds' in colonial projects. There is thus much to discuss how Muslims are racialised in the psy-disciplines. These issues are complex and encompass various aspects of Muslimness, among other things: the West's framing of liberalism vis-à-vis Islam ('West vs the Rest'), the securitisation of emotions like anger and empathy, to other issues related to jinn and religious beliefs and practices.

In a chapter of my book, 'The Politics of Muslim Mental Health', I provide three examples of different patients who enter mental health setting in the Global North and discuss the importance of how each is racialised differently. I believe we need to unpack the complexity of how Muslims are racialised more thoroughly according to dominant ideologies (like nationalism) and social conflicts (like the war on terror). We need to look more directly at the political climate and how this naturally extends. At the moment we tend to reduce Islamophobia as a catch-all for physical and verbal abuse which, while important, does not reflect back the political climate we inhabit.

What are your thoughts on the term 'Islamophobia'?

Many have written extensively on Islamophobia as a form of racism. Islam is perceived as an ever-present conundrum in the Global North. The Western world has a long history of interacting with Islam and Muslims in the maintenance of their own Eurocentric global power structures. Through this, Muslims also racialised through various ideologies and social conflicts. Nationalism, which is on the rise in the UK, is inherently racist. The public imaginary of who is 'British' (or German, Danish, etc) is defined by whiteness. This was articulated by the UKIP poster unveiled by Nigel Farage against immigration in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, which depicted people of colour trying to enter the EU. Most Muslims are not white and are immediately racialised as not belonging. Some may argue that one cannot be 'racist' towards Muslims because it's a religion (and therefore involves some sort of choice). But evidence shows that non-Muslims are attacked on the street once perceived as Muslim, so choice has little to do with that matter. Therefore, once we acknowledge that Muslims are racialised according to different logics, that should be enough evidence that while race is a social construct, it has real-world implications. I often define Islamophobia as the management of Ideal Muslim thinking and behaviours, with boundaries that, if crossed, can result in Islamophobia, even if it is just by existing or due to skin colour.

Some of your previous research explored the racialisation of Muslims as a result of statutory counter-terrorism policies in mental health; and much of your work is also focused around challenging PREVENT's counter-radicalisation policy. Can you tell me about that?

I noticed a lack of discussion of politics in psychology and psychiatry, despite its significance in cultural and religious contexts. Certainly, it would be strange to assume a phenomenon like Brexit, for example, has no implications on mental health practices. I became interested in the PREVENT policy as an example of institutionalised Islamophobia. This policy makes it a duty for mental health professionals to have due regard in identifying and reporting individuals they suspect may become terrorists in the future. Muslims are uniquely racialised as threats in the war on terror. They are often seen as regressive and risky – an idea legitimised by politicians and affirmed by large segments of the population. In the war on terror, long-standing integration discourses ('can Muslim integrate into secular-liberal societies?') becomes securitised. Now it's no longer 'integrate our values or go back to where you're from', but rather, 'integrate our values or you're potentially at risk of radicalisation'. Hence, among PREVENT referrals I have personally documented, these have included instances of a woman putting on a headscarf, an adolescent mentioning the word jihad, etc.

The securitisation of Muslims and Islam is widely documented in research. With PREVENT embedding itself uniquely within British mental health settings, I wanted to explore how mental health professionals navigate it and make sense of their 'pre-crime' counterextremism duty, as policies of pre-crime inherently institutionalise the gut feelings of suspicion. My research evolved from questioning how these professionals make sense of their counterterrorism duty to exploring how they navigate issues of race in their work.

One of the major findings was how psychology legitimised Islamophobia and racism. It is important to distinguish between illiberal and liberal racism. Illiberal racism involves the wholesale demonisation or vilification of certain groups, such as the Black community, Muslim and Jewish people etc. Liberal racism on the other hand does not demonise an entire group but instead operates within groups on registers of goodness and badness – the 'good Muslim/bad Muslim' binary. Liberal racism is significant in times when racism is no longer seen as systemic, but rather a virus on the fringes of society. It is often a form of cultural racism and is colourblind. Colourblindness means treating everyone equally by masking or evading how racialisation matters in interactions. PREVENT has legitimised racism in the NHS by endorsing a colourblind approach and telling staff to look out for all extremists, rather than targeting specific groups. It does so by obscuring racist notions of 'threat to the nation' through the language of psychological vulnerability. Psychology plays an integral role in colourblindness.  

