Radical Islam: Don’t Overlook the Role of Culture

The Bible includes stories of God helping his chosen people slay their enemies.  The Bible also has a message of love and forgiveness.  Hundreds of years ago, when the Pope had an army and kingdoms went to war based on religion, the West looked more like the Old Testament’s “smite thine enemy” message.  Over the years the West evolved past that kind of thinking.  Church and state were separated and actual religious wars became a thing of the past.  Yet the Bible didn’t change.  It was the interpretation of the Bible that changed, and culture is a big reason why.  If we are to understand the threat from Radical Islam, we need to understand the role that culture plays. 


Working in China demonstrated the importance of culture


My interest in culture was piqued by the more than 10 years I spent living and working in China where cultural differences are impossible to ignore.  I learned that culture has a much greater impact than most people realize.  I also learned that, although little known to the broader public, scholars have actually done some interesting work on culture over the last several decades.  The World Values Survey has been conducting cultural surveys in more than 150 countries around the world for more than 40 years.  Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress is a book published by Harvard with contributions from a dozen scholars who think that culture plays a critical role in human events. 


The Cultural Gap: Developed vs. Developing Countries


One of the ideas scholars have developed is that, while any two countries might have some cultural differences, the really big and important differences are the ones that exist between developed and less developed countries.  In developed countries, people take responsibility for their own future and strive to shape it.  Social mobility is relatively high, leadership is accountable and egalitarian, and the rule of law is relatively strong.  In less developed countries, generation after generation is the same.  People haven’t learned to believe in their ability to change their own lives.  Social mobility is low.  Those on top stay and top and lead accordingly—without accountability.  Leadership is more authoritarian and the rule of law is weak. 


Although culture can be difficult to measure there are ways to see the above tendencies in action.  For example, Freedom House’s democracy ratings, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and software piracy statistics from the Software Business Alliance all affirm the notion that democracy and the rule of law are strong in rich countries and weak in poor countries. 


Might makes right, tolerance, and education


Where the rule of law is weak, “might makes right” is the approach that holds sway.  To this rather important cultural tendency we need to add two other factors.  First, research by the World Values Survey shows that people in less developed societies are much less tolerant of outsiders, in part because individuality is less developed and fitting in with your group is essential to survival.  Secondly, the citizens of rich countries are much better educated than those in poor countries and education has a huge impact on how people view the world.


These factors are crucial if we are to understand Radical Islam.  Like Christianity, Islam offers a mixed message relative to the use of force.  On the one hand, Muhammed spread Islam at the end of a sword.  On the other hand, the Koran has plenty of passages devoted to love and brotherhood.  Which part of that message is emphasized depends in part on one’s cultural surroundings. 


American Muslims are not culturally predisposed to being radicalized


For most American Muslims, it is natural to dismiss the idea of a violent jihad because violent jihad simply isn’t compatible with American culture.  Like most Americans, American Muslims are likely to be more focused on their career, retirement, and the education of their children than anything approaching a violent jihad


Muslims in developing countries more likely to be radicalized


On the other hand, many Muslims do not live in developed societies.  As described above, many Muslims come from societies where might makes right, distrust of outsiders is more common, and the level of education is low.  In such an environment it is far more likely that the radical message will take root, particularly when mixed with other factors, like the political rivalry between Sunni and Shia which begets violence which makes it easier to spread an “us against the world” mentality.   


Culture means that values and world outlook tend to be shared.  It doesn’t mean everyone is the same.  (America has a shared culture but Americans are not all the same.)  So it doesn’t mean there won’t be any Radical Muslims in the US or that all Muslims in the Middle East will be radical.  It simply means that one type of culture is more likely to produce Radical Muslims than others. 


Accurately describing the problem would be a step in the right direction


As we address the challenge of Radical Islam, some want to blame it entirely on the religion of Islam.  Others don’t want to mention Islam for fear of offending its peaceful members.  Neither approach will suffice.  Better for us to describe the problem accurately.  Most Muslims are not radical but radicalization is a huge threat.  Culture, while not the only factor relevant to radicalization, plays a huge role.  Recognizing that fact will help us in many ways, including helping us describe the problem more accurately.  That would be step in the right direction.