Contrasting Muslim And Western Psychologies: The Locus Of Control

Nicolai Sennels spent several years working with criminal Muslims in Copenhagen (where as of March 2009 “70% of the prison population in the Copenhagen youth prison consists of young man of Muslim heritage.”)   He writes the following about the different ways that Westerners and Muslims view the locus of control:

There is another strong difference between the people of Western and Muslim cultures; their locus of control. Locus of control is a psychological term describing whether people experience their life influenced mainly, by internal or external factors. It is clear from a psychological point of view that Westerners feel that their lives are mainly influenced by inner forces – ourselves. This is reflected in our points of view, our ways of handling our emotions, our ways of thinking, our ways of relating to people around us, our motivation, our surplus, and our way of communicating. These internal factors are what guide our lives and determine if we feel good and self confident or not. Every Western library has several meters of self help books. Every kiosk has dozens of magazines for both women and men that tell us how to create happier and more successful lives for ourselves. Our phone books have columns of addresses for psychologists, coaches and therapists. All these things are aimed at helping us to help ourselves create the life that we want. Some might argue that all this introspectiveness is too much and that just doing what is useful for oneself and others here-and-now would be more constructive, but this is how our culture is.

All these things do not exist in Muslim culture and countries. The very little psychiatry and psychology that is taught, in only a few universities in the Muslim world, is imported from the West.  It is mostly taught by teachers educated at Western universities and does not have roots in the Muslim culture.

But Muslims have something else. They have strict external rules, traditions and laws for human behavior. They have a God that decides their life’s course. “Inshallah” follows every statement about future plans; if God wants it to happen. They have powerful Muslim clerics who set the directions for their community every Friday. These clerics dictate political views, child rearing behavior, and how or whether to integrate in Western societies.

The locus of control is central to our understanding of problems and their solutions. If we are raised in a culture where we learn that “…I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul,” as William Ernest Henley wrote in his famous poemInvictus in 1875; we will, in case of personal problems, look at ourselves and ask: “…What did I do wrong?” and “…What can I do to change the situation?” People who have been taught throughout their entire lives that outer rules and traditions are more important than individual freedom and self reflection, will ask: “Who did this to me?” and “Who has to do something for me?”

Thus, the locus of control is central to the individual’s understanding of freedom and responsibility. Even though our Christian based societies may, in certain situations, give too much emphasis on feelings of guilt; it also strengthens the individual’s sense of being able to take responsibility for, and change one’s own life. In societies shaped under Islamic and Qu’ranic influence there may be fewer feelings of guilt and thus, more freedom to demand the surroundings to adapt to one’s own wishes and desires. This may include demands to wear Islamic costumes which can result in more Muslim demands for Islamization of our Western societies, but it is also a powerful source of victim mentality and leads to endless demands on one’s surroundings. In a very concrete way this cultural tendency, shows itself in therapy, as a lack of remorse. The standard answer from violent Muslims was always: “…It is his own fault that I beat him up. He provoked me.” Such excuses show that people experience their own reactions as caused by external factors and not by their own emotions, motivation and free will. Even though one’s own feelings, when experiencing an insult, can be moderated by one’s own point of view, this kind of self reflection does not happen to the same degree among Muslims as it does among Westerners. It only takes one person to beat up another: the guy who is doing the hitting. It also only takes one person to feel insulted. Being beaten and feeling insulted are thus strictly different social events. The latter depends on ones self, while the former is solely caused by outer circumstances. Unfortunately, this fact is not considered in Muslim culture and apparently also not by the supporters of laws on hate speech, racism and defamation.

The difference in mentality is clearly stated by the old Indian proverb:

You can walk around softly everywhere by putting on a pair of shoes, or you can demand that the whole Earth becomes covered by soft leather.

He has much more to say in the article on the topics of Muslim anger, honor, self reflection, and identity, and the failed integration of Muslims into Europe.

I decided to ask a friend who has spent many years living in various foreign countries, including presently and for a while now living in the Middle East what she thought of the picture of Middle Eastern Muslim psychology laid out in this piece.  She is a Christian who is very sympathetic with Islamic culture, a strong opponent of European bans on the burqa for example, and so I wanted to see if this account which comes from a clear critic of Islamic culture struck her as nonetheless truthful.  Here were her reflections on the article:

This is fascinating and really hits home with our situation here.  [My husband] and I have found it very difficult that our problem-solving mentality is so completely different than our coworkers and bosses. Whereas we naturally look for solutions, we find that they are always pointing the finger and blaming someone else, which is consistent with theauthor’s conclusions about the locus of control:

“in case of personal problems, look at ourselves and ask: ‘…What did I do wrong?’ and ‘…What can I do to change the situation?’ People who have been taught throughout their entire lives that outer rules and traditions are more important than individual freedom and self reflection, will ask: ‘Who did this to me?’ and ‘Who has to do something for me?’

