Threats of terrorism originating from the youth within the Western countries have increased in the recent past. This article seeks to understand the growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize results of Uncertainty-Identity Theory research, and provide a general assessment on why and how young people born, and living in rich and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
On July 7, 2005, Khaled Kelkal, a British national planned and coordinated a series of terrorist attacks in central London targeting civilians using public transport system. On April 15, 2013, two brothers, Tsrnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who were permanent residents in the U.S. bombed civilians at the Boston Marathon. Also, on January 7, 2015, the Kouachi brothers, French citizens committed terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris (Lynch, 2013). Unlike other terror attacks committed by transnational extremists, who plan and travel to Western countries to carry out the attacks, these select cases involved youth born and raised in the Western countries they targeted.
Studies by Hafez and Mullins (2015) show that threats of terrorism originating from the youth within the Western countries have increased in the recent past. There have been nearly 200 known cases of homegrown jihadists in the U.S. alone in the last decade, and many more in other Western countries. Furthermore, a report by the Center for Counterterrorism research estimates that more than 5, 000 people from Western countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS). Scholars have made attempts in understanding why young people born and living in rich and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Earlier research in terrorism focused on international terrorists, and the groups they identify with (Bizina and Gray, 2014). It also sought to understand the individual dynamics that influence one into becoming an extremist. This type of research hinged on the premise that people turned to terrorism because of some personal predisposition. The assumption underlying much of this research was that most terrorists had some common characteristics that can be figured out through psychometric analysis of large quantities of biographical data on terrorists (Hudson, 2010). Therefore, the aim of this kind of research was to find the standard profile of a terrorist. Russel and Miller (1977) carried the earliest research that attempted to sketch a terrorist profile. Using data compiled on over 350 known terrorists from eighteen Middle Eastern, Latin American, West European, and Japanese groups, they revealed the profile of a terrorist as a single male, aged 22 to 24, with at least some university education, most often in the humanities. Additionally, other researchers reported findings of personality pathology, claims that did not stand up to empirical scrutiny (Segeman,2014). These attempts to reveal the terrorists’ personality and draw conclusions from their demographic makeup failed resoundingly, and was abandoned.
The realization that there was no standard profile of a terrorist prompted a shift in terrorism research from the ‘why’ question to ‘how’ people join or come to identify with a terrorist organizations (see Taylor, 1988, Reich, 1990, Silke, 2003, Horgan, 2005). But the focus was still on the transnational terrorist networks, which constituted a clear majority of extremists’ threats to Western countries (Wilner and Bubouloz, 2013). However, with the rising threat of terror attacks by youth born and raised in Western countries, the depiction of a terrorist as a transnational striking at the Western values from abroad, is slowly fading. Yet we know little about the factors that drive young people to become jihadists. I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual, but in the macrosocial environment of the Western countries in which these young people live. Therefore, this paper seeks to understand this growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize results of Uncertainty-Identity Theory research, and provide a general assessment on why the youth join or identify with extremist groups such as ISIS. I begin by examining uncertainty-identity theory, and then discuss the process of radicalization. I use ISIS as a case study.
Uncertainty-identity theory posits that reduction of self-uncertainty is the basic motivation for social identity processes, and group behaviors. The theory ascribes specific forms of group attachment, self-definition, and group structure to individuals striving to reduce feelings of uncertainty through group identification, self-categorization, and prototype-based depersonalization (Hogg, 2006). It builds on the premise that individuals have an overwhelming need to locate their self-concept within a social context in order to gain a firm grasp of their identity. For instance, Hogg (2006) points out that when individuals are uncertain about who they are, and do not know what to think, feel or do, they are more likely to identify with groups with prototypical attributes that can reduce their uncertainty.
According to Hogg (2007), uncertainty-identity theory has three premises: (1) People are motivated to reduce feelings of uncertainty about or related to themselves; (2) identifying with a group reduces self-uncertainty because the group’s attributes are cognitively internalized as a prototype that describes and prescribes one’s own attitudes, feelings, and behavior, and these attributes are consensually validated by fellow group members; (3) Highly entitative groups that are distinctive and clearly defined are most effective at reducing self-uncertainty. The following section of this paper explores the causes of uncertainty, and discuss characteristics of entitative groups.
