Cross-Cultural Determinants of Terrorism

Topics: Terrorism, Culture, Jihad Pages: 16 (6229 words) Published: October 31, 2008

Cross-Cultural Determinants of Terrorism

Mick C. Malkemus

Walden University
International/Cross-Cultural Issues in Organizations
Catherine Kwantes


While the Psychology of Terrorism became an academic study in 1982, cultural influences on terrorism have yet to be widely studied (Brannan, Esler, & Strindberg, 2001). This paper attempts to understand why terrorism exists within cultural context; the cross-cultural factors might be involved. Orchestrated objectives within well-organized terrorist groups suggest that principles of organizational psychology apply to terrorist organizations, under the cultural influence of each one (Borum, 2004). There is much cause for optimism in understanding terrorist organizations, for as Alder and Gunderson (2008) write, “Luckily, we have learned that global complexity is neither unpredictable nor random” (p.v). The call for research has never been more pressing.


“Terrorism is an elusive subject, evading precise political, jurisprudential, and cultural definition” (Oliveri, 2008, p.249). It depends upon the definition of ‘terrorism’. “With over 100 definitions, this is not an easy task; there is no common understanding of what constitutes ‘terrorism’; no clear and universally acknowledged definition actually exists” (Franks, 2007, p. 2). The definition Munger (2006) proposes that is used for this paper is, “Culture is defined as the set of ‘inherited’ beliefs, attitudes, and moral strictures that a people use to distinguish outsiders, to understand themselves and to communicate with each other” (p.131). The distinguishing characteristic of ‘them’ and ‘us’ is perhaps the fundamental belief generated within cultures that makes terrorism towards others possible. Whether viewed in terms of extremist Muslim culture or right-wing American culture, cultural identity supports the conflict of ideologies. Ward (2008) says, “Terrorism has taken the academic world by storm” (p. 248). The Psychology of Terrorism only became a legitimate academic study in 1982; “terrorism is far from a new phenomenon, traceable to the French Revolution and the Nihilists of 19th Century Russia” (Franks, 2007, p. 1). Undoubtedly, it goes much further into the annals of history than the 19th Century, “the concept of terrorism had no meaning in history until the modern era” (Bratkowski, 2005, p.764). Prior to modernity, terrorism was so much a part of daily culture it was normal behavior, without a specific word for it. In fact, for most of Christendom, “humankind has always provided a justification for killing and instilling terror in fellow humans” (p.764). It is only recently that most cultures have placed a label of immorality on selective murder to achieve political or cultural ends. Our species has a protracted history and prehistory of terrorism. One might wonder why terrorism has “taken the academic world by storm”.

Insights from Psychology

“Terrorist violence most often is deliberate (not impulsive), strategic, and instrumental; it is linked to and justified by ideological (e.g., political, religious) objectives and usually involves a group or multiple actors/supporters (Borum, 2004, p.17). Since terrorist objectives originate within multinational organizations, principles of organizational psychology apply to all terrorist organizations, under the cultural milieu of the organization in question. What is now certain is that terrorism is not a psychopathological aberration, as was originally thought in psychoanalytical circles (Crenshaw, 1992). Terrorist organizations are composed of clear-headed individuals, often with advanced university degrees. Merari (1991) collected empirical data on suicide bombers, and found that psychopathology is almost never a factor in a terrorist’s profile. In fact, “prevalence of mental illness among samples of incarcerated terrorists is...
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