Le’ Notes #27: Culture as an enabler of radicalisation

This post discusses how cultural exposure can enable radicalization.

In the last post, I discussed how our basic human nature can be prone to manipulation through ideology. Now, let’s see how cultural influences can enable radicalization. Of course, this is not to say in a deterministic way that “culture causes radicalization”, but rather, several cultural traits enable certain ideologies to take root easier than in other circumstances. Another caveat would be cultural influences may vary depending on the individual; otherwise, everyone sharing the same cultural traits would be a terrorist by now.

Hofstede’s dimensions of culture

As a concept, there are many definitions as to what culture really is. However, in this post, I refer mainly to Hofstede’s Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. Hofstede defines culture as

…collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others. (Hofstede, p. 4)

Unlike human nature, which is natural, culture is a set of learned behaviors that adds another dimension to human nature. A person may be inherently xenophobic, but that xenophobia may be reduced (never eliminated entirely) if he is brought up in a culture that emphasizes openness and intermingling.

To further distinguish personality from culture, the Hofstede identity pyramid shows where each element lies. Personality lies at the top of the pyramid due to it being a learned and inherited “uniqueness” of mental programming. Hofstede defines personality as

…her or his unique personal set of mental programs that needn’t be shared with any other human being. It is based on traits that are partly inherited within the individual’s unique set of genes and partly learned. Learned means modified by the influence of collective programming as well by unique personal experiences. (Hofstede, p. 5)

Thus we see now the importance of adding a million caveats to any cultural analysis, especially one that involves the process of radicalization. In the end, it comes back to the reception of the individual towards purveyors of radical ideology. Cultural traits only enable the transmission of radical ideology, but only to a certain extent.

At this point, it would be helpful to understand the manifestation of culture. I term this model as “Hofstede’s onion”, where Hofstede plots the four prominent manifestations of culture into layers of concentric circles. At the innermost are “values”, which represent the core of any culture. Values, according to Hofstede, are “broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others”. For example, culture A may prefer taking risks rather than avoiding them.

A culture’s values are then manifested in its rituals, heroes, and superficial symbols. Let’s start from the beginning. Symbols are “words, gestures, pictures, or objects that carry a particular meaning” that are only recognized by the members of the culture in question. A simple example would be the jargon and uniforms that the military uses to distinguish themselves from civilians. However, since symbols make up the outermost layer of Hofstede’s onion, they are prone to change and also adoption by members of an out-group. But at the same time, just because someone decides to wear camo and speak in alphabet soup, doesn’t automatically make them part of military culture.

We then arrive at the second outermost layer of the onion. Heroes are “persons, alive or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics that are highly prized in a culture”. In other words, a culture needs their role models to show and express their core values. Taking examples from religion, Jesus Christ serves as a “hero” for Christian; which is analogous to wannabe YouTubers looking up to PewDiePie.

Finally, the layer closest to values are the rituals, which is defined as “collective activities … which within a culture are considered socially essential”. As rituals are the closest manifestations of values, it is also regarded as an important element of the culture which needs to be preserved. I’ve written about my personal experiences going through rituals as a Balinese and feeling conflicted on whether or not we should “modernize” or keep the status quo. Furthermore, being the innermost layer, rituals are also often confused with values in and of themselves. For example, a Balinese would consistently maintain that they should hold grandiose funerals because they represent values.

