Radicalism and Cultural Homelessness

  • Published
  • By Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele J. Gelfand

Events like the 2015 Paris attacks, the 2015 San Bernardino shootings, the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and others since are seared into our memories. While many details of these attacks were different, they do have a striking commonality: these attacks were perpetrated by immigrant residents or citizens of the targeted country. Such tragedies raise a puzzling question: what would make someone turn against their own country?

With violent extremist groups like ISIS recruiting Muslims in the West in alarming numbers, this is a question of both theoretical and practical importance that we sought to answer through our own research, published in Behavioral Science and Policy. In a survey of 198 Muslims in the United States, participants were asked about their experiences as religious and cultural minorities, including their feelings of exclusion or discrimination on the basis of their religion. We also asked how they balanced their heritage identities with their American identities in order to see if these kinds of experiences were related to their feelings toward radical groups and causes.

To measure support for radicalism, we asked people how willing they would be to sacrifice themselves for an important cause. We also measured the extent to which participants held a radical interpretation of Islam. For example, we asked whether it is acceptable to engage in violent jihad. Finally, we asked people to read a description of a hypothetical radical group and tell us how much they liked the group and how much they would want to support it. This hypothetical group consisted of Muslims in the US who were upset about how Muslims were treated by society and would stop at nothing to protect Islam.

Overall, it is important to note that support for these indicators of extremism was very low, which is a reminder that the vast majority of Muslims do not hold radical views.

But some people felt marginalized and identified with neither the culture of their heritage nor the culture of their adopted country. Those torn between cultures also reported feeling ashamed, meaningless, and hopeless. They expressed an overall lack of significance in their lives or a feeling that they do not really matter. The more people’s sense of self-worth was threatened, the more they expressed support for radicalism.

We described this group of respondents as “culturally homeless” when they did not practice the same customs or share the same values as others in their adopted culture, but also felt different from other people of their heritage.

Our findings are consistent with a theory in psychology that terrorists are looking for a way to find meaning in their lives. According to work by psychologist Arie Kruglanski, when people experience a loss to their sense of personal significance—for example, through being humiliated or disrespected—they seek out other outlets for creating meaning.

Extremists are very much aware of this and exploit these vulnerabilities to target Muslims whose sense of significance is low or threatened. Fundamentalist religious groups give these culturally homeless Muslims a sense of certainty, purpose, and structure.

For people who already feel culturally homeless, discrimination by their adopted society can make matters worse. In our data, people who said they had been excluded or discriminated against on the basis of their religion experienced a threat to their personal sense of significance. The negative effects of discrimination were the most damaging for people who already felt culturally homeless.


Our results suggest that cultivating anti-immigrant or anti-Islamic sentiment is deeply counterproductive. Anti-immigrant discourse is likely to fuel support for extremism, rather than squelch it.


These issues are not unique to the United States. Radicalization is now a global problem, so future research will need to examine whether the model examined in this study affects the dynamics of radicalization in countries in other parts of the world. For example, radicalization processes might be even more pronounced among individuals who feel marginalized or segregated in societies that have higher degrees of ethnocentrism and negative attitudes toward outsiders. As our research advances, we are exploring this phenomenon in another country dealing with integration challenges and homegrown radicalization: Germany.


In both Germany and the United States, most Muslims reported wanting to integrate their two cultures into their identity. Yet our American participants felt more integrated than did their German counterparts. This led us to ask, what aspects of the host country might facilitate or hinder integration of its immigrants?


We looked to a cultural dimension called “tightness-looseness.” “Tight” societies expect more conformity to normative behavior, where norm breakers are subject to punishment. “Loose” societies do not have such strict expectations for behavioral conformity, and are more permissive toward norm-breaking. A 33-nation study found that Germany is considerably “tighter” than the United States and that tighter countries are less tolerant of outsiders. For example, tightness is associated with ethnocentrism and negative attitudes toward immigrants (Gelfand et al. 2011). From this we decided to examine the notion that there would be more support for radicalism in tight versus loose cultures in part due to lower immigrant integration.


Indeed, we found this to be the case. Our German participants expressed greater support for radicalism than did our American participants. Further analyses revealed this difference could be explained partly by the consequences of cultural tightness. German Muslims found their country to be tighter than did American Muslims, consistent with previous research on patterns of tightness-looseness across nations (Gelfand et al., 2011). Tightness was associated with the perception that the host society was closed-minded to cultural diversity. In turn, this was related to less successful integration. Finally, lower integration was associated with greater readiness to self-sacrifice and stronger endorsement of an extreme interpretation of Islam.


Taken together, our research has shown that immigrant identity processes are significant contributing factors to homegrown radicalization. It is important to avoid alienating at-risk individuals through engendering a sense of distrust and suspicion between the broader society and members of the Muslim community within.


There are examples where these concepts were successfully used to improve community security and stability. A jihadist rehabilitation program in Aarhus, Denmark supports police working with the Muslim community to help reintegrate foreign fighters and find ways for them to participate in Danish society without compromising their religious values.


This work points to a strategy for reducing homegrown radicalization: encouraging immigrants to participate in both of their cultures and curbing discrimination against Muslims. This strategy is beneficial to both immigrants’ well-being and adopted cultures’ political and community/social stability.


Associated Reading

Lyons-Padilla, Sarah, Michele J. Gelfand, Hedieh Mirahmadi, Mehreen Farooq, and Marieke van Egmond. 2016. Belonging Nowhere: Marginalization and Radicalization Risk among Muslim ImmigrantsBehavioral Science and Policy. 1(1): 1-12.

Gelfand, Michele J., Jana L. Raver, Lisa Nishii, Lisa M. Leslie, Janetta Lun, Beng Chong Lim,  Lili Duan, et al. 2011. Differences between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation StudyScience. 332(6033): 1100-1104.



Sarah Lyons-Padilla received her PhD in Social, Decision-making and Organizational Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is now a Research Scientist at Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions, where she partners with practitioners in criminal justice, economic development, education, and health to solve problems using social science.

Michele J. Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (2018). Her work uses field, experimental, computational, and neuroscientific methods to understand the evolution of culture and its consequences for human groups.


Associated Minerva Project

Motivational, Ideological, and Social Processes in Political Violence


Supporting Service Agency

Office of Naval Research


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