How Could the Cultural Divide Contribute to National Security Risks?

Working with different cultures: Introduction

National borders are a very recent human construct. While these borders define national territories, they do not necessarily define a specific culture. (Hofstede et al., 2010, p. 20-21). Different regions within a single nation may have different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and even dialects.

With the ever-increasing globalisation of our world, the traditional boundaries delineating cultures are becoming ever more blurred. Before proceeding further in this study, it is worth pointing out that culture too is a social construct; so much so, that people identifying themselves with specific groups, may have more in common culturally than their compatriots. This is very evident in post-colonial African countries where national boundaries imposed by colonial powers have no concern for traditional ethnic boundaries.

Culture being a social construct, one could argue that we are born into this world as a blank page and we ‘learn’ our culture by observing and interacting with those around us. Hofstede et al. (2010, p. 4) argue that our minds are programmed since early childhood and set patterns of how we think, feel and act. These patterns develop into schemata and scripts which could define us culturally in the way we behave (DeVito, 2012, p. 64-65).

We can compare scripts and schemata to shortcuts that aid our mind in processing information. While this can be helpful on most occasions, such shortcuts are prone to errors as they create stereotypes.

The Cultural Divide

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the cultural divide is defined as the ‘virtual barrier caused by cultural differences, that hinder interactions, and harmonious exchange between people of different cultures.’ Prentice & Miller (1999, p. 3-8) approach this topic from a psychological point of view. They state that by nature, humans have a need to belong to groups.

These can be as small as a social club or even a society on a larger scale. These groups have their own values, beliefs and ways of doing things. Prentice & Miller (1999, p.5) refer to these as ‘collective representations’ and define the way we act. These behaviours manifest themselves in layers with values being at the core.

Hofstede et al. (2010, p. 8) illustrate this in the ‘onion’ model. What is visible to those external to that particular culture, are symbols. Those external to it can use this outward manifestation of a culture, to form stereotypes.

Lacking cultural intelligence, these differences are fertile ground for misunderstandings between the different cultures. This is especially so when taking into consideration the inner layers of that culture, which are unknown to the ‘outsider’.

Negative Stereotypes

Stereotypes do not necessarily carry negative connotations. A case in point are stereotypes suggesting that Germans are efficient and Japanese have excellent technology. This study however will focus on the darker side of stereotypes and the negative narratives they carry with them.

Negative stereotypes lead to the creation of the ‘enemy’. This is often a tool which populist politicians and dictators use to create cohesion within their own group (Hofstede et al., 2010, p. 13) at the detriment of others. Over time, left unchecked, such rhetoric may lead to specific cultures being stigmatised and treated as inferiors.

Perhaps the greatest example of this in the 20th century is the systematic dehumanisation of Jewish people by Adolf Hitler and his propaganda machine which led to a genocide. Hofstede presents us with a case study showing how such prejudice survives long after its source has been removed. In this case study, a student exchange in 1983 turns sour when a student tells her Austrian hosts that she is of Jewish descent. The authors here link this behaviour with one of the cultural dimensions – uncertainty avoidance. A short exercise using Hofstede’s online tool for country comparisons against the six culture dimensions revealed that most Central European countries score high (70 and above) in uncertainty avoidance. These scores contrasted highly with those of the United Kingdom and the United States who scored 35 and 46 respectively. With such high scores, these European countries tend to fear the unknown and retain rigid codes of behaviour. Many times, what does not fit in these rules people see it as a threat. (Hofstede, 2011, p. 10).

A Real or Perceived Threat?

One way in which resistance to the unknown may be manifested, is through distrust to anything that is different and may bring change. People often see migrants through this lens and experience varying levels of hostility towards them. Coupled with this, migrants are bound to experience culture shock. Studies outline the five stages of culture shock:

  • Honeymoon Similar to the tourist, the migrant is curious but retains his/her home identity.
  • Disorientation Being overwhelmed by an unfamiliar environment and the requirements of the new culture.
  • Irritability & hostility Anger and resentment to the new culture and the difficulties being faced.
  • Adjustment & integration Understanding the new culture and being able to navigate within it.
  • Biculturality The migrant becomes fully accultured to the host culture while retaining links to his/her home culture.

In the introduction to his book, Inside the Global Jihad, Nasiri (2006) writes: ‘Because I’m Arab, part European, my home is nowhere. When I went back to Morocco … other kids mocked me as a foreigner. … I’ve lived in Germany for six years now …, but I’m not a citizen. Some people classify me as a refugee and treat me like any other Arab “guest worker.” So perhaps only one thing is completely true: I am a Muslim.’

Moving towards integration with different cultures

In this scenario, it is likely that Nasiri finds himself in the anger stage. From his words it seems he is trying to move towards integration but his efforts are not enough as people see him as a mere refugee. His last sentence is most poignant, where he states that he belongs nowhere so the only truth about himself is that he is Muslim. Such a remark seems to indicate an identity crisis and the author is yearning for belonging.

Like Nasiri there are many migrants who share similar experiences. Such situations may lead to these migrants remaining much longer in the anger stage and once they stabilise, they retain negative feelings towards their host culture.

These situations are exacerbated when the migrant belongs to a stigmatised group. Prentice & Miller (1999, p. 6) write that, members of stigmatised groups may disengage from the society that devalues them. Such a scenario would only increase the cultural divide and prevent efforts at integration. In the local context, there is a manifest negative sentiment towards Muslims and sub-Saharan Africans (ECRI, 2018).

Different Cultures: Minority Communities

Based on the works cited in this section, the stigmatisation of these minority communities may lead them to harbour resentment towards the country they migrated to. Such sentiment is not only for first generation migrants. Recent history has thought us that many of those who resorted to terrorism had been second generation migrants

Dissociation from society often goes un-noticed. Since humans have a need to belong, such persons are likely to seek like-minded people and here lies the risk of being exposed to radical thought whose source may be found in radical preachers or online. From a national security point of view, this presents a considerable risk. Willis (2016) outlines three stages of radicalisation being:

  • Background variables (Loss)
  • Consolidating variables (Attachment)
  • Engagement variables. (Activity)

Three stages

The author includes demographic factors including self-perception and identity among the causes leading to the first stage (loss). He attributes the second stage (attachment) to the individual having found an ideological affiliation and commitment to the cause. The third and final stage in the radicalisation process (activity) results in the individual taking the commitment a step further through extremism and violent means.

One must mention at this stage that radicalisation up till the second stage in the Willis model, is not necessarily a threat to security. A person who takes on a radical commitment to bring about change – say, through political activism – may be seen as a threat to the status quo but is not a threat to the physical security of society. Schmid (2013) differentiates these persons by naming them, open-minded radicals and closed-minded extremist.


Through this study one can better understand how cultural ignorance can alienate people from a different culture as people see them as a threat to the established way of life. This fear is likely to manifest itself through the marginalisation and stigmatisation of those whose culture contrasts with that of the host culture. Subsequently, we have seen how people on the receiving end of such a treatment may harbour resentment and seek change.

This may lead to the development of radical beliefs, and while most people stop at this stage or become active through non-violent means, a few may very well go through the full radicalisation process and take on extremism. This is a vicious cycle where the fear from those ones people perceive as a threat, and their marginalisation, may very well push those same people onto the path of becoming a threat to national security. This in turn serves only to reinforce the belief of the host society that the migrant is indeed a threat.

The main take-away from this study is that stigmatisation is counterproductive. Through cultural intelligence and positive engagement with other cultures, stigmas can be broken and in turn, enhance security.

different cultures