Life conditions induce uncertainty
Studies show that homegrown terrorists (a term used to refer to terrorists who attack their country of citizenship) are mostly second and third generation immigrants, and newly converts to Islam. Although these young people are often well educated, are native speakers of languages in the Western countries where they live, have no prior affiliation with radical Islam, and in most cases, were not necessarily brought up observing or practicing Islam (Belarouci, 2009), studies have shown that they are a vulnerable demographic (Lyons-Padila, 2015). Some of the reasons that induce uncertainty include:
Marginalization in their various Western countries. Writing about this group Vidino (2007) pointed out that although these young people may appear to have integrated well compared to their parents or grandparents, they harbor deep-seated feelings of marginalization and resentment. Marginalized people experiences feelings of significance loss and may be looking for opportunities to affirm a sense of identity and self-worth. Buuiis (2009) noted that most of the first and second generation immigrants in Britain want to be active participants in society, and it is exactly for this reason that they are more sensitive to exclusion. Therefore, marginalized immigrants are more likely to be attracted to groups that offer a clear sense of inclusion and purpose and the opportunity to restore a sense of self-worth. ISIS recruitment documents such as Dabiq magazine often highlight this marginalization. They invoke the humiliation and suffering of Muslims living in Western countries, and the need for Muslims to live in a Caliphate (in this case a place of protection), which resonates with young people experiencing uncertainty.
Economic deprivation. Studies have shown that first and second generation Muslim immigrants, despite their education, have lower labor force participation, employment, and occupational attainment (Cheung, 2014). Gurr’s (1970) theory of relative deprivation, which defines deprivation as a person’s belief that he or she is receiving less than deserved, shows that economic deprivation can led to frustration and contribute to violence. Freytag and colleagues’ (2011) tests on this theory found out that indeed poor socio-economic development can lead one to join a terrorist organization. First and second generation Muslim immigrants feel that they do not have equal access to employment opportunities compared to other citizens. Therefore, these feelings increase their uncertainty, and makes them susceptible for recruitment by terrorist groups such as ISIS.
Weak religion. Although studies indicate that religion is not the primary motivator for joining violent extremist group like ISIS (Roy, 2015), there is evidence that weak religion among the newly converts, and the first and second generation immigrants not raised to observe Islam contributes to their uncertainty. The link between weak religion and extremism is well explained by Appleby (2000). He contends that a weak religion is one in which the people have a shallow understanding of their religion. ISIS recruiters target the newly converts, and the first and second generation Muslim immigrants in the West because they are aware most of these people do not have a theologically grounded understanding of Islam. As noted above, ISIS promises them a home in the caliphate where they can experience a richer practice of Islam.
Writing about Western jihadists who have converted to Islam, Wood (2017) noted that uncertainty about life can be triggered by how the social environment reacts to these young people in the event of a tragedy or crisis in personal life such as the loss of parents or the inability to attain success in the fields chosen or glorified by one’s parents or authority figures. Of course, there are many people in life who face personal tragedies every day, and they do not join extremist groups. But what maters here is not the personal tragedy but the kind of support one receives from his society. Feelings of isolation, neglect, and rejection heightens one’s uncertainty about he or her position in the society.
Feelings of uncertainty persist if the inducing context remains. Those who are less tolerant of uncertainty, are motivated to lessen the feelings (Rokeach, 1960) to render their world predictable and be in control of their own behavior by identifying with a group. For instance, one can argue that radical Islamist ideology conferred the Tsarnaev brothers (were involved in Boston bombing) an avenue for reducing the uncertainty induced by the confusion they felt when their parents divorced, and the subsequent abandonment of the teenagers in America, and the rejection from the community (Reitman, 2013).