Thus, the locus of control is central to the individual’s understanding of freedom and responsibility. Even though our Christian based societies may, in certain situations, give too much emphasis on feelings of guilt; it also strengthens the individual’s sense of being able to take responsibility for, and change one’s own life. In societies shaped under Islamic and Qu’ranic influence there may be fewer feelings of guilt and thus, more freedom to demand the surroundings to adapt to one’s own wishes and desires.”

This is a fairly difficult conflict between us and them, and admittedly we haven’t really found a solution to the problem. But if we could find some compromise between these two styles of conflict resolution, or at least better understanding, maybe there would be more peace in this part of the world!

And, for a little bonus, she later offered a bit of her perspective on the problems for Muslims integrating in Europe:

As far as integration goes, we can’t just blame Muslims.  I think that a reason why they may not describe themselves as Danes or French, even after several generations, is because they are not welcome to feel that way.  I’ve noticed that the only countries in the world where integration seems to be successful are the countries where English is the dominant language.  That may be because English is an amalgamation of so many other languages, so maybe there is something inherently inclusive about it.  Also, in places like North America and Australia, we are lucky to enjoy pluralism because we are not ethnically defined.  As i’ve mentioned before, it’s a much bigger struggle in Europe, where one’s “Danishness” or “Frenchness” is exclusively racial.

For two interviews from 2009 in which Sennels takes a pessimistic view of the possibility of Muslim integration in Europe, and puts more of the blame on the Muslims than my friend does, see here and here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.lxmagic.com Alex Fiorentini

    This actually makes a lot of sense, I never really made that connection between the cultural structure and the mindset before; very insightful. This is definitely something I won’t want to forget.

  • Dan

    Here in Australia the muslims are not integrated well either and segregate themselves. It seems the more religious they are, the less they maintain any respect for secular government and law, or even any authority outside of their islamic teachers.

    I think the onus is on them to make more effort to integrate – which means necessarily leaving some of their old ways behind. Secular democracy is able and willing to host fundamentalist religionists and views but this liberty is not returned the other way.

    I find they act like any extreme religious group – as a parasite feeding off the secular state, while simultaneously weakening it and seeking to change the very nature of the state.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, Alex, I’d been cognizant of related issues, like that if you are completely submitted to an externally given, authoritarian morality you lose your ability to do moral reasoning for yourself by not exercising them. But I never thought about how it could also create an attitude of utter dependency on circumstances and reflexive tendency to blame authorities for anything wrong in one’s life.

  • Dan

    Here is a great summary of the meme of Islam –
    The Terrifying Brilliance of Islam

    http://www.citizenwarrior.com/2009/05/terrifying-brilliance-of-islam.html

  • http://www.lxmagic.com Alex Fiorentini

    I think it’s also interesting to highlight the introversion of western people in relation to the “new age” beliefs about spirit world meditation and homeopathy and how some people seem to think that the nature of reality itself is a personal matter. I have a friend who believes in spirit world meditation and freely admits that there is no objective evidence-based reason to believe it, leaving her with only her arbitrary (but, to her, correct) opinion that it’s all real. There’s even a YouTube video of a guy having been quoted .002 cents per kilobyte when the Verizon people actually meant .002 dollars per kilobyte; the difference between $72 and 72 cents. At one point, when the customer was doing the multiplication out loud, the Verizon lady actually said, “Well it’s a matter of opinion.” Both of these, I think, represent the radical and dangerous side of internal influence.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Absolutely right, what you’ve got there is the contrast between the extremes of authoritarianism on the one hand and total relativism on the other. The dialectics between individual and community, between strong moral principles and flexibility in values that can account for different people’s genuine flourishing interests, between dogmatic authority and no authority whatsoever, are all very difficult to maintain without falling into one extreme or the other.

  • http://www.lxmagic.com Alex Fiorentini

    I actually think the word “authority” could be applied across the board in a slightly more general sense: external authority on one end and internal authority on the other. I think the value of this rephrasing is that it goes some way to explaining why both groups tend to reject science; because in science, the only authority is physical evidence and reasoned logic, which is not the authority either extreme is used to or willing to accept.


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