Science shows that discriminating against religious groups feeds radicalisation

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Marginalising and discriminating against immigrants displaced from their traditional countries and cultures is a significant contributor to feelings of radicalisation, according to a new study.

Two surveys involving approximately 400 Muslim immigrants living in the US and Germany show that prejudicial attitudes towards people trying to integrate into new cultures can end up making them more susceptible to extremist causes.


“We found that immigrants who identify with neither their heritage culture nor the culture they are living in feel marginalised and insignificant,” says social psychologist Sarah Lyons-Padilla from Stanford University.

“Experiences of discrimination make the situation worse.”

Lyons-Padilla’s team conducted an online survey of 198 Muslim immigrants living in the US, asking them how connected they felt to their heritage and to American values – and how well they thought they had integrated into their new home.

In addition, the participants were given a hypothetical situation to consider, involving an imaginary fundamentalist group consisting of young Muslims, who existed to stand up against American maltreatment of Muslims.

While this made-up group was never explicitly said to condone or perpetuate violence, the participants were given the impression that the activists supported extreme actions where necessary.

The survey respondents were asked to what extent they could imagine their friends and social circle sympathising with the aims and values of this hypothetical group, and whether they’d be likely to conduct illegal or violent actions to help further its agenda.


The responses to the survey indicated that, overall, support for extremism was very low. This supported wider research that shows a majority of Muslims simply do not hold radical views.

However, within a small minority, the survey showed that a feeling of marginalisation and discrimination could predict feelings of insignificance – which in turn increased people’s attraction to fundamentalist groups and their extreme behaviour.

According to Lyons-Padilla, the findings back up the work of researcher Arie Kruglanksi from Maryland University, who has previously explored the psychological motivations of terrorists.

“Kruglanski [proposed] a particularly compelling theory: people become terrorists to restore a sense of significance in their lives, a feeling that they matter,” Lyons-Padilla explained for The Guardian in an opinion piece last year.

“Extremist organisations like Isis are experts at giving their recruits that sense of purpose, through status, recognition, and the promise of eternal rewards in the afterlife.”

To help counter the threat of extremist organisations, Lyons-Padilla argues that we need to diminish their appeal in the eyes of marginalised immigrants – and the first step in doing so is by not making them feel unwelcome and unappreciated in their adopted homelands.


In contrast, things like anti-Islam rhetoric, bans on Muslims travelling, and increased policing and monitoring of Muslim communities won’t actually curb extremism – they’ll just help enable it.

“According to my research, this is the recipe for making American Muslims feel disenfranchised and discriminated against,” Lyons-Padilla writes.

“We are actually planting the seeds for radicalisation and essentially helping Isis recruit by fuelling the narrative that the west is anti-Islam.”

In a separate, complementary survey that looked at the experience of 204 German Muslim immigrants – in addition to the US cohort – the researchers found that those living in the US were having an easier time integrating into US culture than their counterparts in Germany.

The team attributes this to the US having a comparatively “looser” culture than Germany’s more conformity-based society, which the researchers think could also influence people’s susceptibility to radicalisation.

The preliminary findings of that study are still undergoing peer review, but Lyons-Padilla thinks it shows more evidence that openness to diversity is needed to stop disenfranchised immigrants from becoming “culturally homeless”.

In the researchers’ view, it’s not just about Islamophobia being hurtful and morally wrong. By being accepting and promoting inclusivity wherever we can, we’re likely to be sowing the foundations for a more secure society – not just a fairer, better one.

“We can make it harder for terrorists to recruit by making the culturally homeless feel more at home,” Lyons-Padilla explains.

The findings were presented at the American Psychological Association’s 125th Annual Convention in Washington last week.


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