Reducing self-uncertainty through group identification
Uncertainty-identity theory posits that feelings of uncertainty are solved by identifying with a group (Hogg, 2007 and Hogg, 2012) through self-categorization (Hogg, 2006). This allows individuals to confer the characteristics of a social group to themselves, in other words, the group provides them with a social identity – a shared reality and definition of who one is, how one is located in the social world, what one should think, do, and feel, and how one will be perceived and treated by others. The significance of this social identity stems from the fact that human beings organize their lives into various kinds of social groups with prototypical attributes that “describe members’ perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, feelings, and behaviors” (Hogg, 2007: 79). Hence, categorizing individuals as group members changes how other people view them; seeing them not as unique individuals possessing their own attributes but rather as prototypical group members. This categorization reduces uncertainty because it confers a person with a group identity that directs him on how to behave and socialize with others.
Does uncertainty motivate people in the same way? Feelings of uncertainty are not uniform to every individual; there are variations that determine a person’s relative position to uncertainty, and the reduction of uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). For instance, an individual can experience more uncertainty for losing a job as opposed to breaking up with a friend, while another will experience more uncertainty after breaking up with a friend than for losing a job. (Hogg, 2007) argued that feelings of uncertainty about or related to self are likely to have the greatest motivational force, “because the self is the critical organizing principle, referent point, or integrative framework for perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.” Therefore, if uncertainty matters to an individual, it will motivate his or her behavior.
If the uncertainty is extreme, the individual will be motivated to identify or join a totalistic group with ideological orthodoxy, intolerance, violence, and extremism (Hogg, 2005, Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010). We will now examine how they identify with these groups.
Why Extremist Groups Appeal to Western Jihadists
Not every group is best equipped to reduce uncertainty through identification (Hogg, 2005). Only entitative and groups that are relevant to self-definition can. Hogg (2007) defines an entitative group as one that has some clearly defined boundaries, uniform structure, unequivocal membership criteria, common goals, and common fate, which makes it “groupy”. Under uncertainty-identity, when individuals experience uncertainty especially self-uncertainty, they are likely to identify more strongly with high entitative groups (Hogg and Blaylock, 2012) because they view these groups’ attributes as inalterable. Therefore, such groups provide them with prescriptive social identity, and sense of self.
Totalistic groups are highly entitative, and they include terrorist organizations such as ISIS, which has a rigid and hierarchical structure with a clearly delineated chain of legitimate influence and command, and substantial intolerance of internal dissent and criticism. The group is also ethnocentric and it seeks to fight out-groups (Hogg, 2007). Lifton (1989) identified eight characteristics of such groups, namely: milieu control (control of communication), mystical manipulation, demand for purity, cult of confession, sacred science, loaded language, humans subordinate to doctrine, and dispensing of existence. Studies by Barron and Maye (2017) shows that the ideology of ISIS is consistent is consistent with the above characteristics.
When self-uncertainty is strong, individuals are more likely to identify strongly with extreme or totalistic groups. Other related groups like the militaries in the Western countries do not meet the above described characteristics. Furthermore, the young people who join those groups are merely running from the Western environment in which the militaries are apart. To be a soldier is to fight for people you can identify with. Clearly, those who join ISIS feel that they can identify more with ISIS than their countries. ISIS provides them with an immutable social identity and a sense of self. Therefore, totalistic groups do a better job at reducing or fending off persistent and intense or extreme uncertainty induced by factors such as marginalization, economic deprivation, civil conflicts, unemployment, and relocation among others.
Uncertainty-Identity Theory and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
There is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism or terrorist groups. Every country has its own criteria of designating groups as terrorist organizations. This article follows (Gibbs, 1989) definition, which states that terrorism as an illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or nonhuman objects provided that it: (1) was undertaken or ordered with a view to altering or maintaining at least one punitive norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population; (2) had clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity; (3) was not conventional warfare; (4) was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a classic example of a group that has committed the kind of terror Gibbs (1989) described.
ISIS is perhaps the most successful extremist group with supporters in different parts of the world. It seized huge chunks of Iraq and Syria, declaring itself a state and governing territory for several years and counting. The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, before rebranding as ISIS two years later. In 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate – a state, governed by an Islamic absolute leader. Outside of the territory it controls in the Middle East, it directs, and inspires acts of terrorism around the world. A running count kept by CNN indicates that ISIS has carried out 143 attacks in 29 countries excluding Iraq and Syria, and has killed at least 2,043 people. Despite this, tens of thousands of men, women, and children from U.S., Canada, and Western Europe have immigrated to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS (Wood, 2017). Why would people with seemingly comfortable lives choose to identify with a group that has killed civilians around the world? As noted earlier, these people join ISIS because of the uncertainty they experience in the western countries. Therefore, they identify with ISIS, a totalistic group, to reduce the uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). ISIS furnishes them with a sense of identity, for instance the men become Mujahedeen (fighters) with a prescribed behavior on what to think, feel or do, thus providing a moral compass and rules for living that pervade an individual’s life (Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010).
