A psychogram of the Arab soul

In "Und Gott schuf die Angst: Ein Psychogramm der arabischen Seele", psychologist Burkhard Hoffmann draws on his own caseload to present some of the uniquely Arab hang-ups plaguing individuals in the Gulf region, highlighting the urgent need of Islamic societies to recognise the value of psycho-anaylsis. Gunther Orth read the book

By Günther Orth

It is practically cause for celebration when the title of a book on Islam published by Droemer Knaur does not for once include the exoticising word "Allah". Nevertheless, given the publishing company's history of printing works that are critical of Islam and the book's subtitle, "A psychogram of the Arab soul", one cannot help but fear that the book is going to be another pot-pourri of generalisations about Islam and Arabs. But Burkhard Hofmann is no Thilo Sarrazin and his book is an intelligent one, even though supporters of PEGIDA and followers of the AfD will seek and find in it superficial confirmation of their convictions.

Psychology is not everything; nor can it provide explanations for everything. But nor is it possible to explain the human condition entirely without psychology. For this reason – and also specifically because psychotherapy leads a fringe existence in the Arab world, not to mention the lack of corresponding works in Arabic – this book is justified.

Burkhard Hofmann spent several years treating patients of both sexes from the Gulf region in English, sometimes in Hamburg, sometimes in Manama. His case studies are thorough and he also has, for a layman, a surprisingly good knowledge of some parts of the Koran or hadiths, although he does on occasion err in this respect.

For example, the ban on music that allegedly stems from the Koran is more likely to originate in the Wahhabist upbringing of some of his clients. Moreover, his sources on two occasions are unknown: firstly, when he cites a "non-Koranic verse about stoning" and secondly, when he writes that the prophet was "already judicially – in other words, politically – active before his experiences of revelation".

Arab patients plagued by "Nanny syndrome"

He is more convincing in his analyses of the fear of life that often plagues his Arab patients. Hofmann takes care not to attribute this fear to their Muslim faith alone, but also to traditional family structures that are hard to break down. It is clear from this section that the author does not lack empathy for his patients.

A phenomenon that is widespread in the Gulf countries is, for example, what the author refers to as "Nanny syndrome": parents delegate the care of their small children to nannies, who themselves are suffering as a result of the separation from the children they have left behind in their native countries.

Cover of Burkhard Hofmannʹs "Und Gott schuf die Angst: Ein Psychogramm der arabischen Seele"– And God created fear: A psychogram of the Arab soul (published in German by Droemer Knaur)
A life half-lived: the more the soul is plagued by self-doubt, the more one is inclined to overcompensate with religious excess. "Abstinence, reclusiveness, lack of contact, lack of joy become the tickets to paradise. The result is a tragic spiral into depressiveness and ... into anxiety"

This prevents them from being able to offer any emotional closeness. As a result, economic dependency generates "life-conditioning feelings of isolation in both mothers and their children on both sides of the Indian Ocean". The resulting "weak self fails when confronted with reality" in adult years.

However, even in those cases where the mother is available, children often lack a close relationship with their father, either because he is rarely at home or because he has entered into a second marriage – another trauma that Hofmann frequently encounters in his patients.

According to Hofmann, in many cases, the Arab father feels that his only duty as a parent is to introduce his son to the Muslim faith, thereby referring him to "the image of a distance God", only to then turn away emotionally from the child once again. In this way, a close relationship with the father remains an unfulfilled desire.

In addition, the religious taboo of children rebelling against their parents ensures that those individuals who do tend to blame themselves, or to hate those who have been lucky enough to experience such affection.

Emotional loneliness leads to religious excess

The fact that they are deserted in this way by their otherwise omnipresent parents leads not least to a religious "overstructuring", or in other words an escape that takes the form of the most meticulous possible fulfilment of religious duties. Nevertheless, the author does not declare religiousness itself to be an illness. Indeed he describes how faith can be both comforting and crippling, a support and a burden.

Hofmann notes a fundamental anxiety in his patients that is caused as much by emotional loneliness as it is by a religiously-derived fear of hell. He also notes that this anxiety, in conjunction with a perceived inadmissibility of questioning traditional certainties, often leads to compensatory self-aggrandisement that is rooted in the assumption that devout Muslims are closer to God than other people.

Moreover, the more self-doubt creeps into the soul, the greater the tendency to compensate for this self-doubt with religious exaggeration. "Abstinence, reclusiveness, lack of contact, lack of joy become the tickets to paradise. The result is a tragic spiral into depressiveness and ... into anxiety". He also writes: "if one is worth nothing in this world, one would at least like to be in possession of the greater truth" and "Violent expression of the certainty of faith is in reality the expression of a loss of faith that cannot be admitted or has to be wiped from the consciousness again". Furthermore, "doubt and a lack of faith [are considered] a personal failure". It is not inadmissible to make claims about the condition of an entire region on the basis of such individual complexes – which, it must be said, the author only does on occasion. Nor does he have to.

More opportunity for reflection

The book would certainly have benefitted from its author having a more profound knowledge of Thomas Bauer's theories on the "ambiguity" of Islam, or George Tarabishi's psychological interpretations of the condition of the Arab world. At times, Hofmann's choice of words is also oddly old-fashioned: for example, he uses the terms "Vielweiberei" and peppers his text with the word "Weib" (old German words for "polygamy" and "woman" respectively).

Nor is Hofmann above making the odd sweeping generalisation: for example, when he considers that phenomena in the Gulf apply to all of "Arabia" and writes that the entire Arab world is devoid of civil society; when he uses the term "Arab Islam" without ever actually defining it; and, his empathy and differentiation notwithstanding, when he speaks of "the Arab" ("the Arab has far fewer problems with the vita passiva than we do").

Despite all this, the book gives us in the West occasion to reflect on ourselves, for example when Hofmann speaks in critical terms of a "sense of superiority on both sides", i.e. in the West and on the Muslim side. Hofmann frequently focuses on the antagonism between the West and the Islamic world, warning at the end of his book about overly euphoric expectations regarding the integration of Arab refugees into German society. And yet, he does something very significant indeed: he demonstrates an openness to and interest in the people about whom he writes.

Although the author never actually says so in the book, the reader cannot escape the unspoken assessment that the status of psychology in the Arab world is far too low and that urgent provision and support is needed.

Gunther Orth

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan