Middle Eastern Children Explain a CULTURAL Reason Why Moderate Muslims are Not Denouncing Extremists

Why don't moderate Muslims speak up against terrorism?

Living in the Middle East, I often get asked the question, “If all Muslims are not extremists, then why aren’t the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims not publicly denouncing the extremists (or their behavior, and/or their interpretation of Islam)?”

A chance comment to me by a Middle Eastern student made a very important reason clear to me, which I have never seen discussed anywhere.  The reason is CULTURAL.

Middle Eastern and North African societies  are cultures where people are divided into in-groups and out-groups.  This is a completely opposite type of thinking from what we have in the United States and some other western countries.

I had an interesting conversation about this with some 11-12-year-old students I know.  We were discussing some bullying problems that have been going on in their North African classroom, when one student asked me, “Mrs. Diligent, why do our American teachers at our school think we should help people (other students) who aren’t our friends, when our parents teach us not to?”  Having lived in the Middle East for 18 years, I understood immediately what they were talking about, as well as the confusion and frustration of their American teachers.

North Africa and the Middle East

When I first moved to the Middle East with my Middle Eastern husband, one evening I was out walking with my husband through a tight area of the old city, and a line of parked cars were outside of a restaurant.  Someone had parked their car and left the lights on.  A man was standing there, who appeared to me to possibly be the parking lot attendant.  As we were passing right next to him, I asked something like, “Excuse me, this car has its lights left on, do you know where the owner is?”

My husband immediately got upset with me and asked, “Why are you asking about this?  It’s not your business!”

I replied that perhaps the person would come out of the restaurant to find their battery dead, and that if the owner could not be found, perhaps we should just open the car door and switch off the lights for the person (we were in a very small city, with an atmosphere of a very big town).

Again, my husband said something like, “It’s NOT your BUSINESS!  We don’t get involved in other people’s business like that!”  (or similar words, recalling the conversation 18 years later).   My husband then actually apologized to the the parking lot attendant for my having “disturbed” him, and told me to be quiet as we walked away.

My husband is NOT a jerk, by the way…so you can imagine my shock and surprise at this incident.  This is just how the American teachers are feeling about the way some of the students are treating others at school.  It is also just how many Americans are feeling when Muslim terrorists commit atrocities and the so-called “moderate” Muslims are not speaking up by publicly denouncing their behavior!   Thus, many Americans are WRONGLY concluding that the “moderate” Muslims actually are secret extremists, and condone those people’s behavior.

So, what is the explanation here?  The explanation is that most of these Muslims were raised in “in-group” cultures.

In an “in-group” culture, children are taught to normally offer help ONLY to other members of their in-group (your family or very special friends).  (So, woe to a person in the Middle East–foreigner or country national–who doesn’t have a large family in-group to “help” them every time they have a problem!)

Some students told me that if someone witnessed a person being harrassed by others in the street, the correct response would be to ignore them and not get involved.  Children are told, “That’s their business, it’s none of our business.  Stay out of it!”  (The logic is that in “in-group” societies, one is neither obligated nor expected to help others.  Why?  Because those people have their own in-groups to help them.)

So, if students witness another student being bullied on the playground or in line, their usual reaction is to ignore what is going on, rather than to offer help, unless one of the participants is their own friend–in which case they enter the conflict on the side of their FRIEND, rather than necessarily on the side of the person who is being bullied.)  This is the behavior which many American teachers have tried to fight, usually unsuccessfully, because the whole culture is like this.

This same idea contributes directly to international intercultural misunderstandings.   The subject often comes up when discussing Israel and Palestine, and America’s support of Israel.

I find many people in the Middle East absolutely convinced that the United States is a Jewish country.  When I ask what percentage of America they think is Jewish, I usually get an answer of between 50-80%.  When I inform them that the actual percentage is around 2% (actually the 2010 figures say it is only 1.4%, while the Muslim percentage in 2010 was about 1%) I get absolute disbelief.  Sometimes after discussing it for about fifteen minutes, I make a little headway in making them doubt their former opinion.  But in ALL cases, the response is, “If they aren’t Jewish, why would they help Israel so much?”  They usually reply that he only reason they can see for providing such aid to others would be the selfish reason of helping one’s own blood relatives;  thus the assumption that most people in America are Jewish!

Is America Jewish?

Now we turn to the question of why moderate Muslims are not standing up and publicly denouncing terrorists.  Most of these people are either living in countries that are in-group societies, or have moved to the United States from such countries, and were brought up with such values.  Therefore, when someone does something really bad, they might declare privately to people who are friends, “That’s terrible!  That person calls himself a Muslim, but he most definitely not acting like a Muslim, or in accordance with Muslim values!” (This is what is meant when moderate Muslims comment, “That person is not a Muslim.”)