Consistent with the observation that majority of homegrown terrorists are second and third generation immigrants and newly converts to Islam, studies have revealed aspects of these populations lived experience that induces uncertainty, for instance, economic deprivation (Lyons-Padila, 2015), marginalization (Wilner and Dubouloz, 2010), weak religion (Appleby, 2000), and identity crisis (Roy, 2015). These young people are the most disadvantaged as they have a higher rate of unemployment, poor health, poor educational attainment, poor relationships with police, high incidences of imprisonment and poor prospects all around (Samad, 2004). Studies show that they are at a stage of life where they are seeking an identity, while looking for approval and validation. They are searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified, that provide them a way to identify who they are, and that provide a clear call for action” (Baker et al. 2007). The uncertainty in their lives coupled with ISIS’s high machinery for propaganda and recruitment leads them to identify with ISIS in order to reduce the uncertainty. ISIS is a high entitative group with unequivocal attributes, which provide group identity that clearly defines self from uncertainty.
ISIS is a well-defined group with an extremist ideology, that is, to form an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no (physical) boundaries (Bunzel, 2013). This ideology is rooted in a certain interpretation of Islam. Consistent with research that religion and religious ideas provide complete and generally accepted ideas that addresses both daily uncertainties and existential uncertainty, ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by an absolute leader) tightened its boundaries, affirming its identity as an extremist group (McGregor, Haji, Nash, and Teper, 2008).
The Sharia law, which is applied throughout the caliphate prescribes what members can or cannot do. It further serves as a reference for group prototypical attributes. One’s behavior is determined or mediated by the Sharia law. Although this can limit one’s freedom, individual freedom does not matter a lot to those seeking to identify with a group in order to reduce uncertainty. The group is intolerant and violent to out-groups, and its moral absolutism grounded in the literal interpretation of Islam. It embraces ideological orthodoxy, which serves as a powerful motivation for dehumanizing out-group members.
Of course, not every youth who experiences feelings of uncertainty identifies or joins ISIS. A lot depends on the context inducing uncertainty, and no two contexts are alike. For instance, Muslims from France to Germany to Belgium, and Netherland created what is often referred to as “parallel societies” in European countries (Baker et al., 2007) because policies encouraging multiculturalism allowed for numerous Diasporas to be created along ethnic considerations, thus religious communities did not have mix with each other (Kepel, 2010). On the other hand, France encouraged a policy of assimilation anchored on secular values, which alienated communities that were keen on observing and practicing their religion. Although both contexts create uncertainty, they do not motivate a person’s behavior in the same way. Whether one decides to join or identify with ISIS depends on additional factors such as being recruited, and the need for cognitive closure among others. Cognitive closure is a need for a sense of shared reality (Kruglanksi, Pirro, Manneti, and De Grada, 2006). In times of uncertainty people get attracted to groups with a solid sense of shared reality. Newly converts to Islam who have little knowledge about the Islamic religion may be high on the need for cognitive closure, and this amplified need for closure can easily endear them to groups such as ISIS that confer members with a firmly rooted sense of shared reality.
When ISIS declared a caliphate, many groups and people affiliated with al Qaeda shifted their allegiance to ISIS because it is a more homogenous group is in terms of attitudes, level of conservativism, and group norms. These attributes are highly preferred by individuals high on the need for cognitive closure (Kruglanski et al., 2006).