In other words, regardless of the individual – we're all equally susceptible to the extremism virus when psychologically vulnerable. The universalism embedded within psychology discourse dismisses the role of race in the war on terror given our assumed, shared human vulnerability. Simply said, it erases race. Mental health professionals may already perform surface-level, colourblind anti-racism, insisting everyone should be treated equally. However, when a policy like PREVENT is implemented, they fail to recognise how 'threat' is racialised to Islam/Muslimness in public imaginary, providing it a veneer of colourblindness. As a result, as we already know, colourblindness maintains racist structures. Indeed, I have met many mental health professionals who eagerly view extremism as an issue that can wholly or partly be resolved through appropriate mental health frameworks. They neither acknowledge the centrality of race in the war on terror, nor the historical role of mental health professionals in managing ideal political thought (i.e. Soviet Union).

My book explores what policies like PREVENT reveal about the discipline of psychology, and how they operate within institutions. Rather than focusing solely on what PREVENT is doing to mental health, it is important to turn the question around and consider what PREVENT reveals about the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

It is well known that people from the Muslim community are less likely to access psychological therapy and mental health services and some might argue that this is down to cultural and linguistic barriers, while others might suggest there is a lot more to this. I wonder what your thoughts are in terms of the challenges and barriers that prevent this community from accessing these services?

This is a complex issue and there is no simple answer. I believe that the approach to Muslims' mental health access and intervention may sometimes be rather superficial. The common approach is to acknowledge that there are mental health issues within the Muslim community and to compare the community with others, such as the white majority. It is observed then that Muslims are less likely to recognise mental health issues (until they are 'severe', so to speak), access mental health services, less likely to maintain treatments, and have poorer outcomes. This is the public health approach, and it typically involves improving institutions and developing gateways for Muslims to access mental health services. The hope is that this can be achieved by hiring more Muslim professionals, increasing cultural sensitivity towards Muslim patients, integrating Islam into therapeutic modalities, and promoting mental health awareness within the Muslim community.

While these efforts are commendable, the current approach is notably apolitical. It reduces Muslims to just one racialised minority among others and then compares their mental health makeups accordingly. This does a disservice not only to Muslims but also to other marginalised communities. It is necessary to politicise our understanding of these questions and complicate the answer of 'we need to improve the Muslim's community access and treatment in mental health institutions'.

PREVENT serves as a good example to reconsider how and why Muslims may not fare well in mental health settings. Through PREVENT, we know that the moment a Muslim enters the NHS, they are immediately racialised through counterterrorism duty, which requires institutions to identify and report individuals suspected of being threats or terrorism threats. This issue then is not about cultural competence, but about a political climate which legitimises common-sensical beliefs about Islam and Muslims. Anecdotally, Muslims reach out to me constantly for therapy (for themselves or others) when they learn of the PREVENT policy. They admit not even trusting other Muslim therapists about this, because they're in the NHS itself, because that space is securitised. Perhaps there must be more consideration made about politically conscious, safe, healing spaces in this regard.

Tell me about your chapter 'The silence of a coward: Why I no longer play the good Muslim' in the book 'I Refuse to Condemn'.

The purpose of this chapter, which can be accessed online, is to explore how I came to recognise the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary and its impact on my role as a psychologist. In it, I discuss how being a psychologist who is also a Muslim man fits into the conception of a good Muslim. However, the chapter serves as a reminder that every time someone pivots their position as a good Muslim, they are throwing someone else under the bus who does not share the same privileges. The purpose of the chapter is to remind ourselves and the public that reproducing this binary has consequences for those on the margins.

What do you think needs to change to make services more accessible to people from Muslim communities?

There is a wider context that needs to be recognised here. With fascism on the rise in Europe, there are many problems that go beyond accessibility to mental health settings. This issue becomes complex. A Muslim who experiences discrimination may also harbour distrust of public institutions. Often, this mistrust may be reduced to a need of raising better awareness or developing culturally sensitive service. But the individual's mistrust may not be completely unfounded – that's the point. Their experiences are informed by the wider Islamophobic context which, as we're seeing across Europe, is increasingly legitimising the marginalisation of Muslims and Islam in public spaces. As a result, they may not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences (a common point given to me is Palestine or Syria) with their mental health professional. This issue is not solely about improving mental health practices, as mental health services are not immune to the political climate. Therefore, to consider accessibility, we must also take the politics of Islamophobia outside of mental health settings more seriously. At the same time, it is important to appreciate the wider politics of the psy-disciplines more thoroughly as well.