When people are brought up to STAY OUT of any conflicts, and not even to help their neighbors or classmates who have problems, and are even DISCOURAGED from doing so, is it any wonder that as adults they continue to behave in accordance with those values?  It does not mean that they agree with that behavior or condone it in any way.  It is more like they want to keep their head down and avoid trouble.

One reason for this is that reprisals can be very severe in their own cultures for either speaking up or getting involved (in some cases such as a person might just disappear and never be heard from again).  So yes, they are afraid of reprisals, but this is not the whole story.  It’s the idea that , “You are only responsible to people in your own in-group.”  That in-group (unlike in the West) does NOT include either strangers, or the whole society.

Lastly, this doesn’t mean that no one ever helps others.  They do.  However, this help is rare compared to the number of people in the West who offer such help to others.   In the West, we don’t have in-groups, and every individual is considered to be equally responsible to all others in the society–such as to enforce no-smoking sections; to speak up if people butt ahead in line; to help someone who is having a problem in the street; or to speak up publicly against behavior which is to be condemned by society.

–Lynne Diligent

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8 Responses to “Middle Eastern Children Explain a CULTURAL Reason Why Moderate Muslims are Not Denouncing Extremists”

  1. Pascale SZTUM Says:

    My experience in sub-Saharan Africa is in line with what you describe here Linne.
    As many foreign experts have been flocked to Africa in order to fix the problems of poverty, they have systematically applied their own perception of the world on the events that they witnessed.

    The concepts that they have instilled (good governance, respect for human rights, democracy and the likes) all feature a vision of the world based on individualistic values. These envision a national identity where there is no place for special treatment. In such context, in-group solidarity is perceived as a discriminatory treatment, a violation of human rights and a bad governance.
    Who is right and who is wrong? As long as there is a logical explanation embedded on constantly held values both are right.

    This makes it cross-cultural interactions very challenging because what is discriminatory for one side is not by the other.


  2. middleagedmuaythai Says:

    Excellent post. I think a lot of the world’s problems occur because we fail to understand other people’s motives. We assume that other people think the same way we do and share the same values. We judge them by the rules of our game even though they aren’t playing our game.


  3. Floyd Russak MD Says:

    The best article I have ever read on cross-cultural ingrouping.


  4. The Peace Seeker Says:

    This is really an excellent article about the misconceptions of Muslims regarding terrorism and terrorists. I wish I had known about this article a couple of months ago when New York Representative and Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Peter King held hearings of the Muslims’ response to terror. His basic assumption was that the Muslims’ respond to terrorists was tepid and showed at least a tolerance for terrorism, if not their full support of it.

    Now, there are so-called experts in anti-terror and radical Islam, actually teaching law enforcement agencies across the U.S. the very message – that there is really no such thing as “moderate Muslims” because Muslims are not in the streets everyday denouncing the likes of al-Queda.

    Thanks for sharing.


  5. Maurice Says:

    If what you say is true why are Israelies who are Mid-Easterners not seen by Mid-Eastern children as these ‘in-groupers’ of which you speak? Do they think Israelies are one unified people who act in accord with what is thought best for the larger society and not just for their groups? Do these children of whom you speak have less knowledge of Israel than they do of the USA?

    How could any Islamic nation understand support from another Islamic nation if this “in-group” culture is strongest force within a country in understanding outside support and it is what is most considered when another Islamic nation supports another?

    If Iran supports Syria does it mean Iranians are Syrians? It does if the USA supporting Israel means Americans are mostly Jews.

    Bottom line, it seems you have an agenda you are pushing that is anti-semitic and anti-American.


  6. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Hmmmmmm, honestly Maurice, I am confused by your comment, it doesn’t really seem to be on the subject of my post, but instead about another issue you seem to have. I am neither anti-Semitic nor anti-American.

    The best reply I can give you is that most Middle Easterners tend to be anti-Semitic because they believe the Koran teaches that Jews are liars. I’ve had numerous discussions with many Middle Easterners on this topic, and when I really pinned them down on it, they showed me passages in the Koran which they believe justifies this point-of-view. (Of course not everyone goes along with this view, but I’d say depending on the country it’s anywhere from 60-99% who do.)

    Islamic nations are seldom supporting each other, and are usually squabbling among themselves, EXCEPT when uniting against an outside religion, be it Christianity, or Judaism. The minute a political goal is met or overcome, or ceases to be important, the countries go right back to squabbling. Perhaps you have not heard the Middle Eastern Proverb, “I against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers.”

    It seems to be you, Maurice, who has an agenda here. I am just trying to explain Middle Eastern behavior (of some) to people back home who are confused by it.


  7. the retrospective entrepreneur Says:

    A really fascinating and valuable insight, Lynne. Thank you


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