Whereas earlier research on terrorism was mainly conducted in psychology, and focused on the personality of the perpetrators, the social psychological research on terrorism discussed in this paper looks at how groups have profound impact on an individual’s identity. The paper has attempted to synthesize results of uncertainty-identity theory research, and examined the process of radicalization. It has explored the “group centrism” of ISIS as an extremist group, and attempted to understand why the second and third immigrant youth identify with this group. We found out that the environment in which individuals live induces uncertainty, and under uncertainty-identity theory, people experiencing feelings of uncertainty are likely to identify with a group because groups provides them with a sense of identity – gives them a sense of who they are, what they should think, feel or do.
This paper notes that uncertainty alone may not lead one to identify with ISIS, often, uncertainty creates ripe conditions which makes the first and second generation Muslim immigrants vulnerable to ISIS recruitment machinery.
The main limitation for this study is the lack of comprehensive and reliable data on terrorism to test the theory. Most of the data available to scholars is secondary, mostly from journalists and Jihadi websites. Journalists describe who the perpetrators are, focusing mostly on the leaders of the terrorist groups, and the organizations that conducts these attacks. These stories, however informative, are not designed to be analytical in a manner that advances our understanding of how people identify with groups like ISIS. Although policy think tanks compile biographical databases on terrorists, they are not large enough for a comprehensive study. Furthermore, most governments classify such information making it quite difficult to obtain unless one has special access to police or intelligence files on terrorists around the world. Perhaps, researchers can attempt to test the theory in a laboratory using other totalistic groups that are not necessarily violent.
The ISIS case discussed in this paper is hardly sufficient to qualify as scientifically representative of religious terrorist groups. The study only helps us to understand how extreme uncertainty can drive young people to identify with extremist groups. This study encourages us to look at people lived experiences in order to understand what motivates them to join extremist groups.
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This reflection explains how social psychological research on emotion inform my work in peacebuilding. My aim is to discuss how the study of emotion can improve our understanding of violent conflicts. I begin by explaining an excerpt from a memoir of a British journalist, George Alagiah, who worked in conflict prone areas across Africa. In a Passage to Africa, George Alagiah has captured a vivid passage about embarrassment in Somalia during the civil war in 1991. He writes:
And then there was the face I will never forget…I saw that face for only a few seconds, a fleeting meeting of eyes before the face turned away, as its owner retreated into the darkness of another hut. In those brief moments there had been a smile, not from me, but from the face. It was not a smile of greeting, it was not a smile of joy – how could it be? – but it was a smile nonetheless. It touched me in in a way I could not explain. It moved me in a way that went beyond pity or revulsion. What was it about the smile? I had to find out. I urged my translator to ask the man why he had smiled. He came back with an answer. ‘It’s just that he was embarrassed to be found in this condition,’ the translator explained. P. 104
The quote underscores the significant role of emotion in understanding how people deal with the reality of violent conflicts. The man was embarrassed because he was helpless – helpless for being in the presence of a foreign journalist, and being unable to help his family especially women who despite the utter despair of the war “aspire to a dignity that is almost impossible to achieve.” P. 105. Thus, the presence of a foreign other, and the presence of helpless women increased the man’s self-reported embarrassment (Omar and Collet, 2013). Furthermore, considering that Somali people are Muslims, a woman who is unable to cover her head experiences pain. The pain is even more for the man because of his identity as a protector.
Probably, the civil war has constrained this man’s ability to perform his most salient identities (father, protector, Muslim etc.) and has therefore generated embarrassment (Stryker, 1987). War terrorizes people’s lives and renders them helpless. Therefore, I would expect that in such a situation, it is normal to feel overwhelmed, and even a need to cry or display anger. But in the case of the Somali man, the societal feeling rules do not encourage men to cry or show their helplessness (Hochschild 1979). Hence, he must manage the negative feelings in a manner acceptable in his culture. His smile manages the outer impression but does it address his feelings (Goffman 1959)? Moreover, if the war persists, this man’s salient identities may never be verified. Thus, he will experience more negative emotions. He may address this by changing his identity to that of a refugee or victim (Stets 2005). The expectations for this identity will be different.
