Culture Shock and Terrorist Recruitment

by Miriam Sobre-Denton

As an American who has traveled overseas throughout my life, as well as a teacher of intercultural communication, I often wonder how it is that we don’t relate travel experiences and study abroad to the potential for loneliness and identity questions—and to the potential for association with radical groups. I remember traveling to Turkey, alone, as a woman, with no clue as to how I would be perceived, with the false security of a Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook in hand. After relentless pursuit throughout Istanbul by various men of different ages due largely, I suspected at the time, to my uncovered blond hair, I realized that I hated Turkey, and all the people in it. I was so incredibly relieved when I met a group of fellow Americans at a youth hostel in Sultanahmet that I wound up traveling with them for a week. It took me six days to realize that these fellow travelers were missionary Christians who were attempting to convert people (possibly me) to their religion.Somehow, my desperate need for cultural similarity due to my lack of preparation for the cultural differences of my destination allowed me to overlook the rather obvious recruitment tactics of this particular group—which included the fact that they wore T-shirts with bible verses on them.

When my students or other travelers I meet ask me why I love to travel and to study travel, I try to explain that I am interested in what happens to the parts of our identities that are called into question when we are faced with ideas and ideals that are different from our own. These moments of heightened uncertainty leave us more open to the influences of people and movements championing passion, belonging, and a stronger sense of group identity. Such influence has greater potential to occur when people relocate to strange countries without the resources through which to create strong support systems and coping mechanisms for identity needs called into question, creating the psychological crisis commonly known as culture shock.

So how does culture shock relate to the ‘war on terror’?In their book, Handbook of Intercultural Training, Drs. Janet and Milton Bennett and Dr. Daniel Landis define culture shock as “…a crisis of identity characterized by feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and anxiety [that goes]…hand-and-hand with the realization that the new environment may be ‘difficult’ and requires considerable effort to negotiate” (2004, p. 187). Specifically, culture shock takes place as one of a series of stages in the cross-cultural adaptation process.The traditional stages of the culture shock model predict that the traveler will go through anywhere from three to five stages of emotional adaptation throughout his or her time abroad:

  • The honeymoon stage, leading to feelings of initial euphoria
  • Culture shock, resulting from feelings of disorientation
  • Hostility towards the host culture, leading to feelings of resentment
  • Initial adaptation, leading to a sense of autonomy within the host culture
  • Assimilation into the host culture, and a sense belonging in both host and home culture

Under these kinds of circumstances, isolated and unequipped for the shock of culturally unfamiliar environments, individuals can become drawn into religious, ideological movements that they might otherwise not be drawn to, simply for a sense of identity inclusion and understanding. Witness, for example, Mark Sagemen’s picture of the terrorists involved in the al Qaeda movement. He characterizes them as highly educated, middle-to-upper middle class men in their mid-twenties or older, who are not necessarily of strong religious backgrounds, and who for a large part have been disconnected from their homelands. In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright notes that Said Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden, among others, all lived outside their home cultures, all well-educated, scientifically motivated, relatively non-religious men who experienced crises of faith in a similar manner to the crisis of identity experienced in culture shock.

Sageman’s perspective is that when individuals “became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves…not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends.” This elucidates an important link between research on culture shock and the very real, applied issues of the spread of dangerous fundamentalist ideologies. Through this link, we may come closer to understanding how an intelligent individual living in a strange country would gravitate to places that remind him of home, even if it is symbolic rather than realistic. Further, the embodiment of friendship/family bonds within Islamist groups creates a space of emotional as well as identity support—a family away from family, a home away from home. Under these circumstances, people who are experiencing identity vulnerability might also be more suggestible to radical ideas, particularly if following such ideas and ideologies allows them to be accepted by the group and feel a connection to their own homelands, and particularly if they are discriminated against within their host cultures. Indeed, sociologists Dr. Robert Benford and Dr. David Snow emphasize the psychology of identity as it is involved in social movement:“Participation in social movements frequently involves enlargement of personal identity for participation and offers fulfillment and realization of self” (p. 631).

I believe that those who wish to combat terrorism would be wise to examine the histories of terrorist cell recruits and founders from the culture shock perspective. An interesting notion would be for university study abroad offices and terrorism experts to coordinate in an attempt to understand culture transition processes and provide better resources for easing the pains of the transition. This could be a particularly important resource for recruitment interventions, as study abroad and international programs offices at American universities filter through hundreds of thousands of international students each year—and we should remember that such influential individuals as Qutb and Zawahiri attended such universities and indeed probably experienced such culturally shocking experiences as prejudice, alien ideas, and lack of cultural tolerance. Terrorism experts can also work with international exchange coordinators and diplomatic organizations to implement better programs to educate and assist sojourners in their transition experience, both in terms of accomplishing tasks in an unfamiliar place and in terms of emotional support. In particular, creating international, multi-ethnic, multicultural third cultures at sites of intercultural contact can ease the growing pains of culture shock while creating cultures of tolerance for diversity, rather than relegating international students to enclaves of similar cultural backgrounds.

Terrorism of the kind we are facing today is not born and bred from the proletariat, as may be widely believed (although it may recruit from there); it has in many cases arisen from the disenfranchised and educated who may be seeking some sense of understanding and cultural identity in a dizzyingly fragmented world. Culture shock models should be actively applied to circumstances outside of the classroom, probing the circumstances through which individuals living in cultures far from home are recruited to fundamentalist groups. Such knowledge can assist in discerning if and how interventions can be made at the vulnerable moment when young intelligent travelers are lonely and isolated, far from home, and experiencing the crushing vulnerability and inevitable questioning of culture shock. In this manner, this work can move the practice of intercultural understanding onto the wider world stage.