People holds signs during a solidarity march in Toronto November 20, 2015. The march was organized to show solidarity for two Muslim woman were allegedly verbally assaulted on the Toronto subway system on Wednesday, according to local media. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Farhana Afreen, The Circle

Jeff Greenberg, a social psychology professor notable for coining the concept of the Terror Management Theory, once stated “we commit the greatest evil by trying to escape from evil (Flight from Death, 1:08:50).” This concept is evident in the Terror Management Theory, as a common response to evil is to annihilate it. The Terror Management Theory states that we have the intelligence to know that we are mortal, and that this awareness produces an almost paralyzing terror about the end of life (Bonanno, 116). Throughout the majority of the developed countries, people have the freedom to practice their own religions. Even though the age of intolerance has come to end, some religions are still experiencing prejudice around the world.[1]

Islamophobia is defined as a dislike of, or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.[2] Dealing with the terror of death in the modern world has become increasingly difficult. According to terror management theorists, in order to deal with the terror of death, we participate in cultural worldviews that give us a sense of symbolic immortality (lecture notes, lesson four). When these worldviews are threatened, we experience anxiety and the need to defend our worldviews, even through aggressive means. Subsequently, Islamophobia occurs as a result of feeling threatened by those who do not uphold the same cultural worldviews, thus triggering death anxiety. This results in hatred and hostility towards Muslims, perpetuated by negative stereotypes.

Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, argues that we are aware of our death but cannot sustain this awareness, and thus participate in death-denying illusions to build our self esteem, in order to feel significant (lecture notes, lesson four). Numerous individuals have questioned Becker’s ideas of death-denying illusions, wondering what would happen if one were to find someone who does not share the same death-denying illusions (lecture notes, lesson four).

In order to answer this question, psychologists came up with the Terror Management Theory.’[3] Becker claims that people tend to demonize others that do not share the same death denying illusions. For example, there have been countless reports of violence and harassment against Muslims in the United States since the self-described Islamic State claimed responsibility for the November 13th, 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.[4] In Michigan, a robber shot a clerk in the face while calling him a “terrorist” and a member of the Islamic State.[5] Another example of harassment towards Muslims was when the KKK sent fliers around Alabama with ‘The KKK Wants You! Help Us Fight The Spread of Islam in Our Country.’[6] All of these acts were in response to the terrorist attack in Paris, proving Becker’s statement that one commits the greatest evil by trying to escape evil (lecture notes, lesson four).

The Mortality Salience Hypothesis was developed from the Terror Management Theory. This hypothesis states that reminders of death increase our death-denying illusions, makes us favor people that are like us, and makes us dislike people that are not like us. As a result, we tend to become willing to act aggressively towards them (lecture notes, lesson four). Researchers came up with experiments to prove this hypothesis. The ‘Hot Sauce’ experiment was used to measure real world prejudice and aggression against different others (Flight from Death, 53:47).

Subjects were given supposed personality questionnaires, some included death reminders and others did not. Afterwards, in what subjects were told was an unrelated study, they were asked to allot a variable amount of hot sauce for participants of a similar political background to taste. Those who would receive death reminders prescribed more than twice the amount of hot sauce as those who did not receive death reminders. These studies show that reminders of death play a powerful role in the human psyche and can inspire us to act aggressively.  The implications of these studies are worrisome when the means of aggression is not hot sauce but rather a gun (Flight from Death, 55:39). Hence, if the worldviews we participate in have death-denying function, then meeting someone with a different worldview threatens the certainty of our own worldview. This makes us vulnerable to experiencing the very anxiety our worldview is meant to ease, which explains why people act aggressively towards different others (lecture notes, lesson four).

Bonanno, author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, poses limitations to the Terror Management Theory. He argues that nothing in the Terror Management Theory demonstrates that lessening death anxiety is the sole function of worldviews. Instead, Bonanno states that there are differences in whether people react defensively when their worldviews are threatened, and that these differences are attributed to differences in personality (Bonanno, 126). He also declares that the Mortality Salience Hypothesis is true only when we have fleeting reminders of our mortality at the fringes of our consciousness (lecture notes, lesson four).

Bonanno states that mortality salience effects are reduced when we have time to look deeply at our own death and contemplate its meaning. He believes that worldviews such as Buddhism give us constructive ways to confront and become conscious of our mortality, which helps us curtail the propensity for evil. Buddhists experience a high rate of traumatizing events, but because of their worldviews, they portray extremely lower levels of psychological distress (Bonanno, 125). The Terror Management Theorists agree with Bonanno in that the quality of our awareness of mortality makes a difference in how this awareness affects our behaviors towards those who do not share the same worldviews. Sheldon Solomon, a psychologist who helped develop the terror management theory, accentuates that promoting genuine self-esteem and promoting tolerance can help us reduce the anxiety associated with interacting with someone with a different worldview than our own. For example, post 9/11 attacks, the rate of Islamophobia increased drastically in the United States, but not all were terrified of Islam, some were curious.[7] After the 9/11 attacks, Johannah Segarish, a professor at Middlesex community college, asked herself “what kind of religion is this that could inspire people to do this?”[8] Segarish began studying Islam intensely and within a few months, the Utah-born music instructor embraced Islam.[9] This ascertains Bonanno’s statement that the impermanence of our life generates in us not only terror but also curiosity.

In conclusion, the Terror Management Theory states that humans are motivated to quell the potential for terror deep-rooted in the human awareness of vulnerability and mortality by investing in cultural worldviews that imbue life with meaning. When these worldviews are threatened, we experience the very anxiety our worldview is meant to ease, which explains why people act aggressively towards different others. Islamophobia occurs when people feel threatened by Muslims because of various terrorist attacks such as the ones committed by the Islamic State, which remind people of death and threatens their worldviews. However, the impermanence of our life does not always generate fear and aggression towards different others. Impermanence can also generate curiosity, and with the help of genuine self-esteem and tolerance, we can hope to curtail the propensity for evil.

[1] “Islamophobia.”,

[2] “Islamophobia | Definition of Islamophobia in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries,

[3] Cox, Cathy. Terror Management Theory,

[4],5,6 Mathias, Christopher. “A Running List Of Shameful Islamophobic Acts Since The Paris Attacks.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 16 Dec. 2015,

[7],8,9 Lichtblau, Eric. “Hate Crimes Against American Muslims Most Since Post-9/11 Era.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Sept. 2016,