On March 20, Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a copy of the Koran, sparking protests across Afghanistan. During one of the protests on April 1, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, protesters stormed a United Nations compound, killing a dozen aid workers, beheading two of them. The protests continued this weekend in eastern Afghanistan, with hundreds of students taking to the street. Nobody killed anyone, but some of the students called for Jones’ execution.
As a psychiatrist, I believe it is time to assign to the violent protesters—and, certainly, to the homicidal ones—the correct terminology. These men and women are not religious zealots. They are not political idealogues. They are, quite simply, insane. They are suffering from a psychotic delusion—a fixed and false belief. In this case the fixed and false belief is the belief that burning the paper upon which their religious doctrine has been printed constitutes an offense against God that justifies the death of the individual who has committed that act—or of others affiliated with that individual.
Religious delusions are among the most common kind. No one knows why, but it is clearly the case. And it is also possible that religious delusions can be shared by large groups. Take, for instance, the 1978 mass murder/suicide of Jim Jones and more than 900 followers of his Peoples Temple in Guyana.
It is not unusual, after all, for those in the grips of psychosis to also experience homicidal ideation. A man who believes he is being hunted by the KGB (when no such thing is occurring) may shoot the innocent fellow he is convinced is stalking him. A man who believes that his daughter has been abducted by aliens and replaced by a masquerading double (a real condition known as Capgras Syndrome) may kill the “double.” Similarly, the violent protesters satisfy the diagnosis of delusional disorder and also demonstrate homicidal ideation fueled by that psychosis.
It is necessary for organized psychiatry in America and in other nations to stand up and state the obvious: Those who profess to be religious adherents who consider the destruction of an inanimate object (a book) to be just cause to execute the person who destroys it, and who also feel justified in executing others who had no real connection to the person who destroyed it, are neither expressing religious ideas, nor rational ones. They are not extremists. They are psychotic. They are insane.
Make no mistake about it: Were anyone to visit my psychiatric office stating the belief that Pastor Terry Jones should be executed for burning a Koran, and not be able to offer me ironclad reassurance that he would restrain himself from seeking Jones out and committing violence against him, I would hospitalize that person against his will on a locked psychiatric unit. The diagnosis on the commitment paper would read, “Delusional Disorder.”
It is unclear what percentage of the Muslim population is insane in this particular way, but it would seem to be an important question for all Muslims to address. What elements of the faith, leaders in that religious community might ask themselves, could either be eroding the mental health of its followers or appealing to those who are psychiatrically fragile, to begin with?
In bringing up this topic, I am aware that great care needs to be taken to not use psychiatry to marginalize, intimidate or attack any group. I do not wish to demonize anyone. Much to the contrary, I literally believe that those who attacked the U.N. compound are being mistaken for evil, intolerant, murderous people, when they are actually severely mentally ill people.
An epidemic of psychotic mental illness in any culture is the just domain of my profession to identify, research and render whatever assistance possible to end. Such an epidemic is fueling the violent protesters in Afghanistan. And epidemics are very hard to contain.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the upcoming book “The 7: Seven Wonders that Will Change Your Life.” Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.