Finally, Hofstede’s analysis of culture incorporates six dimensions or “indexes” of culture which include:

  1. Power distance (PD): the distance of which power is held within societies. Societies with high power distances tend to be more centralized and defer to authority; whereas low power distance cultures tend to be egalitarian and more willing to challenge authority.
  2. Individualism/collectivism (IDV): tendencies towards the individual or the group. Individualistic cultures value the revolutionary individual; whereas collective cultures emphasize group harmony over the individual. American culture leans towards individuality, while Asian cultures lean towards collectivism.
  3. Uncertainty avoidance (UA): indicates the degree to which uncertainty or unfamiliarity is avoided. High UA indicates cultures that strive to eliminate uncertainty and regard uncertainty as harmful (think Germans and their punctual trains). Low UA cultures tend to be more accepting of uncertainty. Note that uncertainty could also be interpreted as differences.
  4. Masculinity/femininity (MAS): indicates the cultural preferences towards traits of masculinity or femininity. Masculine societies emphasize assertiveness and competition, while feminine societies tend to lean towards cooperation and harmony.
  5. Long-term/short-term orientation (LTO): indicates a culture’s preference for tradition or adaptation. For short-termed cultures, traditions are usually kept with little consideration for adaptation in the long run. Long-termed cultures tend to focus on the future and will try to adapt accordingly.
  6. Indulgence/restraint (IND): shows the degree to which pleasure is controlled. Indulgent cultures allow individuals to enjoy life and have fun as they see fit; while restrictive cultures tend to think that happiness in life comes from other sources and the pursuit of happiness is often restricted by social norms.

Power of culture


Ayaan Hirsi Ali


I’ve mentioned previously that having certain cultural traits doesn’t necessarily mean a person will automatically become radicalized. A cultural analysis should also consider the personality of the individual, which comprises of their life experiences coupled with cultural influences. It also shouldn’t discount the role of charismatic leaders or parental figures which may have had an influence on the individual.

However, it would be reasonable to say that certain cultural conditions enable certain ideologies to take root easier compared to others. Cultures that are closed and exclusive tend to be more prone to extremist ideologies, especially ones that have historical roots in animosity towards out-groups.

For example, I’ll take the account of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In The Caged Virgin [book], she begins with this powerful statement

I now see how important upbringing is, not only because that is how one’s life starts but also in Islamic culture that is how the cage is built. Psychological conditioning is very powerful, and it takes great energy and force of mind and will to break out of it. – Hirsi Ali, p. 23

She recalls how it felt to be raised in a culture that consistently enforces a binary worldview and even advocates violence towards the hated out-group (Jews),

As a child I used to hear nothing but negative comments about Jews. […] Sometimes we would have no running water. I remember hearing my mother wholeheartedly agree that the Jews had been pernicious again. Those Jews hate Muslims so much that they’ll do anything to dehydrate us. “Jew” is the worst term of abuse in both Somali and Arabic. […] every prayer we said contained a request for the extermination of the Jews. Just imagine that: five times a day. We were passionately praying for their destruction but had never actually met one. – Hirsi Ali, p. 80

We can infer that Hirsi Ali lived in a culture that was inherently hostile towards another out-group, or in other words, has a high UA index. From those circumstances, it would be relatively easy for extremist ideology to enter and take root. Fortunately, Hirsi Ali managed to break free from her culture and adopted another culture, which prevented her from becoming an extremist. So, in Hirsi Ali’s experience, we see that cultural factors only enable extremist ideologies to take root, but only to a certain extent.

However, it should be noted that Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, though helpful as a tool of analysis, should also be tinkered a bit to fit the situation. Although Hofstede’s cultural dimensions do provide some pointers as to what aspects of culture may enable radicalization, further analysis should be done as to how effective each aspect may be. For example, cultures with high UA tend to be averse to risk and outsiders. Hofstede’s UA index should then be explained in terms of how high UA numbers may be more prone towards radicalization. In other words, each cultural dimension may be further developed to strengthen the cultural hypothesis of radicalization. This is especially useful for cultural analyses which may want to see how an artificial ideology may take over the supposedly hard-rooted naturalistic cultural elements of an individual. For instance, what cultural explanation would there be for self-radicalized Americans, who supposedly have stark cultural differences compared to the more vulnerable Indonesians?

The bottom line

Although culture may not be the deterministic explanation for radicalization, one cannot fully discount the impact culture may have in enabling people to adopt extremist ideologies. That being said, however, further rigor could be added to a cultural analysis.





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