The study of emotion will help people who intervene (humanitarian workers) in these psychological phenomena or conflict situations to be more useful to victims, that is, help them manage negative emotions (Kidder and Sharp 2013). Even people in conflict contexts will always attempt to maximize the experience of positive emotions, and minimize the experience of negative emotions (Ekman, 2003 cited in Kidder and Sharp 2013). Furthermore, during a war, negative emotions can persist for a long time when individuals are unable to manage them. According to Thomas Scheff, these emotions gather incredible force. For instance, “rather than only being ashamed, one is ashamed. One can also become ashamed when angry, and angry that one is ashamed, round and round, resulting in ‘humiliated fury.’ This humiliated fury might be the basis of violence or revenge. However, experiencing negative emotions does not essentially lead to violence as other social influences must be considered. (Gillan 1996) studied shame and identified three conditions necessary for shame to cause violence: (1) the shame must be a secret (2) the perpetrator perceives no other alternative than violence and (3) the perpetrator lacks the inhibiting emotion such as love or guilt. It is therefore possible that the study of emotion may lead to a theory of origins of extreme violence.
(Thoits 1989) observes that most social psychologists study emotion as a dependent variable – a product of social influences. But social influences can also be a product of emotions. Arlie Hochschild, in her latest book, Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, writes about “people segregating themselves into different emotionally toned enclaves- anger here, hopefulness and trust there.” P.6. Thus, categorization in this case is influenced by emotions. Hochschild was interested in understanding empathy walls, and how people can cross those walls. She defines empathy walls as barriers that prevent us from understanding the other, barriers that make us develop negative emotions to people who hold different beliefs from us. Although this study of emotion and how it influences social identity is based on Tea Party members in Louisiana (which she considers the center of American right), its results can be generalized to other populations across the US. The methods of studying emotions takes the form of experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and in-depth interviews or a combination of the above (Sharp and Kidder 2013), given that most contexts are different especially conflict prone contexts, one wonders what to consider before generalizing results of a study.
In conclusion, the study of emotion is significant to our understanding of justice processes. Stets (2005) talks about the process by which justice is attained as being like that by which an individual’s identity is verified. But of interest to me, is how emotions change in Restorative Justice, and how they influence the identity of the victim and the offender. Scholars generally agree that restorative justice is about relationships as opposed to the law (Llewellyn 2012, Zehr 2003). When harm is caused, a relationship is affected, and depending on the intensity of the harm caused, the victim might feel sad, depressed, helpless, humiliated etc. Restorative justice is supposed to address the harm caused and restore the relationship. An acknowledgement of the harm by the offender enables the victim to move from, say anger to compassion.
 Alagiah, G (2001). A Passage to Africa. (London: Abacus)
 Scheff, T (2010) Shooting Spree: A Response to Constant Humiliation, The Huffington Post
 Gilligan, J (1996). Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. (New York: Vintage)
 Hochschild, A (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. (New York: The New Press)
Two years ago, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese restaurant owner who allegedly had a “no African” policy in his restaurant. The restaurant, simply known as Chinese Restaurant, is located in Kilimani, an affluent suburb for the upper class in Nairobi. Local newspapers reported that the restaurant only allowed tax drivers or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European or Indian patrons. Most Kenyans were outraged by these reports; they took into social media calling for the deportation of the Chinese business owners. The government was at first reluctant to act but they finally gave in to public pressure and arrested the restaurant owner for running a business without a license – but not for racism as most Kenyans would have preferred.
The restaurant cited security concerns as a reason why they barred Africans into the restaurant but this does not hold considering that they even barred prominent Kenyans, a former cabinet secretary, and a permanent secretary who would not by any chance be members of Al-Shabaab, the militant Somali based terrorists that the Chinese patrons were afraid of. Even if the threat was plausible, it is not a viable reason for profiling people and singling out a race as potential terrorists. Most Africans considered the actions of the Chinese patrons as racist but there is no way of knowing their true motive. It could be that they were truly concerned about their safety or they did not simply consider Africans worthy of their company. I have considered this question carefully, and I contend that what happened in Nairobi was a matter of misguided cultural power dynamics between Africans and Chinese patrons.
