Misplaced Identity and Belonging

In all the talk about ISIS one thing emerges – Western leaders are terrified and embarrassed that so many from their countries are joining forces with ISIS. It’s easy to point a finger when it is young men who are outside our borders raised in those countries we deem dangerous and breeding grounds for terrorism. It’s a hard call when the fingers point back at the west and hard questions need to be asked about why this life is appealing. Many of these recruits are born and raised in the United Kingdom or the United States, educated in schools in these countries. They are second or third generation immigrants, whose parents moved from their countries of origin for various reasons.

According to Harry Kitano (who did research on immigrant populations, primarily Asian American groups) many immigrants go through a process or a struggle between two powerful desires:  the desire to retain their native ethnic identity vs. the desire to “become” American.  Many times the individual is not consciously aware of these conflicting desires.   Through research, Kitano developed four “types” to describe where immigrants may be on an acculturation continuum.

  • Type A – High in assimilation and low in ethnic identity.  For all intents and purposes, the immigrant has internalized the lifestyle, values, language and culture of mainstream America.
  • Type B – High in assimilation and high in ethnic identity.  This group includes the truly bilingual and bicultural immigrant, able to move between his original and new American cultural groups comfortably and successfully.
  • Type C – High in ethnic identity and low in assimilation.  The newly arrived immigrant best typifies this category.  Also, immigrants who have lived here a long time, but spent most of their lives in an ethnic enclave perhaps never learning to speak fluent English (e.g., the Italian North End neighborhood of Boston or a city’s Chinatown) would also be considered part of this group.
  • Type D – Low in ethnic identity and low in assimilation.  This group is described as being alienated from both the ethnic and the American communities. (Kitano, 1989)*

Kitano’s work is of great value to help explain cultural conflicts that may occur in the different generations of an extended family of immigrants, all at different levels of acculturation. Perhaps Kitano’s work could also help explain the attraction of ISIS to the disenfranchised, the cynical, the outsider – the one who is Type D.

In a recent article looking at why ISIS has been so successful recruiting westerners I read these words:

“So what is it about ISIS and its uncanny ability to recruit Westerners? Here are five methods the group employs:

It preys on a recruit’s sense of identity

The recruits are often young — sometimes disillusioned teenagers trying to find purpose and make their mark.

For many, it boils down to a lack of a sense of identity or belonging, Barrett said.

“The general picture provided by foreign fighters of their lives in Syria suggests camaraderie, good morale and purposeful activity, all mixed in with a sense of understated heroism, designed to attract their friends as well as to boost their own self-esteem,”

The article goes on to talk about other reasons why westerners leave their supposed lives of comfort in the U.S or other wealthier, western countries including sophisticated propaganda and high-tech media usage, appealing to a sense of religious duty, and several more but it is this first one that I continue to come back to based on the research I cited above.

It strikes me that these recruits would fit the category of Type D in assimilation. They have been raised in an alternate universe where the culture of their immigrant parents and the dominant culture are worlds apart. They don’t fit with either and so they are desperate to belong, desperate to have purpose. And as wrong as this is, as terrifying as this is, these men are finding a way to fill that longing. It’s a misplaced identity and belonging.

If we are created for connection than we will go to extremes to find that connection. If we are created for purpose, we will look to find that purpose wherever we can. And these recruits are finding purpose in spades. It’s wrong. The actions of the group are evil, but they have provided primarily young men, raised in the west, with something to believe in.

I think we’ve failed. I am not negating personal responsibility, personal choices were made and must be acknowledged, but I think we often fail our immigrant kids. And the more the culture of the immigrant differs from western culture, the more difficult it is for immigrant families to feel a part of life in their communities in the west.

We can do better. I can do better. In my own community the alleged Boston Marathon bomber went to school, played, participated in sports activities. And something changed. He ended up believing in a cause that brought on death, pain, and suffering of hundreds, perhaps thousands. He sits in a jail cell awaiting a trial while juries even now are receiving their summons to fulfill their civic duty through the notorious Boston Marathon bombing case. Just blocks from our apartment, another young man whose mom is an immigrant from Ethiopia has also been indicted in the Marathon bombing for hiding evidence.

We can do better. Especially people who hold to Biblical values of justice and loving our neighbors. Who are the disenfranchised in your towns and cities? Who are the immigrant kids who are lost between worlds? Who are the parents who are struggling to get by even as they watch the values they hold dear trampled on by the dominant culture? Can we reach out? Can we forget ourselves for a moment and extend a hand to the ‘other‘?

Will this make a difference? I don’t know – but if the likes of ISIS are willing to reach out and meet the need for belonging, the need for a sense of purpose then we must do better. We must try. 

We can do better. I know we can. 

Source: Communicating Across Boundaries Curriculum adapted by Marilyn R. Gardner and Cathy Romeo, 2009 from Unit III – Beliefs and Barriers.

8 thoughts on “Misplaced Identity and Belonging

  1. Yes, I so agree we can do better in opening our lives, hearts and homes to the immigrants among us! Small steps of reaching out and befriending those who are different, those who we may not understand or even fear will lead to more connections, understanding, friendship and love.


  2. Isn’t this the general longing of the human heart? We ache for belonging. We are desperate to connect. We want a sense of purpose and meaning beyond ourselves. I do think what you write is true..that we’ve failed the immigrant youth by not providing that for them. I think we have failed ourselves and our own children too. We’ve deceptively laid out a promise for community and we have fallen short. All of us want it. The question is where will we turn for it? How will help each other pivot towards it….
    These are Big things. Hard things. Sober things.


  3. Yes. I think about my own sense of not belonging when I returned to the US for college, and remember how intense that desire for belonging and purpose was. At some point, we tend to grow beyond that, but by then it may be too late for some who chose poorly.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!


  4. It is sad and true that immigrant communities are often not well accepted to the point they come under attack in the U.S. I can see how this would lay a foundation for young people searching for meaning in an adopted country to take up arms with an organization that offers them a sense of belonging. But this is not just an immigrant problem.

    I spent some time studying what draws people to the neo-Nazi movement in the U.S., and it is the same sense of not belonging. The neo-Nazis and similar groups in the U.S. attract followers by offering a sense of belonging to a cause larger than themselves, often using religious symbolism and verse to support the cause, and manipulating their angst and anger.

    I think it’s a problem to be conscious of with youth in general. Those who do not “fit” in the communities or cliques they are expected to conform with will look for other ways to belong, and these may not always be peaceful.


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