Editor’s Note: Michele J. Gelfand is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is the author of “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.” The views expressed are her own. Read more opinions at CNN.
ISIS is dead, we’re told. In Helsinki recently, President Donald Trump triumphantly said the eradication of ISIS is “about 98 percent, 99 percent there,” while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that “We defeated Daesh (ISIS) through our unity and sacrifice for the nation” in December. Indeed, its pretensions of caliphate destroyed, ISIS is today a shell of its former self. Most of its fighters have either fled or died, while those who remain are holed up in remote parts of Iraq and Syria. It’s a symbolically important victory for the US-backed coalition forces of Iraqis and Syrian rebels who defeated them.
But as Euphrates Valley cities and villages face life after ISIS, an ugly fact darkens the prospect that the military triumph will lead to a lasting defeat for extremism: Many of these locals initially welcomed ISIS just a few years ago.
How is that possible?
It wasn’t ISIS’s ambition of a regional caliphate, its siren song of radical Islam or even its anti-Western propaganda that resonated in Iraq. Instead, ISIS filled a vital cultural need. Its leaders promised, and delivered, badly needed social order in areas reeling from disintegration.
Surveying over 1,200 Iraqis in 2014, just one week before ISIS took over Mosul and other Sunni territories in Iraq, my collaborator Munqith Daghir found that nearly 80% of Sunnis reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods – up from only 22% in 2011, shortly after US troops had withdrawn. Only 30% of Sunnis had trust in their judicial system and a dismal 28% trusted the Iraqi Army. In Ramadi and Falluja, two districts that ISIS swiftly conquered, an alarming 50% of people agreed with the statement “My whole world feels like it is falling apart.”
As ISIS began making territorial gains in early 2014, it not only provided security, it quickly repaired essential services that had been neglected by the government, including electricity, water and street cleaning. It lowered the prices of consumer staples such as bread and provided bus transportation, oil and gasoline distribution and health care. It even helped people to manage neighborhood disputes. In short, it injected order into a very chaotic environment.
The craving for social order
It’s a stubborn cultural fact: People crave social order. In the absence of social norms – the rules, routines and controls that keep a community cohesive and civilized – people hunger for security. Extremists and autocrats all around the world are often all too ready to sate this universal need.
“Do you know how it was in Mosul before ISIS came?” civilian Abu Sadr said. “We had bombings and assassinations almost every day. Now we have security.”
All cultures need social norms to guide behavior, and our research shows that we can classify societies on the degree to which they have a strong normative order. Tight cultures have strong norms that spawn social order and conformity. Loose cultures have weaker norms and comparatively less order but they foster more creativity and openness. Neither is inherently superior; each is generally adaptive to its ecological and historical challenges.
But problems arise when either tightness or looseness gets extreme: Studying over 30 countries, we found that both very tight cultures, to the point of being oppressive – such as Pakistan, Turkey and China – and very loose cultures, those made chaotic by too much freedom – such as the Ukraine, Brazil and Venezuela – have lower happiness, more depression, higher suicide rates and more political unrest.
Interestingly, cultures often bounce between these two extremes. As the history of the Middle East shows, when an extremely tight society is suddenly dismantled, it can unravel into extreme looseness. With no rules to guide behavior, life becomes unbearably unpredictable, and people soon yearn for tightness again.
A population’s path from extreme tight to extreme loose and back again exemplifies what I call autocratic recidivism. A political leader or group like ISIS who can credibly claim to restore order in a seemingly disintegrating environment is tapping into a powerful, almost irresistible urge.
It’s why voters in the Middle East repeatedly chose the most hard-line option in elections over the past six months. Fears of disintegration pushed them into the arms of politicians who promised the tightest control. Turkish voters, who have felt the weight of terrorism, a plummeting economy and a failed coup, re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, granting him unprecedented power. In Iraq, where voters were tired of chronic disorder, former militia leader and Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr was the big winner in parliamentary elections. And Egyptians re-elected iron-fisted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, presumably with 97% support.
This autocratic trend is best understood not as religious fervor or anti-American backlash, but as a manifestation of a collective, anxiety-driven desire for cultural tightness – the yearning for strong leaders who will restore social order.
This cultural pattern is not limited to the Middle East. From Vladimir Putin promising to restore order and national pride in Russia after the laissez faire 1990s, to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte bragging about gunning down drug dealers from the back of his motorcycle, strongmen have repeatedly exploited social disorder to their advantage. Both men ostensibly enjoy high approval ratings in their respective countries. Meanwhile, Trump, a fawning admirer of Putin and Duterte who continually warns that Western civilization faces “dire threats,” enjoys an enormous amount of support from his base.
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Notably, this is not a modern phenomenon. In his 1941 book The Escape from Freedom, which aimed to understand the rise of Nazi ideology, psychologist Eric Fromm argued that individuals latch onto authoritarianism and conformity to bring a semblance of order back into their lives: “Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds,” he wrote, “or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.”
Fromm believed that a return to autocracy was a universal reflex to excessive freedom. A century earlier, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard coined the phrase “the dizziness of freedom” to capture a similar disorientation.
In the case of the Arab Spring, that dizziness became outright nausea. Starting in 2010, citizens in at least 15 nations assembled in central squares to demand greater freedom. Regimes across the region were shaken; some fell. Yet in 2018, only one of those countries, Tunisia, ranks as “free” according to Freedom House.
Egypt’s U-turn toward dictatorship, is particularly striking. How did people who joined together with such hope and determination to overthrow a fiercely authoritarian president end up living under an even more autocratic leader?
In the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, it quickly became apparent that Egypt was transitioning not to freedom but to chaos. Egypt’s social norms unraveled with astonishing speed. Within three months, crime rates tripled. Riots and kidnappings spiked. After Mubarak’s top-down control was dismantled, Egyptians had no mechanisms to regulate their society or to satisfy even their most basic needs. In my surveys of Egyptians in the spring of 2012, those who felt the nation had become chaotic and unsafe expressed support for autocratic rule. Sure enough, Egypt soon jolted back to an even tighter regime.
“Sisi will bring back security and will bring the institutions of the country together,” said Cairo silversmith Ayman Iskandar. Likewise, Alexandria resident Ahlam Ali Mohamed said she voted for Sisi because she wanted to “feel safe.”
To be clear, tightness-looseness theory does not suggest that some populations are hard-wired to reject freedom. Instead, it offers a warning that deteriorating social norms in virtually any community may increase the allure of autocrats’ promises.
It also means that US foreign policy needs be more mindful of unintended consequences of its changes. Sudden displacement of longstanding regimes, for example, can unleash not just political activism but cultural vacuums and extreme looseness.
While we should celebrate the coalition of US-led rebel forces that defeated ISIS forces, we should recognize that until these populations see security and rules emerge, they are vulnerable to extremist variants of ISIS that promise to restore a tight social order. Today, Kurdistan, Kirkuk, formerly occupied ISIS areas, as well as Baghdad and Shia areas to the South are particularly vulnerable.
Culture is decisive, but it is not destiny. Countries around the world are not fated to a future of dictators or extremists. The tight-loose template allows us to better anticipate trends in rapidly changing regions and develop culturally intelligent policies to manage them.