Most Chinese in Kenya have no previous experience with the various ethnic groups that make up the country. Even though Chinese contact with Kenyans dates back to Sung Dynasty (960-1279), it’s only recently that their presence in Kenya has become noticeable. There is archeological evidence of Chinese presence in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly in Lamu. Local legend has it that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors washed up on the shore hundreds of years ago, and the locals rescued them. The sailors converted to Islam, intermarried with Africans, and were assimilated into the community. A report on China Daily, July 11, 2005 indicated that DNA tests conducted on Kenyan women in Lamu confirmed that they were of Chinese descent. This indicates that Africans and Chinese have had a cordial encounter and are not incapable of living together. However, the recent wave of Chinese migration into Africa while beneficial economically, it poses new type of cultural challenges.
China established diplomatic relationship with Kenya in December 14, 1963, shortly after Kenya’s independence. Despite the two country’s different economic models – Kenya having embraced capitalism while China favored communism – they have continued to enjoy a cordial relationship. According to the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies’ 2008 report on China-Africa Economic Relations, The Chinese embassy in Kenya is arguably their largest embassy in Africa both in terms of size and employees. This may perhaps explain the surge in Chinese immigrants to Kenya in the last two decades. The Chinese contractors are managing major government and private constructions across the country.
Despite the thriving construction industry, the major Chinese immigrants are mostly merchants, importing merchandise and selling to retailers in Kenya. I have observed that Chinese traders in Kenya rarely deal with the locals directly; they prefer working with middlemen, thus avoiding the necessary contact that can boost their familiarity with the host. Furthermore, the Chinese construction companies do not hire Kenyans; they do all the work and sometimes prefer living in their own quarters. With this kind of lifestyle, the Chinese have little exposure with local people, and have no way of learning about local culture, leave alone embracing it.
Interestingly, due to Chinese investment in Kenya, some Kenyans are learning Mandarin through the Chinese sponsored Confucius Institutes around the country. However, one cannot stop to think that the cultural literacy is only happening one way, hence creating a cultural power dynamics. Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New empire in Africa, has extensively covered this aspect of cultural power dynamics between ordinary Chinese investors and Africans. French writes a story about a Mr. Hao Shengli, an investor in Mozambique whose belief about Africans is in the lines of “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully” Obviously Mr. Hao does not hold Africans in high esteem. To him African culture is subservient to his.
As much as Mr. Hao is not a representative of Chinese people, in a way he is typical of most investors who now flock various cities across Africa. Most countries in Africa have yet to reflect on the impact of Chinese investment in their countries. But with the increasing immigration of Chinese businesspeople into African cities, this kind of reflection is inevitable. As often is the case, the most noticeable effects are on cultural compatibility. The Nairobi incident demonstrates that there is a wide cultural divide between Africans and Chinese. This issue must be addressed with utmost urgency lest the cordial relationship China enjoys with African countries be ruined.
Of course it is upon the Chinese businesspersons to learn the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanness), and African Values of community. There is a lot to be gained through mutual respect and honest dealing. As much as the Chinese government is investing in Africans who are trying to learn Chinese culture, it should do the same to the Chinese who want to learn African cultures. For China to represent a new awakening, it must do, and behave better than the European colonizers at whose hands Africans were humiliated and their dignity violated.
The incident in Nairobi, for all we know, may have been a misunderstanding but nevertheless it sowed seeds of discord and loss of trust that the Kenyans had for Chinese business-people. Deliberate steps must be taken to restore the relationship to its better form. It seems to me that cultural knowledge may be the most important business skill that any Chinese hoping to invest in Kenya or Africa ought to possess. History shows that most Asians who have come to Africa for whatever reason usually prefers to build a home in their host countries. The Indians who built the railway in East Africa are now part of our proud heritage. Even though most of them never made any effort to integrate or assimilate to the local culture, they somehow found ways of maintaining a healthy relationship with Africans. There are a few exceptions to this, for instance, the tragedy that came with Dictator Idi Amin of Uganda who in the 70s expelled Asians from Uganda. The Ugandans saw the Asians as a threat to their economic lives. Of course they were wrong but populist ideas and reasoning often do not go together.
There is no better way of securing the future of Africans and the Chinese than to invest in cultural programs that foster mutual respect. Such programs might include student, farmers, businesspeople, and government exchange programs among others. Of course, such programs often take long in impacting a society. But they are worthy looking into.